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Henriques: The strength behind the woman

Published:Saturday | March 7, 2015 | 3:00 AM
Avis Henriques

The year 1980, the last of Avis Henriques' four-year term as president of the Jamaica Chamber of Commerce (JCC) was an especially turbulent one for Jamaica.

The lengthy campaign leading up to the general election in October had precipitated several incidents of violence, and during that period, the JCC president was particularly vocal about the heightened instability in the island.

Declaring that the nation had entered an era of "organised political terrorism", Henriques noted that Jamaica's many social ills were being overshadowed by political violence and called for a "return to civilisation".

This would not be the first or last time that Henriques spoke out publicly about a matter of national concern. As head of that productive sector representative body, she also used her platform to decry a system of instruction that she said offered more schools but less education; a growing cadre of university graduates, but fewer job opportunities; and a health sector that provided more clinics, but which had to cope with increased numbers of child pregnancies.

As president of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ) from 1981-82, Henriques bemoaned Jamaica's high level of government bureaucracy, which she said stifled local businesses and scared away potential foreign investors. Henriques voiced strong opinions, too, on other issues, ranging from the urgent need for Jamaica to develop a national policy on population control to the drastic need for the elimination of "bad management practices" in the country.

Regarding the latter, she advocated the removal of non-performers and their replacement with individuals who embodied strong and decisive leadership, and who would, in turn, implement measures that manifested responsibility and accountability in the practice of business. Her roles as a columnist for The Gleaner and a radio and TV commentator at the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) during the 1980s also ensured that her views were regularly aired.

Henriques, who was the first female president of both the JCC and the PSOJ, and, at the time of her death, the sole woman to head the former group, frequently denounced the portrayal of women by sections of the music and film industries, which objectified them and turned them into sex symbols. She believed, however, that women should shoulder the blame for many of the inequalities that they suffered in society and said that much of this stemmed from their perpetuation of the tradition of assigning certain roles, and even toys, on a gender-specific basis, and having different expectations of their boy and girl children.

Wolmer's past student

Born in St Ann to businessman Claude Ingram and his wife Sarah (nÈe Moss-Solomon), Henriques attended Wolmer's Girls' School in Kingston, and later, McGill University in Montreal, Canada, after being awarded a Jamaica Scholarship in 1943. After completing university with a bachelor of arts degree, she returned to Jamaica and pursued a career in education, teaching languages in a number of high schools for close to 20 years. In 1962, she married Leslie Henriques, son of the well-known jewellery company owner and operator L.A. Henriques, with whom she had four sons.

It was her marriage that initiated Henriques into the world of business, and she served as the managing director and chairman of L.A. Henriques between 1971 and 1982. During this period, she obtained business qualifications by taking a number of training courses in areas such as management, accounting, investment, and economics.

Henriques went on to hold executive positions in the Associated Chambers of Commerce of Jamaica and the Jamaica Manufacturers' Association, among other bodies, and her business know-how earned her membership on several private and public-sector boards, among them, the Bank of Jamaica, Jamaica National Investment Promotion Ltd, the Institute of Jamaica Council, the Advisory Committee to the Ministry of Education, and the University of the West Indies' Joint Board of Teacher Education.

Social responsibility

A firm believer in social causes, Henriques was appointed president and chief executive officer of the Council of Voluntary Social Services United Way of Jamaica in 1985 and was the first local head of the international organisation.

Wearing this hat, she often spoke about the responsibility that the business community had towards the wider society, emphasising that this responsibility should go further than just offering financial contributions, even though these were necessary, and should include the mentorship of the young and the disadvantaged.

Henriques, who was a recipient of the Order of Distinction, Commander Class, for services to the business community, and the Musgrave Medal for the arts and commerce, was also a justice of the peace for the parish of St Andrew and a founding member of the Dispute Resolution Foundation. She died recently.