By Herself for Herself: An Interview with Entrepreneur and TV Host Farah Larrieux
Farah Larrieux’s hands are small, but the mind of the woman who the hands are on, isn’t. A native of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Larrieux was a TV host for one of Haiti’s biggest networks by the time she was in her early 20s. She came to the United States in the mid-2000s, and has since launched several businesses including Thélar Management Group, LLC, which at one point was called Thélar Advertising. Although she has a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Sciences, she found herself attracted to the fields of marketing and communications, and the entertainment sector. In terms of the latter field, her accomplishments include studying drama under Paulette Poujol Oriol—and had a role in the Jean-Gardy Bien-Aimé movie Protège-Moi.
Larrieux is the current Chair of Fundraising and Public Relations for the Haitian American Professionals Coalition. But her most visible gig is as the host of “Haiti Journal”, a news magazine that is broadcasted on public television and treats current events and topics related to Haiti. Fabiola Rodriguez, who works alongside Larrieux as the producer of “Haiti Journal” feels that the entrepreneur-TV host brings a special touch to each segment. “She is a very knowledgeable and charismatic person,” contends Rodriguez. “Through her work as the host of “Haiti Journal”, Farah is helping us engage the Haitian community in ways we have not done before.”
Larrieux, having had ample television and broadcasting experience, prior to hosting “Haiti Journal” doesn’t just read off a teleprompter and call it a day. She loves to interact with guests. Her charisma continues long after the cameras have been turned off. “I feel like I’ve learned a lot from her off the set, in regards to topics such as the political and cultural climate of Haiti,” affirms Rodriguez. “It’s one experience to read history books or the newspaper—it’s another experience to be able to converse with someone and have them explain some of the cultural nuances you wouldn’t have fully understood otherwise.”
Tracy Lozama, who has worked with Larrieux on a personal and business basis (they worked together for a musical project in Miami), practically echoes Rodriguez. “She is probably one of the hardest working woman I know,” Lozama sums up. “She is very passionate about her job, community, culture, as well as helping others. She is self motivated and always determined no matter the circumstances. She is well organized and professional at all times. Her social skills are impeccable! She’s an all-around great business woman and on a personal level a great friend.” Listen in to our conversation with Larrieux herself. Q & A What do you remember from your childhood? As a child, even though I was very active in arts, drama and entertainment activities of the school, I was very shy. During my first year in primary school, I was bullied. I was so shy, that every time I had to talk in front of the class or trying to ask a question, I was frozen, sweating, shaking, stuttering, I could not find my words. During my last year in primary school, the same situation happened to me, and I heard a classmate commanding me to shut up and to sit down since I could not talk. My teacher and the keynote speaker were patient enough and finally I was able to ask my question. The keynote speaker, who was a priest, complimented me for the question and then answered. This compliment gave me a sense of pride and confidence. After that day, I promised to myself that no one would ever humiliate me publicly because of my shyness. I guess one can see the results now for somehow this experience has marked me. In the early 80’s, my parents, my older brother and I used to go see the international Circus on Bicentenaire—a townsquare in Port-au-Prince by the ocean and the parliament. Back in the days, there were cruise ships docking at the bay of Port-au-Prince. The tourism industry was booming. I remember the 1985 carnival of Port-au-Prince was nominated the second best carnival in the world. While I was growing up, during the summer months I used to go on vacation in Les Cayes—the Southern part of the country—with my family. We stayed over at my mom’s family home. These are great souvenirs of my childhood. I also remember the Dechoukaj in the aftermath of the fall of the Duvalier regime. There was a lot of violence, hatred and destruction. It was one of the saddest times in the history of Haiti, but there was a lot of hope. It was the beginning of a new era in Haiti: Freedom of speech, democracy, a new social system, equality, justice. The people believed that the country would be flourishing. But it didn’t take too long for disappointment to set in. For after 26 years, the democratic system has not yet been fully established in Haiti. I remember during the trade embargo on Haiti imposed by the United States by November 1991, how difficult a time it was in Haiti. It was as if the lifeblood of the country was cut off. At the time, as a fourteen year old, I was so concerned that I personally wrote a letter to the American President, George W. Bush asking him to lift the embargo on Haiti. Of course, I never got an answer.
Were you reluctant to make the move from Haiti to the United States, being that you had been in Haiti for most of your life? My decision to leave Haiti came for many reasons. Though I have to say that coming from both [the] middle and upper classes, I was not raised to think that one day I would live in the United States. As a matter of fact, I had a bad image of this country. Still in the 80’s, Haiti was influenced by the European culture. I remember my parents and their friends reading Paris Match all the time. People were following Princess Diana and other European aristocrats’ fashion when they were going to parties and high class events. The ideal university education was in France, reason being that, my dad studied accounting in France. In 2002, even as a very popular TV and radio hostess in the age of 23, still living with my mom and doing well, I was outraged by the social and economic situation of the country. Drug dealers were the role models for young boys and girls of the lower and middle classes; there was one political scandal after another. Corruption was at a high the middle and upper classes were struggling to survive while the poor were becoming poorer and injustice pervaded the land. It was a new phase in my life when I started to understand more the Haitian society where I grew up. Many questions…no answers. I wanted to voice my frustration and fight for real change. Then I remembered how they murdered the attorney [Mireille] Durocher Bertin on March 28, 1995 and the well-known activist, journalist and agronomist Jean-Léopold Dominique on April 3, 2000. To this day, their assassins are still running the streets. So I told myself then that I’d better, step back a bit my anger if I wanted to stay alive. So I became more curious about other countries. Is it the same in other country? How are the social, health, justice and education systems in other countries? Are people suffering the same? I wanted to discover the world. I felt that Haiti became suddenly too small for my dreams. Meanwhile, I had visited the U.S. several times either for vacation or for business. Then during one of my trips, I met someone. At first, it was just a flirt[ation]. When I went back to Haiti, we stayed in contact. Our relationship became more serious. And two years later, we were married.
Was it a scary change? Moving to the U.S. didn’t scare me, but filled me with energy instead. I was not certain about my future, but like a soldier going to battle was ready to fight. I was ready for the worst. But I know I would make it. With my husband on my side, moving to the US was an opportunity to find my answers, to learn from another culture and to understand why the United States, as big as it is, has been able to accomplish so much in 236 years of Independence unlike Haiti that has been independent for 208 years. I wanted to learn the American mentality.
Before coming to the USA, you were involved in the radio and television industry in Haiti? Yes. It is through my experience as a TV and radio hostess that I started my career in the entertainment industry. I was seventeen when I was offered a position to work as a hostess at Télémax which was at that time the most popular television [station] in Port-au-Prince. I was still in my last year in school—Junior College in [the] U.S. I spent a few months in training before I went on the air for the first time in 1997. Meanwhile, I also did an internship with Radio Vision 2000 for four months. I would later go on to host also at two other radio stations, Signal FM and Planèt Kreyòl. Due to financial difficulties, I was laid off in Télémax in March 2002.
So prior to becoming a TV host on the station WPBT, you had your own marketing and public relations company Thélar Advertising? In 2002, a friend of mine, Pierre-Michel Théodat, who was back then the PR for the popular Haitian band Djakout Mizik-–now Djakout #1—proposed to me the idea of establishing an agency to promote Haitian musicians in the international market. For years, he had the idea to empower Haitian musicians after he witnessed how Antoine Rossini Jean-Baptiste—also known as Ti Manno, one of the most popular Haitian singers and composers die in New York in 1985 after struggling financially. The reality in Haiti is such that the music, arts and entertainment industry is not structured to provide our artists sustainable resources and tools to help them develop their career. In fact, being an artist in Haiti is considered as a failure. This means you have no career. There are some exceptions among artists who have succeeded with their arts and productions. Some might be very popular, but they don’t have the proper advisers or anyone who can help them to manage their career in order to support their family and secure their retirement.
Pierre-Michel was and is very conscious, and concerned about this situation. So, in 2002 he and I founded in Haiti Thélar Management Group, formerly known as Thélar Advertising. Initially we wanted to focus only on the marketing aspect. But slowly, we realized that our Haitian musicians needed to be educated as well. For instance, most Haitian bands or musicians didn’t have a biography or a press kit. So we started slowly to expand our services. In Haiti, we worked on different projects with different artists and bands such as Tabou Combo, 2Nice – I was also the band’s manager- Miel, Daan Junior, Alan Cave and Zin. We also worked with some entities like Konpa Factory, Nouvèl Jenerasyon and Bougalou Night Club. We were the first to initiate a new way of promoting musicians by the presentation of the demo to the media and DJs. We value our relationship with the media personalities and the DJs. We expanded our connection with the media beyond the capital. In less than a year we had established a network in 6 departments regions including the Western department.
After moving to the U.S., I found myself being immensely involved in the Haitian Music Industry in South Florida by becoming the PR for Haitian [the] Independence Festival collaborating with TMG Inc and Kaliko Productions. This position gave me the opportunity to get noticed and to connect with the key people of the Haitian-American music business in the U.S. I would also later on collaborate with the well-known Haitian producer Fred Paul, with artists and bands such as Ayenn Stark, Nu Look, BIC Group. The more I understood the American system, the more I became curious about the music, arts and entertainment industry in the US. I attended all the free seminars and conferences I could at the Broward Cultural Division – as a new immigrant I couldn’t afford then to go to high-level professional paid seminars. I wasn’t sure where this would take me, but I knew that by doing that I would eventually meet the right people to give me the right information. From 2006 to 2009, under the umbrella of the company, I devoted myself as the manager of Zenglen, one of the most popular Haitian bands based in Florida.
In order to improve my knowledge on the business aspect of the music industry, recently I took a class in Music Business at Broward College. I am also a member of the Music and Entertainment Industry Student Association, and a talent scout and trend spotter for Massive Creative Intelligence Agency. My next step is to get my Master’s in Music Business and Entertainment Industry at the University of Miami.
After 10 years managing the company, with all I went through, I become a more confident business woman. It is now less challenging for me to manage it. I also identified other business opportunities by providing customized advertising and marketing services to private, government agencies and organizations that want to reach out [to] the Haitian market. I am now more focused on marketing the company’s new structure and identifying potential clients so that the company becomes the leading Haitian advertising and marketing agency.
How did the idea for “Haiti Journal” originated? I had been volunteering as a consultant for the Haitian community for WPBT since 2008. After the earthquake in Haiti, as the Chair of Fundraising Committee for the Haitian American Professionals Coalition, I met with the production of WPBT in order to propose them to partner with the coalition for the purpose of producing a live broadcasting fundraising concert. At that meeting, we talked about the project, but we also talked about current issues on Haiti. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the world had witnessed the lack of leadership, the suffering of the people and the sad situation of the country. There was a lot of curiosity about Haiti. It happened that due to some legal restrictions, WPBT could not be part of the project that I proposed, but a couple days after, the Vice-President of Productions, Jack Kelly, proposed that WPBT produces a monthly public affairs program, entitled “Haiti Journal”, in partnership with the Haitian American Professionals Coalition. It took another year for the program to become reality in June 2011.
There aren’t any broadcasting schools in Haiti at the moment from what we’ve been told. So how did you manage your stint as a broadcaster in Haiti? Contrary to what you may have been told, there are a few broadcasting/journalism schools in Port-au-Prince. While there may not have broadcasting schools in the outer cities, there are several well reputed schools in the main cities, primarily in Port-Au-Prince. As a matter of fact, I taught in one of them for a semester. So, in my experience they may not be as well structured and organized schools with big budget like those in the US, but these schools do their best to educate and train our young women and men who want to have a career in broadcasting and journalism. As I mentioned earlier, my background in drama and dance helped me to have a stage presence and not to be afraid of the camera. So when I was offered the position to become a hostess at Télémax, it was for me a new experience. At the beginning, Télémax was for me just a part-time job. I thought that eventually I would quit for a more profitable and secure position in the technology and computer field. But, the more I realized how I was impacting my viewers’ lives, the more confident I became in the job. It did not take long after that for me to fall in love with my job. And the rest is history.
Critics of television content in Haiti often point at the lack of original material on Haitian televisions in Haiti. As someone who is hosting a nationally-broadcasted show on TV in the USA, what do you think can be done to improve the state of television in Haiti? First, we need more regulations. The state needs to review and enforce the laws and policies in regards of broadcasting. How come in Haiti some television stations are airing American bootleg movies in English? And it is OK. There are only a few quality and original productions. Before thinking about production budget, some people just buy the frequency or channel from CONATEL – the state agency which is supposed to regulate the broadcasting and communication industry [in Haiti]. In broadcasting, we know that what makes quality and professional programming is the crew including hosts, artists, technicians, directors, producers and experts in all different areas as well as creativity, vision and passion. These people are professionals and they should have a decent salary if it is not a good salary. Unfortunately, most of the media owners are more worried about finding funds to buy the equipment and once the signal and the station are ready, they are confident that they will find anyone, talented or not, who is running after fame, ready to do anything and to work for sustenance. It is sad. Because they are using and abusing great talented young people who could have a bright future and a professional career in broadcasting while they are producing good quality and original educational, cultural, entertainment and informative materials. It is time in Haiti to value more the human being, to invest in the potential of our youth, to improve our relationship with each and other—family, work, business, community—to recognize and reward positive action, and promote role models and leadership. We are so far from this reality. But I am confident that we have to keep addressing these issues in order to see improvement. You’ve since changed the name of Thélar Advertising to Thélar Management, no doubt intended to reflect expansion, and change of scope and direction. This year, we are celebrating the 10th Anniversary of Thélar Advertising by revamping completely the company. Thélar Advertising is now Thélar Management Group, LLC. I have decided to change the name and the structure because we’re providing more than just advertising services; I wanted also to be able to correct the mistakes we did in the past due to a lack of knowledge of the American system. I wanted to start fresh. Our ten years of experience have enabled us to also identify gaps in the Haitian market in the areas of marketing and advertising, as well as in the areas of music, arts, culture and entertainment.
The company is now designed to serve clients locally, nationally and internationally with two major divisions: Thélar Advertising and Thélar Entertainment. Our vision is to provide to our clients top-level professional marketing and advertising services as a catalyst to their increased visibility within the Haitian market. I have now a clearer vision of what I want to accomplish in a short, middle and long term plan. I like to plan ahead. All this is due to the fact that I have this hunger to understand and to learn what the path to succeed in business is. Since I could not afford to buy books about entrepreneurship and motivation, every time I found a magazine with an article on those topics in a waiting room, I asked to keep the magazine. The first magazine that I brought home was the Florida Trend magazine, the 2006-2007 Edition. It took me a while to finish reading it. But I noted every single agency that can help to get grant or loans to expand small business, such as SCORE, ACCION USA, Florida Women Business Center and Florida Small Business Development Center. I was after the money, but every time I sat down with their adviser, I realized that I had a lot to learn on how to do business in United States. Therefore I understood that I had to start from the beginning: Education. But how? Since I could not afford to pay my tuition-my immigration status made me ineligible to get a loan yet I had to find a way to get the knowledge that I needed. So I went to free conferences and seminars that I was aware of. I also got a scholarship from the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce for the Leadership Miami Program in 2006. This wonderful experience made me understand Miami beyond the Haitian community. It opened many doors for me. I am now revamping the company with the assistance of the Florida Small Business Development Center – Broward Chapter. They have a great staff that cares about the success of their clients. My business counselor, Kerry Jacoby, is really patient with me; he makes sure I am going in the right direction. I am also getting help and counseling from the Jim Moran Institute from the Florida State University College of Business. It is amazing! You cannot imagine how much resources and assistance are available in this country to help you achieve your goals and become successful. I believe I am opening a new chapter of Thélar Management Group, LLC history now. The sky is our limit!
What has been the feedback as far as the show is concerned? We have received great feedback from the Haitian community and from non Haitians as well. We got emails even from South America. My fans from Télémax are happy to see me again on TV. But in general, the Haitian community appreciates the level of professionalism of how we address the issues—topics and guests. Non-Haitians like the opportunity to watch real talk about issues of the Haitian community of South Florida and of Haiti by Haitians in a language that they can understand. The program is also aired in the Bahamas and will be aired soon in Haiti.
What do you like to do when you’re not running Thélar Management? Presently, Thélar Management Group is my life. I am much focused because I have clearly defined my goals. For now, 90% of the time, I am working either for the company or for the organizations that I am involved with. I also read a lot. I also love dancing. Since I am in the Haitian music industry, from time to time, I go to Haitian parties—bal. I always meet my fellow business people in the industry blaming me that I don’t go out that often. That gives me a sense of respect and appreciation. Sometime I go to International ballroom dance practice, or to the movie theater or to the beach, or visit one of my best friends.
Do you have any plans for Haiti? Are you planning on going back there to live or start a foundation? [Laughter] How do you know? Of course, I have many plans for Haiti. But for now, I believe that I can impact my people only by my actions and accomplishments. Haitians cannot change Haiti if they don’t change their ways. Living in United States changes my mentality; makes me a better and stronger person. Haitians will change Haiti only by becoming better citizens. They have to forget their personal interests and put the country’s interests first. They have to understand and accept that we might come from different backgrounds, have different agendas and goals, but we all will succeed only by establishing a social system where everyone has the opportunity to reach their goals. Many want to start a foundation, an orphanage, a church or a NGO to help the people of Haiti. I applaud these initiatives, but you have to understand they are not the solutions to our problems…our challenges”. We need leadership. People with vision, ready to sacrifice their personal comfort so to empower the nation. We need people who will become the role models of the new generation of leaders. It will take time for these leaders to emerge. But this is a lifetime goal. As an Haitian, I can be helpful and serve my country through my career and my community involvement whether I am living in United States or in Haiti.
What are you most proud of about Haiti? Despite the fact that the Haitian society has lost many values that make this nation so wonderful, Haitians remain very sensitive and very connected to their humanity. My people are not demanding. Haitians will be ready to help anyone or to sacrifice their life for any one just because they had been so kind and generous to them. That’s why foreigners are so attracted to Haiti. And I am proud of that!