Interview by: Heidi Powell-Prera, Photographer/Journalist
We are with the President of the Caribbean Chamber of Commerce for Texas at the International Trade Center on Bellaire.
Heidi: First, please state your name and position with the Chamber.
My name is Sijollie Braham. And, I am the founder and president of the Caribbean Chamber of Commerce for Texas.
Heidi: You are the founder? When was the Chamber founded?
We started the Chamber in October, 2010.
Heidi: What was your vision when you decided to start the Chamber?
I was living in Houston for quite a while, and discovered that there were a several Caribbean associations and foundations. They was significant representation the cultures, music, foods and other areas, but there none advocated economic development or growth. I saw there was an opportunity for an organization, such as a Chamber of Commerce to help facilitate development, to help growth in the community and move forward so that we would have more of a voice in the community and with institutions like the government. Also, the Chamber would support trade and workforce development.
Heidi: You had a large vision for what they needed. Did you have a good group at the beginning? How many people were with you in the beginning?
We began with a group of three individuals. First, we had to educate the community on the role and function of the Caribbean Chamber. Our community was not familiar with having a Chamber of Commerce. The average citizen does not distinguish the functions of a Chamber versus other organizations. Then, I gathered a team of eight to ten individuals to kick-off our programs. I created the brand, supported by merchandised items of shirts, business cards, etc. The small team attended meetings and different forums to understand the purpose a Chamber and objectives. But we still have a lot of work to do.
Heidi: I was about to ask what has been the progress for all the hard work?
It is ten years later, and we still pursuing an understanding and the role of the Chamber in the different communities.
Heidi: It has taken a while for them to realize why you are here, what you do for them.
Yes, it has, but we are beginning to see the fruits of our hard work throughout the years. The Chamber is in a unique position, in that, we don’t have a full- time staff, and our programs are supported by a volunteer board and advisory committee.
Heidi: They can learn how to do business like the rest of the business community. It is wonderful work that you are doing. What is your background? Have you been with other Chambers?
When I first came to Houston, I was a newly-wed. I was not a part of any community or anything. My focus was to join corporate America, get a job, take care of my affairs, and grow professionally.
Heidi: You wanted to live the American Dream
Yes. Ideally, take care of my family and grow professionally. I had my own payroll and bookkeeping service, as well as working with petrochemical companies, doing mergers and acquisitions, copying business plans, streamlining business, and bringing employees from Illinois or wherever they acquired a business to Texas and training their staffing group.
I decided to take a full time job with Sysco Foods Corporation where I managed six other companies across the United States, to streamline them to see how we could get them to be more efficient and growing and working. One day I was meeting with someone who belonged to a Chamber of Commerce and who needed to automate their bookkeeping. I offered my service. The next day I went to their offices and began automating their system.
Eventually, I went back to work in Corporate America at Sysco Foods. During that period, someone asked me why do I always visit New York for to purchase my foods. I then became curious about the activities of the Caribbean Community in Houston and was informed of the events taking place around the 4th of July. Consequently, I was introduced to all the Caribbean associations and foundations in Houston. At some point, I was asked about Houston Citizens Chamber of Commerce and the need for a Chamber. I had no interest at that at that time, but then I thought about it for two years, and then resigned from my job.
There were a number of actions required. For instance, the incorporation, calling a meeting, and speaking with people to see what was needed and what lacked. At the meeting, I provided an opportunity for individuals to vet themselves for the various positions. No one wanted to be President, so am still President and waiting.
Heidi: So, you are looking for someone to be President, to take the torch and carry it?
Yes. I would like someone to take the torch as President. No one wants to be President, forever. Once a founder; always a founder. But, then you have to be careful who you put in that position. You have to ensure that they are about the business, the country, the development, the community; and, not about themselves.
Heidi: You are looking for a very special person to carry the torch.
Yes, very much so. People do not understand when you have your business, it is not about what you can gain with your business. You need to find out what the communities need, how they do what they do, and why. Then your business can provide the service for them. Most people go about it backwards. Sometimes if you take yourself out of the equation for a minute and do the work for the people in the community, it is going to come back to you tenfold.
Heidi: That is very good advice for all of us. For someone who wants to be a part of the Chamber, is there a cost?
Yes, there is a annual fee. It varies, and it is minimal. It shows that you are committed to our programs and helps support the operations of the Chamber.
Heidi: Then, like the other chambers here in Houston, you are able to assist anyone who may want to invest or do business in the Caribbean?
Yes. And also, assist people in conducting business here in Houston. A lot of people do not understand the laws, and regulations here, how to incorporate, and how to operate a business. So we assist them with development and teach them how to network. Also, we try to interest them in economic development and how to make use of the Port of Houston and other departments.
We host monthly meetings every 2nd Friday of every month. This past Friday we hosted the U.S. Department of the Census 2020, about jobs, and helping people see the value of filling out the documents so that we can have the numbers needed for funding in case we need more schools, more hospitals or more services for our community.
That is a part of the reason for a Census that most people do not realize is important. I see numbers that show where funding is needed for education, for medical or for services. It is not about the government getting into your business. In the initial stages, they check these numbers to see whether a community gets more votes, more funding or more representation. It is a good work you are doing educating your community and working so closely with them.
And next month, the a U. S. delegation is coming to the Chambers to see what legislation is hindering business and what will make it more feasible for a business to operate.
Heidi: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, and I look forward to seeing how the relationship between Texas and the Caribbean grows and benefits all concerned.
For more information on doing business with the Caribbean go to www.caribbeanchamber.org or call 832-448-0518.