In the animated streets of downtown Port of Spain, I make my way up Charlotte Street amidst the sound clash of music stalls and aromatic clash of street food.
I am looking for Arlene Mohammed, the owner of Arlene's Fried Chicken (AFC). Soon, I approach her neatly tucked booth below Arlene's Mall and I ask a young man for Mohammed. "She just left a few minutes ago; check she secretary upstairs, nah!" he answers. "A chicken and chips retailer with a secretary?" I wonder. I decide that she must be a big one. When I walk up the stairs of Arlene's Mall, the secretary is not there, and after contacting Mohammed, we both decide to meet on the Brian Lara Promenade, a stone's throw away from another one of her popular food stalls.
As I saunter onto the Promenade, I expect to see an Indian woman (my expectation, courtesy the surname Mohammed), but instead, I meet a rasta woman. So, too, I expect a story about fried chicken, but instead, the confident businesswoman enlightens on her entrepreneurial trek and about the many businesses she now owns—AFC just one of them.
"What these questions will really be about? Reason I ask is because is not only chicken and chips I into. I into real estate, clothes, the works. But my story start off humble, you know, real humble," she explains.
She then recalls her journey as a businesswoman, and I am amazed as I listen to her successes. Not even the blasting Nicky Minaj CD vendor across the road, or the half-drunk man who approaches us for a dollar or even the other inquisitive bystander who asks photographer Michael Bruce about his camera take the attention away from Mohammed's story.
Several malls under her wing, one of which she actually owns, 144 rental clients, comprising of nail technicians, barbers and hairdressers, a salon, a wholesale store and, of course, the thriving AFC food business, Mohammed could very well be the Queen of Charlotte Street. But she laughs at this title and says, "Girl, I start out small. I used to sell fried chicken breast bone and fries for five dollars on Nelson Street in 1997…" "What?" I can't help it, but I need clarification on this product.
"Yes, you hear right, fried chicken breast bone. I used to buy breast bone from Ali's and Singh's. They used to sell the breast bone; after it was stripped of the breast meat, they used to sell as boneless to big clients. The school children from Eastern Boys' and Girls' Schools on George and Nelson Streets used to be my biggest clients. The money I get from this, I invest it in a salon in 1999. From my savings from this venture, I invested in a mini-mart and then in a clothing store. Afterwards, I went back into the chicken business, and I expand AFC money so that I could make money to buy my first building, Arlene's Mall, at 13 Charlotte. After Arlene's, I began renting out Aaaliyah's Mall at 23 Charlotte Street and then A and A Mall at 11 Charlotte Street. Girl, it was God just who open doors for me. I pray a lot, and my trust and faith in God just opened up opportunity, one by one."
The first mall I went to was actually a mall owned by Mohammed. I am awestruck by her feats. Michael is, too. As she talks about business strategies, we soon become students in an entrepreneurship class in the "University of Port of Spain", and the mother of three, with the eyes, ears and everything for business, is our worthy teacher.
"Girl, I worked really hard for these things. As a child, I loved business. You would imagine that after schooling at Eastern Girls' I never pass Common Entrance? I think I do real good for someone who fail exam. You see the thing 'bout me is I learn two vital things to make me successful when I was small, and these lessons come from my mother. Mammy taught me how to be a good businesswoman and make an honest day's pay without getting into the trouble common to my area.
"We used to live on Picton Road, Laventille, and she used to make preserve plum and mango and give me and my four sisters to sell in a basket. The money from this used to mind us. I remember that we were poor as ever; I used to have two panties when I was 12 years old, and I used to have to wash them and put them behind the fridge and keep reusing them. Mammy didn't have money for clothes and expensive things, but if is one thing, we never starve. This early experience made me set up my first business of selling corn soup on the Laventille taxi stand, and after that, I just start to move upwards."
The regular churchgoer then informs me of the second vital value imparted to her by her mother—how to pray.
"Girl, is prayer and faith in God that make me so successful. I grow up in the Pentecostal Chapel in Picton, and Mammy teach me how to trust God. Is Jesus Christ and genuine love for Him that make me so successful, not the Lotto (some people feel I win one) or anything illegal that have me where I am today. And believe me, the same prayers that get me here will take me forward. I still have far to go in business. My dream was always to become a businesswoman and then create a scene where other people will also be successful, too; that is why I started the malls. But I still want to buy some more buildings and open some more malls!"
The straight-talking, cheerful rasta woman then gives an effervescent smile. "You know what I love? I love going to church on a Sundays at Light on the Hill Chapel, Laventille, and fellowship with my congregation. I think giving tithes in church is another factor that lead to my success. But the next thing I want to tell you is that I love to sing. I does sing everywhere, from the shower to while I driving. I even compose some gospels songs. You want to hear one?" she offers.
"Yes, I suppose," I say as another music cart begins booming some Destra tunes, making it even harder to hear ourselves.
"Hold on, Thank you, Jesus," sings Mohammed. Yet again, she exceeds my expectations. This woman actually has an excellent voice and her composition is just as good.
"I just cut a CD with another song, "Bless the Lord", but I hope to take my singing further," she promises. "Hmmm, I just remember another thing that real help my success, it was the good advice and financial services I get from Eastern Credit Union."
All this time as we sit close by one of her AFC caravans, the lines for her signature chicken and chips are getting longer, and the two dedicated workers, though tired, are serving AFC specials with special smiles
"I does treat my workers good. I believe in living a good life and God will shower his blessings. A humble heart also receives blessings. I never let any of these successes go to head. Sometimes, I does clean my stall myself; I am a worker in the business, too, I doh just sit down and wait for things to happen," she declares.
As the noise and buzzing activity in the capital streets get even louder, we decide to call it a night despite Mohammed's overflowing energy and eagerness to continuously give praises to her faith, which she insisted was the underpinning catalysts behind her empire.
"Girl, I can't help it; I have to let the world know that there is hope in this life to reach where you want to go despite challenges and hard life," she concludes.
Hmmmm. At this point I consider Mohammed is no longer a teacher in a business but an evangelist delivering a church sermon, and as I leave the Brian Lara Promenade, I must conclude that she is unprecedented, unpredictable, nothing I expected, but a real woman, indeed.