Saipanpreneur Profile: Rabby Syed
Saipanpreneur Profile: Rabby Syed
The only way to take control of your life, raise your standard of living and move beyond merely surviving is to create your own unique product or service that you offer to increasing numbers of people in exchange for the things of value that you desire. This simple formula applies to countries as well as people. A self-sufficient economy has its own products or services of value to export to the world. Similarly, a self-sufficient individual has something of value to exchange in the global marketplace. That thing of value is based on your natural talent, skill, or interest—in other words, your passion!
With aspirations of a bright future, Rabby F. Sayed traveled from the capital city of Dhaka in Bangladesh, and arrived on Saipan on Jan. 14, 1997, to take a job as a security guard with BMW after seeing an ad in his hometown newspaper.
Since then, in the nearly 13 years he’s been on the island, he has evolved and made his mark in many spheres of island life:
Rabby knows the community: He has been a Head Start policy council member, vice president of the International Business Club at NMC, a volunteer for the CNMI Victim Hotline, and a member of CrimeStoppers.
Rabby knows hard work: While pursuing a degree at NMC, he achieved the Phi Beta Kappa "Most Outstanding Student" award. He made the President’s List and the American National Dean's List.
Rabby knows the plight of contract workers: He is the current president of The United Workers Movement-NMI since 2008.
Finally, for the past 10 years, Rabby knows taxis: He is an independent taxi driver, as well as the founder and president of the Saipan City Taxi Association since 2001.
As a result of, and through his myriad involvements, he has developed and expressed his personal passion for helping the CNMI be the best it can be as a place to live, raise a family, and do business.
Rabby and I met recently at Winchell's in Garapan to share his story, observations, insights and vision for the CNMI, derived from his fascinating experience as a taxi driver on the streets of Saipan.
Walt: How did you discover Saipan?
Rabby: I had already received my Bachelor of Arts from Bangladesh National University. I was a single guy working for a marketing and sales company in Bangladesh, in advertising. I heard about the security job, and was interested in coming to Saipan because of the salary. It was very lucrative compared with Bangladesh’s economy at that time.
Walt: And what kept you here?
Rabby: It’s a unique story. I found my wife, the lady in my life, Vicky, Victoria Cepeda-Syed, a year after I arrived. I was a single guy at that time. She made me understand the beauty of life as a couple. We got married in 1998. Then I had four beautiful children-Parnel, Pollen, Roma and Farzana-and I decided to stay here for the rest of my life. My family and my heart is here now. I even have two of my nephews from Bangladesh studying and staying here too!
Walt: Most people wouldn’t guess that you’re also a filmmaker.
Rabby: Yes, I’m very grateful to the Northern Marianas College. I completed a program in film and television. That was my expertise and my passion back home. So, thanks to NMC, I became a certified filmmaker. My student project was a documentary by director Steve Rubin on (storied WWII marine) Guy Gabaldon. I was the camera man for the documentary.
I worked with actor [and former Saipan resident] Dan Shor on “Looking for America” which was filmed entirely here on Saipan [DVD available at www.saipanpreneur.com; Rabby also appears in the film].
I also worked on "Water is Cool" a documentary sponsored by the Department of Public Health on drinking water, and was the camera man for one of Verizon’s television advertisements.
Walt: You've been a taxi driver now for several years. What strikes me is that you and your fellow drivers have direct contact with tourists every day from the moment they arrive, to when they leave.
Rabby: Yes, taxis are often the first impression that the tourists have of Saipan. We communicate with them and discover their needs, what they like and dislike about the island and their time here. We have a lot of valuable information and input about what our visitors are thinking and feeling.
Walt: Yes, you're like the welcoming committee, tour guide, information center, and you even conduct your own unofficial “exit surveys” of the thousands of people who visit the island. That's a lot of power and information!
Rabby: We're not just taxi drivers. We're not just moving people around. We're participating and shaping their experience. We're independent business owners with a lot of influence on Saipan's tourism.
Walt: Most people aren’t aware of just how seriously you take that role and responsibility.
Rabby: I worked with Eric Plinske (former director of Small Business Development at NMC), who was my counselor at that time, and attended training seminars and workshops on customer service and how to build customer loyalty. That gave me a vision of what we can and should be during for our valued customers and for tourism.
Walt: So, is that why you formed the Saipan City Taxi Association?
Rabby: Yes, being taxi drivers, we felt we could do a lot of things beyond just transporting passengers. We needed to know about the market and do things to improve the market. The association's mission is to enhance the taxi industry in the CNMI by working on behalf of the needs of the customers as well as the drivers. Our motto is “Customers first.”
Walt: What else does the association do?
Rabby: We conduct many training programs. Our drivers are trained in speaking basic Japanese, Chinese, Russian and Korean. Recently, we worked with NMPASI [Northern Marianas Protection and Advocacy Systems, Inc.] to train our drivers how to take care of the disabled and other special needs tourists. I myself take courses at NMC to learn American Sign Language. With the collaboration of DPS [Department of Public Safety], we take training on how to handle children, install car seats effectively, and have refresher courses on public safety and traffic laws. We are prepared for many special situations.
Walt: What are some of the things you’ve learned in your “on the streets” research interacting with the tourists?
Rabby: As a tourist destination, Saipan needs a better product to sell. Yes, we have water games, snorkeling, banana boat rides, and those activities are great, but they are not enough. Saipan has always had a family-oriented image, but there is just not enough entertainment, especially for the kids. Our MVA [Marianas Visitors Authority] data shows that many tourists from Japan-our main market-come back several times. We need more shopping malls and different activities for them.
Walt: What are some challenges the drivers face in doing business?
Rabby: Well, there is a perception here on Saipan that taxi drivers overcharge our customers, and I am personally working on fixing that.
First, I would say to everyone, please don’t evaluate every driver based on a few persons' bad conduct. Most of the taxi drivers are concerned about their businesses, make an honest living and are serious about good service. If someone has a bad experience with a driver, they should contact the Taxi Bureau. And, by the way, for everyone's information, there is a law that says the driver and the customer can negotiate the price of the fare.
Second, taxi drivers do pay higher insurance premiums, car maintenance costs, license renewal fees, and registrations, and if the government listens to our suggestions to redesign the industry, we can make things better and more affordable for everyone.
Walt: Of the 100 or so legal taxis operating on Saipan, your association has about 20 members.
Rabby: Yes, we have Filipino, Thai, one Sri Lankan, but mostly Bangladeshi drivers. Membership is limited because we won't accept just anybody. Before we accept a driver, we find out the driver's history and reputation because we have a strict standard of conduct we expect.
As an industry here on Saipan, we drivers do not have enough information out there about us and what we do, what we know and how vital we are to tourism.
Walt: OK, I'll offer you a page on the DestinationSaipan.com site to promote the association's views and suggestions, but please share some of them here with us.
Rabby: To improve the taxi drivers' image, our association recommends:
- that our drivers wear uniforms-(flower shirt, black pants; see webpage*);
- that they display their taxi association identification prominently so customers have the assurance they won’t be overcharged;
- that the Taxi Bureau become more visible in the industry by conducting visits to the taxi stands, as well as surveillance operations to monitor the transactions and interactions with the customers;
- the formation of a task force between the Taxi Bureau, Immigration, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Service) to crack down on illegal operations..
[*For more of Rabby's Top 10 list of The Saipan City Taxi Association's suggestions for “destination enhancement,” and improvement of the taxi industry, visit www.destinationsaipan.com/taxi]
In the brief 90 minutes we spoke, I learned things I never knew about Saipan, about the taxi industry, and about Rabby himself. He is a community activist. He is a marketer who values customer satisfaction highly. He's a filmmaker with an eye for detail, who understands the power of the visual image and how the things people (our tourists) see affect their emotions, their impression of the island, and our own brand identity. He's a student who takes his education seriously. He's an advocate who fights for justice. He's a committed husband and doting father of four children.
And even though I realize I just barely scratched the surface of Rabby, the man, what is clear is that he brings that compassion, that awareness, that background, that talent and education, that commitment, and those family values to all of his many efforts to make real and meaningful changes in the life of a place he now calls his home.
I asked him if he's been back home since arriving. He tells me no. When I ask about his parents in Bangladesh, his moods shifts ever-so-slightly when he tells me they passed on many years ago while he was here on Saipan, and then he adds:
“Saipan is a unique tropical island. Good location. Impressive diving. Wonderful people. It’s a melting pot of Asia that contains the diversity of all the people of the world. So many various kinds of people on such a small island. And the Chamorro and Carolinian people are very welcoming and wonderful. They are fabulous people with a wonderful culture. This is my home.”
Welcome to Rabby's Saipan. Where can we take you today?
* * * *
Note: Ever wanted to direct your friends and family to a set of Web sites that revealed the best things about Saipan? Do what I do: send them to www.bestofsaipan.com!
Note: Fans and followers of the book, Chicken Feathers and Garlic Skin: Diary of a Chinese Garment Factory Girl on Saipan may now find copies here on Saipan at Fu Dogs & Qi (pronounced chi), Saipan's only Asian Antiques Store, located on the first floor of the Nauru Building (the “360 building”) in Susupe.
* * * *
Until next week, remember, success is a journey, not a destination!