Denis O’Brien’s Commencement Speech at UWI Graduation Ceremony –  October 30th 2015

Good evening and thank you for inviting me to speak today at this magnificent Commencement ceremony. It is a wonderful honour for me and my family to receive this honorary law doctorate from the University of the West Indies. Thank you.

Your university has an incredibly illustrious history and a vital presence. Your national hero, Marcus Garvey, captured this perfectly when he said; “Show me a prosperous nation and I’ll show you an educated people.”

From the day I walked through Kingston airport back in 2000, little did I know that I would find a home away from home. Places like Irish Town and Dublin Castle in the cool hills of St. Andrew – Irish Pen and Sligoville in St. Catherine.

I have travelled Leinster Road, Leitrim Road, Sackville Road all in Kingston and St. Andrew. If I close my eyes I hear melodic accents similar to what I find back home.

Luck played a role in all our lives and it was luck that in 1655 – Admiral Penn and General Venables failed miserably at taking Santa Domingo in Hispaniola and, not wanting to return empty handed, proceeded to turn their attention to Jamaica where the Spanish settlers could only put up token resistance.

Along the way, these Spanish settlers freed many African slaves who took to the hills and became “Maroons”. The English quickly captured Spanish Town but they lacked workers to exploit their conquest. Records show that the vast majority of the first wave was made up of young Irish men and women – bonded slaves. Or trouble makers from Ireland vanquished by Oliver Cromwell.

These people created the unique bond between Jamaica and Ireland that exists to this day.

Debis O'Brien Addressing GraduandsI believe these early bonded slaves from Ireland created the DNA that ultimately made us as a foreign direct investor coming from Ireland so welcome. That makes me an accidental Jamirishman – having sold my business in Ireland in 2000. I was out of a job, had no office to go to and my wife sent me out of the door each morning at 7.30am.

For days and months afterwards, I was like a zombie drinking endless cups of coffee and reading the newspapers while all of my friends were out at work. It is a great example of money not buying happiness.

Luck came to my rescue and one morning I spotted a small box ad in the Financial Times where the Government of Jamaica was inviting people to bid for a mobile phone licence. It was my light bulb moment.I had never been to Jamaica before but I asked a colleague to go to the auction, somehow get their hands on a phone – and bid and when the hammer came down, I was the proud owner of a Jamaican mobile phone licence for US$ 47.5 million.

To be truthful, during the auction, I was in a bar in Dublin drinking Appleton’s rum and we kept on going on the rum into the night. The next morning, I woke with empty pockets and a rising feeling of panic “What have I done?!”

Three days later, we sent a team down to Jamaica under Seamus Lynch – our first Jamaican employee was Lisa Lewis, a proud UWI graduate, and quickly after Harry Smith became our chief strategist and marketing director, followed by Keith Smith, Donel Miller, Earl Manning and Michelle Williams.

Denis O'Brien with fellow honouree Jamaica's Poet Laureate Mervyn Morris

The proudest part of all of that we have achieved over the years is that, as a company, we have our roots here in Jamaica. Without hesitation, Jamaica is the cornerstone of Digicel growth and development of all our 32 countries.

But life is not all about ups. I have also had to face failure. My first business was a TV shopping channel in the UK and in its first month of operations, it generated revenue of 12,000 pounds and a loss of 500,000 pounds.

My enthusiasm for the business idea was way ahead of consumer demand. Ultimately this business failed in a major way. It was a dent to my pride, a blow to my own perceived abilities. My father always said to me: the truth will set you free. I had to face my financial backers and admit to my shortcomings.

It was probably the best business lesson I ever had because it made me more discerning in looking at my next great idea and the next time I focused heavily on sales revenue and having the cheapest cost base.

Well…you may ask how the hell did this guy get from there to where I am today? Well, luck definitely played a part. But it was also about finding a business idea to grab hold of and grasping every opportunity.

I’ve always devoured information – Forbes, Fortune, Wall Street Journal – any newspaper or news website – and in the ether, you see ideas and say to yourself: will this work in Ireland or that could work in Jamaica.

All of us need to continuously look at opportunities globally and find ways to bring those to a Jamaican context. Jamaica has more unfulfilled economic potential than nearly all of the other Caribbean countries combined. For the first time in the history of this country, you have two balanced budgets and the green shoots of economic reinvigoration.

There is no better time to be joining the workforce. If your Government sticks to its fiscal reform policies, economic growth will surge and over the next five years, this country will rock and roll.

For those of you who have an entrepreneurial sniff, you have to think of an idea or a business that you can develop in Jamaica but whose products and services you can also sell overseas.

And for those of you who did not study business in this great university, it does not mean that you can’t be a success in business. For my part, I studied history and politics – why? Because I couldn’t pass the equivalent of your maths C-SEC qualification that I needed to get into business school – in fact, I failed it three times – which was a world record

But the reality is that if you can count to ten, you can be a successful business entrepreneur.

Succeeding in any walk of life means committing to a cycle of life-long learning and continuous self-development. Obtaining your degree is not a watershed moment but the start of a journey to learn and learn and keep learning.

Also, for those of you who have had a bumpy academic career….don’t worry, you’re more likely to be successful!

At the start of every year, I sit and write down 12 to 15 objectives for myself – broken into personal learning, personal reinvention – and a number of business goals.

We all have to keep reinventing ourselves to stay relevant and be successful in the job we are in.

If you have that piece of paper in your back pocket and you get it out every month and review it and your performance against it – it’s like having a compass in the middle of the Pacific in a cyclone.

One category of people that I really admire are mavericks – because they are different to the norm. They look at things with different eyes, see solutions no one else can and extraordinary opportunities in what others see as ordinary.

Many UWI graduates who joined Digicel have become mavericks – people like Fabian Williams, Jackie James and Sean Latty.

If you are one of those people – stay that way. Don’t conform – and don’t let anyone try to force you.

Entrepreneurs and, leaders all have a special chip in their brains that makes them what they are – Butch Stewart is a perfect Jamaican example of this, PB Scott from Facey, Chris Blackwell – and Kimala Bennett with her Production Lab and Young Entrepreneur Handbooks is up and coming – and of course there are many many others. Emotional Intelligence is another vital ingredient.

In looking to develop yourselves – no matter what walk of life you choose – be it business, politics, education, not for profit – you need to find a way to stand out.

Many of you will be looking at me and thinking that I am a rabid capitalist – but maybe that reading needs some correction.

My mother is a serial protestor. She took issue with President Reagan’s foreign policy towards Nicaragua in the 1980s. On the very day I sold my business in Ireland in 2000, my mother ordered me down to the Russian embassy to protest against the treatment of the Chechens.

As a child, she taught me about Africa and the developing world and, because of her, my siblings and I felt a bond with those less fortunate which saw us in the 70s out with our tins collecting money for the missionaries – like every other child in Ireland.

This philosophy has travelled with me to this very day – as far as I am concerned, capitalism is broken. The greed that led to the Wall Street crash of 2008 reinforced that.

95% of multinationals do nothing to give back to the developing world where they make their profits.

I find myself thinking about mortality more and more these days – when I die, I do not want to be called a conquistador.

If the truth be known, I admire social entrepreneurs far more than entrepreneurs – because they make the biggest impact on society. Looking after the people who in our busy lives we can’t look after, is surely the noblest cause.

In this country, you are blessed with a rich seam of social entrepreneurs – people like Father Gregory from Mustard Seed, Michael Barnett from New Horizon Outreach Ministries and  Jason Henzell of Jakes Holdings.

Those of you who have a leaning towards social entrepreneurship will probably end up being far happier than many of your peers in the commercial world for one reason; helping those that can’t help themselves is way more fulfilling than making money. Commercial enterprises don’t own the title deeds of entrepreneurship.

So tomorrow, when you wake up after a night of well-deserved  celebrating and partying, take out that piece of paper and map out your plan for the next three, six and 12 years.

In doing so, you will be mapping out your path to happiness – and that is not a path that someone else should dictate.

But for right now, this is your time.

And what a fantastic, exciting time it is; stepping into the unknown, leaving behind the comfort blanket of this university.

Now it’s your time to turn all your ideas and thoughts and enthusiasm and knowledge into something great; something that will positively change your life and, hopefully, a resurging and newly vibrant Jamaica.

So I encourage you to dream big, work hard, follow your passion and grab every opportunity with both hands.

Give generously and receive graciously.

Meet failure head on, learn from it and move on quickly – and always remember to come back to that piece of paper in your back pocket and check your progress against your plan.

And maybe some day in the future, I will be lucky enough to have the pleasure of seeing some of you presenting at a Digicel board meeting.

I would like to leave you today with a quote from Irish writer, Samuel Beckett; “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Denis O'Brien receives honorary doctorate

Thank you all for your kindness. Congratulations to you all and God bless.


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