Never one to shy away from challenging targets, Odetta Rockhead has big goals, not only for her role as Jamaica Country Head and VP at Sutherland Global, but for Jamaica’s BPO industry as a whole. The innovative go-getter, whose journey into BPO started with an unexpected pregnancy and having to drop out of college, wants Sutherland Jamaica to grow from the 4,000 head count they currently enjoy to over 10,000. As for Jamaica, Rockhead is convinced that it can reach and exceed a head count of 100,000.
Rockhead’s path to BPO success started very differently than most. At the age of 20, she found herself pregnant with her son – now a 22-year-old himself – and unable to complete college, where she had been studying architecture. She spent the first two years after his birth looking after her child with the support of her partner’s family, who gave her the space, time, and financial assistance to decide what she wanted to do with her life. But it was a chance meeting with a Jehovah’s Witness that led her to her career in BPO.
“I was at home with my son and a Jehovah’s Witness came to my door and asked me if I would like to study about the Word.” Rockhead jumped at the chance. Two years later she realized that she needed to go back to work and told her friend, the Jehovah’s Witness, that she would have to stop her studies. “My friend told me about the American company she worked for in the Montego Bay Free Zone and said there was a vacancy in the accounting department,” Rockhead said, adding it was a poorly paid job as an accounting clerk but it had the benefit of giving her an overview of all the salaries. “I knew exactly what everyone from the CEO downwards was earning,” she said.
After landing the job and quickly moving up the ranks to account manager, Rockhead set her sights on earning a salary akin to the ones she had seen on the payroll. “My mother had been very disappointed that I had had to drop out of college and I wanted to make her proud,” she said, adding that at that stage all of the high earning roles were taken by expatriate Americans living in Jamaica.
Rapid BPO Success
After a candid conversation with her then boss about how she could set herself on the path to that kind of salary, Rockhead decided to go back to school to pursue bachelor’s degree in business administration at Montego Bay Community College. She excelled, becoming valedictorian of her class and student of the year, and was rehired by the company that would later become Xerox. By 25 she had been appointed VP. In her new role at the company she grew the head count in Jamaica from 200 to 600 within a year. By the time she left – some ten years later – she had grown it to 4,000.
A chance meeting at a function where she was representing Xerox saw her being wooed by Sutherland Global. Although she was initially reluctant to leave both Xerox and her boss, who had become her mentor, Odetta was attracted by the potential this new opportunity could have to make a difference in her home country. “I am passionate about developing people and I realized I could have the opportunity to grow Sutherland in the same way I grew Xerox’s Jamaica business and create another 4,000 new jobs in the sector,” she said.
The other attractive aspect was Sutherland’s commitment to a new model. “They were partnering with the University of the West Indies to do something that had never been tried before, which was to hire students in an earn-while-you-learn model,” Odetta added. As much as 50% of the company’s employees were students at the time.
The challenge was huge. Sutherland’s Jamaica operation was, at that time, non-existent. “There was not even a building. My car was the office at the beginning and I had to convince people to come on board with nothing to show them,” she said. Her stellar reputation in the business combined with her grit and determination meant she was able to convince potential employees to join with her in the venture and help to make it a success.
“I had to sell them on a dream that I had,” she said. “I realized that reputation goes a long way and I was able to hire some extraordinary talent.” Almost five years later, she has built Sutherland Global Jamaica to 4,000 employees and is committed to fulfilling a promise she made to her team and to Sutherland to drive it to 10,000.
Odetta is not content just to grow her own company’s operations, though. For her, the sector and Jamaica itself are both equally important and she works hard on various committees and in partnership with initiatives to grow BPO throughout the island nation. Her target is 100,000 and she believes that the excellent product that Jamaica has – its people – mean that is a more than reachable target.
“When I started, the free zone was primarily where BPO was done, but now we have seen it expanding beyond that to other parts of Jamaica,” she said. “There were maybe 1,500 people involved in the sector at that time and today we are close to 20,000. We could have grown faster but it took a little while for people to buy in and invest into Jamaica and what it can offer.”
She added that the majority of that growth took place in the last five years with initiatives such as the creation of JAMPRO to market the industry. She believes that now is the time to grow the sector. “With the caliber of resources we have here, I know we are going to outperform everyone else. We speak clear English and there is a work ethic driven by the need for jobs, not to mention proximity to the U.S and the flexibility of our talent,” she said.
If anyone can make it happen, Odetta seems an almost sure bet.