After an initial career in law, Dr Shelly-Ann Gajadhar explains how she switched careers to improve DE&I in businesses.
Why did you decide to leave your career in law to become an entrepreneur?
First of all, I have to say that law was always my dream career.
It was something I wanted to stay in. Now, why did I leave it? I started my career as a criminal prosecutor for four years. Every day I prosecuted most of the murders in Trinidad and Tobago. In that experience, I found a traumatic and paranoid environment, especially for a female prosecutor in the criminal justice system.
At that time, I had a mentor who was also a criminal prosecutor. Unfortunately, she was prosecuting a case and was murdered. When I saw how law enforcement and the department I worked for reacted to her murder, I didn’t see a future for myself in this field. I felt that I was working in an environment that did not protect the people who worked for the criminal justice system. And that’s when I decided to leave and reinvent myself.
When you say you didn’t like how the firm reacted to her murder, what were your expectations?
Several things happened: The Department significantly delayed a meeting with staff to discuss what happened. It wasn’t easy to deal with because I had worked with her since law school. I realised that the compassion and human approach I would have liked to have experienced throughout my career was not there. In that vein, I decided to leave the criminal law field and transition into business and entrepreneurship. I felt this was a space where I could curate my experience and hear my voice clearly.
What advice would you give as a business coach to a young Black person starting work?
I suggest that students look for someone they identify with. Not necessarily someone of colour, but someone who has a similar story to theirs, whether it’s a cultural story you remember, or some tragedy, to try to find someone who reflects your experiences and start engaging with them, if possible.
And if that’s not possible, try to go to spaces where people like you are ahead of you. Because many times, students think, “I have this certificate; therefore, I’m going to make it”. It’s a very small part of a successful career. It’s also about understanding industry practices, culture and perceptions. And that’s not something you learn via the school curriculum.
However, the school environment, particularly the school environment at King’s, created opportunities for me to plug myself into unfamiliar cultural or disciplinary spaces. You learn it through experience, meeting mentors, observing people and being in spaces where you feel you are seen.
Where would you start if you had the power to make a difference for underrepresented entrepreneurs?
I would build a school just for entrepreneurs to come and learn about the business industry, to learn about themselves, their unique strengths and talents – something like a dream school. It would be a place where there are no limits. And where anything is possible because I find that in underrepresented communities, our young people forget how to dream and think big. And these are things we knew when we were kids, but then life happens, and it’s like we’re stuck. I want to change all that!
Let’s focus on Caribbean entrepreneurs. A lot of your clients are based in Trinidad and Tobago. What do you think they are missing the most?
Investment in their talents by the government is missing, particularly investment in our technological landscape as a developing country. We have so many entrepreneurs willing to pitch thousands or millions of dollars worth of great ideas, but because we don’t have the technology platforms that would allow them to do so, they get stuck in their dreams and are underrepresented without a seat at the table. Greater financial investment in talent development and seed funding can help entrepreneurs access the resources and platforms they need to build sustainable businesses.
Is it more challenging to be an entrepreneur in Europe or the Caribbean?
When it comes to entrepreneurship, it’s a question of geographical fit. And by that, I mean you have to approach entrepreneurship knowing that you are not geographically blocked. And this is particularly important for Caribbean entrepreneurs. Sometimes we can feel like we’re on an island surrounded by water. We’re stuck here.
I started my business in Trinidad to go digital and be virtual, serving people worldwide. That’s why I talk so much about dreaming and having an imagination. Ask yourself what the best sandbox or playground for you to access the resources you need to progress is. Also, while doing my PhD at King’s, I immersed myself in many workshops on e-commerce and entrepreneurship, which helped me navigate the business terrain confidently.
What do diversity and inclusion mean to you?
Diversity and inclusion is not an issue that affects particular categories of people, a group, or gender. Diversity and inclusion affect all of us because they influence the social stratification of systems, spaces, and institutions. They dictate much of our experiences. So when we see a lack of diversity and inclusion, it is not just a problem for those not represented. It is a problem in our systems and institutions that affects us all. The problem is bigger than an individual or a group of people.
As a Black woman entrepreneur, where do you find your support?
The first thing I do is turn to God. I think spirituality as a Black entrepreneur is very important. I grew up knowing the word of God, so as an entrepreneur, I’ve always relied on God and not my understanding.
The second thing is to have a good therapist. We don’t talk enough about mental health and the importance of having a sounding board and a space to vent as an adult. It’s very taboo. We think therapy and expressive spaces are for children, but adults need a community too. This was particularly important for me in my final year writing up my PhD at King’s during the Covid pandemic. Attending virtual writing classes with other PhD colleagues and even hosting some of my own really helped me cope during this very isolating time.
And the other thing, too, is to be transparent about what you’re going through and express your vulnerability. In moments when I feel overwhelmed or don’t know something, I can say, I feel overwhelmed, or I need a moment, or I actually don’t know the answer to that question. That’s helped me a lot.
It has helped me a lot to deal with the pressure of constantly feeling that you have to know everything as a CEO or leader. It’s not true; you don’t need to know everything, and I’m free of that burden.
If you have the opportunity, you have the power to change something in your journey. Where would you start?
I would stop listening to the opinions of others. Trust yourself; you know when it’s time to move on. I come from the Caribbean, where, for my parents, success means being a lawyer, a doctor, or an engineer. I fell into that trap. The first three years of my career transition were horrible. I got so much criticism; I’m 35 now, but I wished I’d stopped listening to people sooner. When I started my studies in business, I started doing something different: trusting myself.