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From mangoes to MBA

Published:Sunday | May 18, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Ava Brown accepting her degree from RDI, through the University of Wales, from Professor Medwin Hughes, vice chancellor of the University of Wales. - Contributed photo

Nashauna Drummond, Lifestyle Editor

On Friday, May 2, Ava Brown received her MBA from the University of Wales in London. This is a major achievement for the eldest of nine children, who grew up in Braes River, St Elizabeth, selling mangoes on a train while her friends attended school.

"I'm from a family where nobody had attended university. I'm a little girl who came from nowhere in particular and hardly went to primary school, and now I have an MBA," she said.

Her pride is obvious. And it is well earned.

As a young girl, Brown would spend hours each day on the train that made the bumpy journey from Balaclava to Cambridge in St James. While other children her age were concerned with books and pencils, her life revolved around the fine skin, number 11, and Robin mangoes that she sold in an effort to help provide for her family.

"Some (people on the train) pitied me, others supported me, thinking I must need the help. To be honest, I wasn't focusing on their behaviour towards me, as at that age, pride wasn't as prevalent as it is now," she told Outlook.

ONE WAY OUT

But that didn't stop her. Neither did the other children in the community giving her the unflattering nickname 'Mango Girl'. Even at that age, Brown knew her only way out of poverty was education.

"Education is a door opener, it can change and reshape your life's destiny if you apply yourself," she said.

So she applied herself and, little by little, she chipped away at the stumbling blocks in her path. Today, she is employed to a reputable American company, IHS Global, as a global business development and account manager within Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the United States and the Caribbean.

Her first step after graduating from St Elizabeth Technical High School was enrolling in Sam Sharpe Teachers' College in Montego Bay.

"I didn't plan to go into teaching; I wanted to be a barrister, but my family couldn't afford it and so I got a grant from the then Minister of Education Burchell Whiteman. He was like an angel whose help gave me wings, and that's how I ended up in teaching," Brown recalled.

Going off to college was a big deal in her community.

"My mom and siblings were overjoyed, but it was also a celebratory period for the community. Everyone helped. Some gave a sheet, a flannel, a suitcase, everyone chipped in as I was moving to live on campus and we simply didn't have the means to afford the items necessary.

"The community sent me to college, essentially, in terms of my supplies of clothing, etc. I loved that sense of community in Jamaica growing up. I do hope it's still there. As they say, 'It takes a village to grow a child'. This is something that is absent in London. Daily, I wish my own two children got to experience that."

120
APPLICATIONS, ONE OFFER

By age 19, Brown was teaching
design and technology at Ardenne and Meadowbrook high schools. In a
telephone interview with Outlook, she recalled that,
after receiving her teaching degree, she sent out more than 120
applications. Joan Davis-Williams from Ardenne was the only one to give
her a chance. Though it was a temporary position, at the end of her
tenure, Davis-Williams informed her of a permanent position at
Meadowbrook High School. But Brown didn't stop there, going on to get
her business degree from a university in the United States via distance
learning. She then worked at Cable & Wireless Jamaica and
Digicel.

Brown was comfortable. She had a good job and
owned her own home. But then life threw her a curve ball in 2002, when
she was robbed at gunpoint at her Montego Bay home. The experience left
her scarred and changed the course of her life.

"It
was a difficult and life-changing period. I am extremely thankful to God
that our lives were spared. It was horrendous. I had to drive these
gunmen, with one in the passenger seat with a gun pointed on me and
another in the back seat with a gun pointed on my three-year-old
daughter. We were dumped on Dragon Beach, and after that, I just
couldn't cope with the experience.

"I moved to Santa
Cruz after the attack, but still I relived the experience daily. I
became paranoid, constantly looking over my shoulders. It wasn't a great
way to continue living and also to raise a child. I have never
envisaged living overseas as I had a great job, owned my own home, and
was really doing well at the time. Yet, after the psychological trauma
of this experience, I sought to migrate to save my
sanity."

NEEDED MORE
QUALIFICATIONS

Brown got a teaching opportunity in the
United Kingdom (UK) and jumped at the chance. But after a few years,
things again took a turn when she found out that her teaching
qualifications were only sufficient to secure her initial role in the UK
and they needed to be enhanced if she was to advance in the profession.
She also found that her business degree was not recognised in the UK.
She couldn't continue teaching, and she wasn't qualified to do anything
else.

Meanwhile, she had a mortgage to pay and a
child to care for. She told Outlook that, at that
time, she felt like packing up and returning home. Her then boyfriend,
now husband Boniface, was doing his MBA via distance learning with RDI.
She did some research, applied and was accepted into the MBA
programme.

The journey was not easy. During that time,
she became pregnant and got married, but she was determined to have it
all.

"Women are led to believe they should feel
guilty for wanting both career and family. It's not the case, as living
cost is so expensive globally. So the contribution of a woman to the
household finances is crucial. More important, women who work are
passing excellent values on to their children. Speaking from my own
experience, it's a difficult juggling act, but the satisfaction
outweighs it for me, personally. When I can buy that lovely bag I want,
or take a trip over to Italy to shop without having to ask my partner
for money, it is priceless. Ultimately, 'reach for the sky' is my motto,
and you may just get the stars."

NOT QUITE THERE
YET

Brown still has some reaching to do. Ultimately,
she wants to be the CEO of her own consultancy
company.

"You must never limit yourself, regardless of
where you are from or your ethnicity. Only you can change your destiny.
I'm a firm believer in being able to change a situation."

She also hopes to publish her autobiography,
Bamboo and Fern, edited by Joanna Thompson, in
August. Not only does it chronicle her life, the title is also a
reflection of it.

"In 2008, while I was going through
a very difficult period, someone who is like a sister to me sent me a
message, encouraging me to stay strong and bendable; she made reference
to me bending like the bamboo. I then researched it and realised that
there was a comparison with my life.

"Using the
metaphor of the bamboo, my childhood experiences gave me strong roots to
grow, but made me tough. I later realised that, like a fern, I'm
vulnerable, but I have a huge capacity for
survival."

She hopes her story will be inspiring for
young people to realise that with education they, too, can change the
course of their lives.

"Sometimes things will not
necessarily go the way you want them to, but instead, they happen the
way the Man upstairs intends for them to. His timing is the best as He
already knows where He is leading you. Instead, use the difficulties as a
platform to work even harder to achieve your God-given ambitions and
goals.

"Everything is about correct timing and
tapping into the universe for that which you need. Opportunities will
knock, but we have to be able to recognise them and take full advantage
of them. Sometimes, life will throw curve balls at us, but you have to
know how to curve yourself with those balls and not quit or break, as
what you may not know is that moment you choose to quit may be the very
moment your chance or break may
arrive."