Sitting under a tree in Woodford Square, Port-of-Spain, secretary of Fisherman and Friends of the Sea (FFOS) Gary Aboud made a tearful plea to Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar to mediate with
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Climbing to the top through the Virtue of Saving
Arlene Collins Mohammed’s success story, like tales that are the most enduring, isn’t one in which all the action takes place overnight. Twenty-six years ago, she was selling door-to-door, with a basket of preserved plums and mangoes made by her mother. She would walk through the streets of Laventille, where she grew up, and end in the vicinity of Nelson Street, where she would go on to spend most of her adulthood. Mohammed’s upward trajectory could have been stymied not only by poverty (she has told the story of having only two pairs of underwear as a child—one she would wear while the other dried behind the refrigerator—and of living off the small income from selling her mother’s preserves), but also because she was unsuccessful in the Common Entrance exam, now called SEA.
Thrown into the world of work from the age of 12, Mohammed used what she had, the opportunity to learn. She learnt how to sell and says that she developed a knack for business from her mother. She became well-known in her community, something that would over time, earn her a loyal customer-base. Faith and prayer became the foundation of all her endeavours.
Mohammed moved on from preserves in her late teens to selling corn soup and souse on the Laventille taxi stand. She would sell cup sizes priced at $1, $2 and $3. With the knowledge of how to stretch a dollar, she saved the profit from this venture, and used it to buy three food carts, one of which she used herself, while she rented the other two. This was the genesis of Arlene’s Fried Chicken (AFC)—fried chicken breast bone and fries for five dollars—a popular meal among the school children from Eastern Boys and Girls’ schools on George and Nelson Street.
Once off the ground, Mohammed would season her meat and leave the rest of the preparation to her mother and employees, so she could devote some time to study. She attended the El Dorado Youth camp, where she specialised in hairdressing, and once she had saved enough again, she opened a hair salon called Reflections, on the corner of Nelson and Duke streets. The salon was followed by a 24-hour mini mart, and then a foray into selling clothing purchased in New York, first from an open-air stall in a car park on Upper Charlotte Street and then to a small clothing store she opened nearby on the same street. Mohammed just kept expanding. As her income increased, she would save a larger percentage of it. She purchased a building on Nelson Street to turn into hardware, but eventually turned them into a set of apartments. She expanded AFC into a chicken shop to raise the capital needed for another major investment—the purchase of a derelict mall, on Charlotte Street, that she would refurbish and dub Arlene’s Mall, initially home to 18 booths ranging from specialities in hair, nails and clothing.
Mohammed says that the mall, like all her other business ventures, was a dream she had to nurture and feed with patience while her plans came together. Speaking in a recent CNC3 interview, Mohammed explained that no one in her immediate circle saw the potential in buying a building in such a state of disrepair. “I thank God so much,” she said, “I didn’t listen to the friends I had at the time. I pressed on because even though they were saying that, I was seeing the corridors, I was seeing the booths, I was seeing the people walking down the corridors. I had the vision, I had the faith and belief that God would open that door for me.” The purchase and refurbishment of Arlene’s Mall was followed by the management of what Mohammed renamed Aaliyah’s Mall, after one of her four children, and then the management of A and A Mall. Mohammed now has over 144 rental clients and her business concerns stretch across real estate, food, hairdressing, retail clothing and other consumer goods.
Despite speculation that has come to the attention of Mohammed, that she either won the lottery or had to be involved in illegal activity to achieve as much as she has, Mohammed insists that it is prayer and faith in God that made her successful. “I know about a basket,” she said to CNC3 interviewer Janelle Bernard, “I know bout breast bone and chips, I know bout shop, clothes, doing honest things to achieve what it is I have today.” While also crediting sound financial advice and services from Eastern Credit Union, Mohammed says that her success can also be attributed to the extensions of her spiritual beliefs—giving back to her community and being a regular tither at a church she attends in Laventille. Though a busy entrepreneur and hands-on parent to her four children, aged 19, 17, and two who are under the age of ten, Mohammed also still makes time for other passions, and uses her love for singing to compose songs, before recording them on CD. Mohammed believes that her most poignant message, expecially for young people from deprived communities is that despite challenges, there is hope for the achievement of their dreams. But, she says, it will require that they try and like her, be determined in their efforts. Mohammed also emphasises the importance of saving “as small as it is,” towards financing the small steps it takes to climb one’s way to the top.