At the age of seven, Toni Thorne spearheaded a summer camp for her Planet Club. At 18, she started BoUiK, a fashion design and creative lifestyle company. By 22, she had established Martha’s Smile, an initiative that provides 30 HIV-infected children, living at Martha’s House in Jamaica, the opportunity to explore their creativity through art and music. At 23, she initiated a new festival, Settlers: the West Coast Experience, in Barbados. On December 9 this year, Thorne celebrated her 25th birthday, and with it, as one would imagine, she reflected on her own accomplishments as a young Barbadian female entrepreneur, philanthropist, mentor, and advocate.
Yet Thorne’s successes do not tell the tale of the challenges she faced in realizing her dreams. Like most people, she has had to overcome financial constraints––and pockets of discrimination based on the fact that she is a young black woman. “People judge you based on your youth. We are getting better right now, but there are still some people that do not take you seriously because of your age.” She continued to highlight the classism and racism that still exist in society. On the issue of gender she laments, “We as women have been made to feel like children in terms of taking our own place. If a woman speaks up, she is seen as crass, but if a man speaks up, he is seen as very confident. … You never hear anybody refer to a woman as a maverick.” In this regard, her confident and outspoken nature has not always been viewed in a positive light.
When asked how she has been able to overcome these barriers, Thorne shared, “It is a process. ... I think we do a lot of talking, and people really respect doers and doing. When people see that you can deliver on your word, I think people respect that and then they start to take you a lot more seriously.” She also credits the increasing support of family and friends as being an inspiration to her success.
In discussing other challenges facing young female entrepreneurs, Thorne noted that many are uncertain about the path they should take to realize their goals. There is much fear in taking the first step. She, too, had to overcome this fear along her journey. “It is hard to tell yourself, ‘let me take this leap of faith and really believe in what I am doing and push and be a full-fledged entrepreneur.’”
Thorne explained that there is additional pressure for female entrepreneurs to conform to societal norms and find a stable job. “We are moving towards better days, but our parents’ and grandparents’ generations are afraid of people stepping out and doing their own thing as opposed to going the conventional route.” She noted the difference between the support offered to men during this process and that offered to women. Her advice to her female mentees is, “You don’t do ‘can’t do,’ you always do ‘can do!’”
“We don’t have examples of women in the old boys’ club, and I am seeing more women moving towards wanting to achieve that, but it is one thing to want and it is another thing to do. … I think that our generation will be the movers and shakers to breaking the name from the old boys’ club to the old beauties’ club.” She highlighted that the women who are respected usually occupy political posts as opposed to positions as business leaders.
As with most endeavors in life, Thorne has had to work hard to achieve her dreams. She shared, “Nothing in life that is worth it comes easy. You have to work hard.”
Her passion is evident, and she is open to mentoring, supporting, and advising other young entrepreneurs. Thorne frequently contributes articles, or appears in print and online media, highlighting the challenges facing young entrepreneurs in Barbados. Earlier this year, she was a speaker at TEDxYouth@Bridgetown where she shared her own journey as a way of inspiring other young entrepreneurs to realize their dreams. Likewise, she serves as an example of how young entrepreneurs can support communities in need through the Martha’s Smile initiative. This initiative not only provided an opportunity for HIV-infected orphans of Martha’s House in Jamaica to develop skills in art, dance, and music but also contributed to the restoration process when Martha’s House burnt down in 2009.
An insight into her journey highlights some key messages for women of all ages as they seek economic independence and work towards realizing their dreams:
• Act on your goals and maintain a positive attitude and you can overcome most social and economic hurdles and gain support. • Provide and take advantage of opportunities. • Value the support networks of family and friends and, equally important, provide support to others. • Share success stories so that others can be inspired to act.
So what’s next for this budding Caribbean business leader? Thorne looks forward to the many opportunities offered by the Internet to build upon and diversify her business. She knows that there will be further challenges along the way but believes that any obstacles can be overcome by building relationships based on mutual respect. If all else fails, her philosophy is, “If you shout loud enough, somebody will hear and somebody will have to do something.” As such, she looks forward to only progress in the next phase of her life.
In a region where businesswomen and female entrepreneurs rarely share their journeys, Toni Thorne serves as an inspiration to all. She personifies the call in the National Anthem of Barbados to be “craftsmen of our fate.” Through her successes, she acts as a testimony that women at any age can take ownership of their personal and professional development by acting on their dreams and in turn make a difference in the life of others.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous new media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.
Take action! This post was submitted in response to Voices of Our Future 2012 Assignment: Profiles.