From homeless to hotel owner
Cab driver’s refusal to take Jamaican woman to airport changed her life
WESTERN BUREAU: A Jamaican woman who became homeless twice in the United States now owns a 60-key hotel and is offering expert advice as part of a masterclass she has designed. Dr Ellen Bryant Brown knew nothing about daycare, nursing, real estate...
A Jamaican woman who became homeless twice in the United States now owns a 60-key hotel and is offering expert advice as part of a masterclass she has designed.
Dr Ellen Bryant Brown knew nothing about daycare, nursing, real estate, autobody work, or the hotel business, but she recognised what determination looked and felt like.
The Spanish Town-born businesswoman, who became homeless because of disobedience and unruly behaviour at age 18, now owns and operates a Quality Inn, under the Choice Hotel brand; six daycare centres; several homes and properties in the US and Jamaica.
Bryant Brown, who bought the US$3.5 million property in New Jersey during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, believes the challenges she faced as a new hotelier qualifies her to host her first masterclass on hotel entrepreneurship.
The serial entrepreneur said she was saved by a taxi driver, who refused to take her to the airport when a family member turned her out and left her no option, but to return home to Jamaica 29 years ago.
“I was on my way back to Jamaica. I took a cab and en route to the airport, the driver stopped in the middle of Broad Street, Philadelphia, and ordered me out, saying there was nothing in Jamaica for me.”
Today, she is convinced that God intervened because as she stood there, she could not get another taxi to the airport.
Those days, there were no cellular phones, so she paged a friend, who picked her up and took her to his brother’s place. But the brother had other plans for her. He wanted another wife or a concubine. When Bryant Brown refused, she was thrown out for the second time in 24 hours.
She ended up at a bus stop, where she met Stephen Brown, who is now her husband, but he had nowhere to offer her as he was living with his mother.
Bryant Brown’s next stop was at a crack house with drug addicts, living with one of her friends’ aunt, who was a dealer. That woman wanted her to sleep with her nephew in order to pay her way.
“She, too, put me out when I said no,” Bryant Brown recalled.
She was rescued by her boyfriend, Brown, whose only option was a house that had no electricity, no gas, and no water at the height of winter.
Reminiscing, Bryant Brown said she got a job as a waitress, but couldn’t take a shower before going, so she would reach work early and use their bathroom to wash herself from a foam cup.
No green card, living illegally, and literally homeless, the woman who now is CEO of the Navaeh Group, met a customer by the name of Mike at the restaurant, who would use his good credit to rescue her.
Soon after, she said, the Lord began to open doors for her, and she got a job as a certified nursing assistant (CNA) without any documents.
Hungry for success, the woman, who would go on to become a senior pastor, partnered with her aunt in a Caribbean cuisine restaurant; moved up the CNA ladder, and started working with a doctor and his wife who treated her royally.
“From the money I was making, I was able to buy a house within a year.”
She had also mended the relationship with the relative who turned her out.
From Philadelphia, Bryant Brown moved to Hollywood, Florida, where she started an auto body shop, went back to school to learn how to prep cars and became the first female to own such a business on the block.
There was no turning back and her next move was to California, where she bought another house, got into the real estate market, did well, and decided she wanted to be closer to her family.
Full circle, Bryant Brown returned to Philadelphia, where she started a nursing business and a daycare centre. From one daycare, she owned seven others, plus a nursing company, homes and land in Florida and Philadelphia.
“Next thing I know, I made a phone call in 2020, trying to get a loan for my brother’s ex-wife, when the woman who answered said she didn’t give personal loans anymore, but had a building that she could give me for a daycare.”
Bryant Brown said she had no interest in opening another daycare centre because there was a prophecy that said she was going to own a hotel.
“She (the woman) said, but Helen, you don’t know anything about hotel. And I said, ‘No, but I never know anything about daycare when I got into it’.”
The woman said she was offering her the perfect hotel in New Jersey, but she had to come up with 20 per cent (US$700,000) of the US$3.5 million cost. In the middle of the transaction, she was told she needed to find 10 per cent more (US$350,000).
“I didn’t know where the money was coming from, but I knew God was gonna make a way. So we ended up selling one of the daycare centres for the additional funding.”
When she took over the hotel business, she said there were a lot of setbacks.
“The guy that sold us the hotel ... had three people living in the hotel that was not paying their fee. Because it was a pandemic, after a certain month, it becomes their residence ... The government gave them the right to live there and we’re talking about not getting rent from three people for almost a year.”
That was one of the downfalls, she stated. Second, the property was run down, so they had to fork out half a million dollars to get the property up to standard.
They found a great general manager, Jamaican Sandra Brown, whom she said they could not have survived without. Brown has worked in the sector for over 20 years.
Bryant Brown said having been through the learning curve and surviving with few scratches, she is qualified to host a masterclass.
“I did my due diligence. I studied. I read everything that I needed to and I know if you are not careful, you can actually lose your property,” she told The Gleaner.
One of the critical things about buying is location, and knowledge of state requirements.
Her target market includes current owners and those who want to own or become a partner. Bryant Brown said she would teach them what to look for.
“We are also going to teach persons what to look for in a general manager. A general manager cannot be absent, so we want to teach the qualifications required.”
Bryant Brown’s masterclass will run from February 6 to 8, 2023, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. daily.