Just over one year ago, I spotted some beautiful accessories on TMBoutique’s Instagram page made with fabric from a company in Trinidad named Land Of The Hummingbird. Not only did I purchase a hummingbird themed necklace from them, I approached Land Of The Hummingbird for an interviews. Rachel Lee Young agreed. We have finally synchronised timings to bring you this interview. However, now that world is grappling with a global pandemic, I included a Covid-19 related question. I felt it was vital that we hear how Covid-19 is affecting small businesses and from the perspective of an expat entrepreneur in the informal sector.
This is the Rachel Lee Young Interview
TTT: Tell us a bit about yourself and why you decided to settle in Trinidad?
RLY: I came to Trinidad in 1999 from the UK with my then husband and one-year-old son. It was a great opportunity for us at the time to try the expat life, well before retirement age which is what we had originally planned. I was on a career break having trained as an electronic engineer and worked in Defence Procurement and Management consultancy. My career break lasted rather longer than I expected!
In Trinidad I tried part-time work for a while but found my son and I were much happier with me being at home. Then my second son came along. Around that time, I was President of the UK Women’s Club of T&T and spent a lot of time doing fundraising and volunteer work. I always loved photography and when digital technology started emerging, I took to it like a duck to water. I combined my love of IT with photography to create simple designs for greetings cards. Over the years my photography and editing skills improved which allowed me to develop some popular photo training workshops and expand my portfolio of designs.
In 2016, I set up RAPSO Imaging limited, a full-service professional photography and imaging business with my new photographer partner.
TTT: What was the catalyst for starting Land of the Hummingbird?
RLY: I made my first half way decent hummingbird photo about 10 years ago in the beautiful Ajoupa Gardens. Since then, I have become more fascinated and more determined to capture the perfect hummingbird photo (I don’t think you can ever reach that point!).
About 2 years ago, I was looking for new things to do with my photographs and after much researching I came across Spoonflower, an online fabric printing company. To make a long story short – I started making repeating designs using my hummingbird photos. The first yard of hummingbird fabric turned into many yards and hundreds of tea towels, aprons, napkins, scarves and cushions!
TTT: How has your expat experience influenced your business?
RLY: Being an expat who has worked in many different countries gives me several advantages in terms of a world view, as well as, an appreciation of quality goods and service. I always aim to get the best quality while aiming to use as many local inputs as possible. Also, coming from the UK, the Caribbean is a constant source of delight and wonderment for me. It gives me great joy to share all that beauty through my photographs and designs both with Trinis and people all around the world.
TTT: How has Covid-19 impacted your business and the way you work?
RLY: The pandemic and resultant shutdowns basically meant we lost all our work and opportunity for sales – photography assignments, markets and sales outlets. Being self-employed with no salaried family member – no work means no income. Seeing what was happening in other countries, I immediately started thinking about making fabric masks as I had lots of hummingbird fabric offcuts from my other projects. I soon settled on a design and started cutting and sewing.
Thankfully, I have been sewing since I was about 2 years old, so that part wasn’t a problem for me. Normally, I outsource the majority of my sewing work as there’s no way I would have time to take photos, create designs, run the business and sew all the products, but with the lockdown there was no choice. Everything had to be done in house. The masks really took off especially when the government mandated cloth mask wearing.
We were sewing about 16 hours a day, and we had to bring several other people on board to cut and sew them, which was great as it meant we could all earn a bit of money to live on and be able to make some donations to the less fortunate along the way. Alongside the mask making it became apparent that an online outlet was becoming more critical, so I expanded our website and put the masks on a local site called TooToolBay.com. The great thing about the masks is that the brand is getting out to a wide audience – so many people need masks (and will continue to need them for some time) and people love the designs (both the shape/fit and the hummingbirds). We have sold hundreds in T&T and we are now shipping to the Caribbean, US and Canada.
TTT: What advice do you have for an entrepreneur who wants to start a business that exports products outside of the country they reside?
RLY: Get an understanding of what your customers appreciate in a product and understand how your Unique Selling Point satisfies them. Understand that you can’t please everyone and not everyone will be able to afford your products, but figure out how you can be competitive in the International market – which is really hard when you live in a small island like Trinidad.
You can make incredibly beautiful, innovative, unique and creative products but if the cost of inputs is too high and the cost of shipping out of the island is too high it’s going to be very hard to establish a sustainable business. You must be extremely determined and persistent to make it work.
Finish the sentence ‘yuh is ah trini fuh true if … you love hummingbirds!
I hope you found this interview interesting and as inspiring as I did. Please comment below. Share your experiences during covid-19, whether it’s from a business perspective or on a personal level. We would love to hear from you. Leave you feedback in the comment box below.
Rachel with camera, Rachel with hummingbird by James Solomon
Rachel with bamboo mask by Maggie Abraham