BY ROBYN BARDGETT
When Donna Pearman first set her sights on becoming a pharmacist in 1968, she did not let any negativity related to her as a black woman stop her from achieving her goal. Today, she is a qualified pharmacist and People’s Pharmacy is one of the most celebrated businesses on the Island.
Given the obstacles she faced along the way, it was important to her that her retail pharmacy would be a place for all in the community.
At 17, in the hopes of seeking financial support to pursue higher education and fulfil her love of sciences, she looked to the established businesses in the industry for help.
“Many black families were not well-off financially at that time,” recalls Ms Pearman. “I did ask the owner of one of the large drug stores for financial support and was told that there was a long line of foreign pharmacists, so I would not be given financial assistance.
“That was my first inkling of what existed in Bermuda for the plight of black people.”
Ms Pearman pushed forward, earning her Bachelor of Science degree from Dalhousie University in Halifax. She then returned to Bermuda to work as a pharmacist at Hamilton Pharmacy, a place that, because of its location in North Hamilton, tended to serve a black clientele.
It was through the insistence of her customers, with whom she built a rapport in her 10 years working at Hamilton Pharmacy, that she decided to take the leap and open her own retail shop in 1984.
People’s Pharmacy opened in 900 square feet of retail space on Victoria Street with five employees, including Ms Pearman’s father, Norris Pearman, and cousin, Aleathea Rabain, the latter whom recently retired after 35 years.
The determination to see the pharmacy succeed has meant that People’s has been on the forefront of innovation. Ms Pearman says they provide a holistic approach to health and wellness in the community while also creating a destination shopping experience and delivering some of the best customer service on the Island.
Despite raising a family, Ms Pearman decided early on to open the pharmacy on Sundays, attracting a new customer base that didn’t often shop in North Hamilton.
“If people went to the emergency room at the hospital on a Sunday, and they needed medicine, we wanted them to automatically think of People’s,” says Ms Pearman. “When people came here, they were treated very professionally and the service was second to none, and that’s how we came to have such a diverse group of customers, something that we maintain today.”
The name “People’s” came to personify exactly what Ms Pearman set out to do and that was, “not to exclude anyone by age, race or any other factor.”
“I wanted to show people that if you provide a service that is extremely professional then everyone will come because everyone likes good customer service. Once people were introduced to us they wouldn’t discriminate simply because we were black.”
As the business grew, in both size and employees, they have continued to innovate, particularly by being cognizant of their customer’s desires and needs.
In 2000, Ms Pearman’s daughter, Tamara Richardson, joined the family team.
While Ms Richardson had spent time in the shop as a teenager, especially helping to develop a niche selection of toys, it was her time at university in Atlanta that helped her envision the shop becoming “a destination, not just somewhere you spent money and left.”
“People’s reflects my love of shopping and my love of having access to a wide variety of things. I also understand that sometimes people can’t afford to go (off-island). They just like to come to People’s and buy something special. It feels good when you can’t necessarily afford something big, to just come in and get a new lip gloss.”
As the shop became more successful, the family ensured that the community that had supported them also benefited.
Throughout expansions like the addition of Little People’s and the opening of a shop in the Acute Care Wing of KEMH, it was imperative to the family that the location of the main store in North Hamilton remained the same, as the shop has become a vital part of the area.
“People’s legacy in the black community is the fact that this area where we sit now did not always look like this,” says Ms Pearman. “People did not always frequent this area like they do now. People’s was integral in ensuring that this side of Hamilton became a hub and not just Front Street.”
Their success has also been reinvested back into their staff, the business now employs over 50 people. Cumulatively over the years that number is in the hundreds, and many employees have gone on to university or been successful in other fields after working at People’s.
“We have invested in many people over the years,” says Ms Richardson. “It’s very important that people who work here leave with more than they came. Sometimes you have to help people see what they are capable of, you have to take the time to train and teach and help them grow.
“With all the people who were able to go off to university or start their own businesses, if you look at the multiplier effect of People’s you start to really see the value it has brought to the community.”
Promoting such a success story from the black community is another aspect of People’s role in Bermuda.
“It’s important for us to stress our blackness for others,” says Ms Pearman. “It’s important for children to see that a black person can own a business and do well at it. People’s strove to be an excellent business owned by black people. We never expected anyone to support us just because we were black. We treated everybody to exceptional customer service and exceptional product selection.
“What my family has done, is we’ve shown our community what’s possible. There is a certain formula to the success, but it is possible. As a community, we have to make sure that more people believe that and have those tools to make that formula work for them.”