When it comes to businesswomen, you’d be hard pressed to find any more diligent than AWM’s very own Wonder Women columnist Farida Gibbs.
Farida was presented with the Entrepreneur Award at the RBS Asian Women of Achievement Awards 2012, in which she was described by the judges as “a fantastic example of strength and sheer determination to fulfil her ambitions after being made redundant, regardless of barriers”.
From her teens, Farida, today the CEO of IT staffing and project solutions consultancy Gibbs S3, would help her dad run his Surrey news agencies at 4am. She’d then trot off to school, before returning home for an evening shift at the shop. “There weren’t many people in my class up at 4am grafting,” says Farida. “I learned a lot about business and that really interested me.”
Eldest of four Farida, whose father, Atta, is from Pakistan, took on more responsibility when her parents divorced and she resided with her Egyptian mother, Salwa. “I went to college but at the same time I was working at [the supermarket] Safeway until 9pm every night and over the weekends to help my mother,” she recalls.
Studying and maintaining a job would be plenty enough to occupy most people, but Farida balanced parental duties on top of that. “I played a key role in the upbringing of my family,” says Farida. “I helped bring in money to help my mother raise my two sisters and brother while I studied full time.”
Life was tough but Farida, who studied Business Studies and HR at university, came to see that her maturity set her apart from her peers. “I got a job at Sitel, a company that provided call centre services, at 16 and that’s when I really started enjoying life,” says Farida. “When I look back at my childhood I wasn’t your average 10-year-old playing with toys and games; I was looking after my brother and sisters so that made me very responsible. At 17 I could manage really important projects for Sitel because I was older than my years. I think a lot of that plays into whom I am today. I had to grow up very quickly, be responsible, think on my feet and make decisions on my behalf of my mum.”
Farida started her career in the recruitment industry in 2001, and worked hard for her company. However, that was all turned on its head when one fateful day in 2005 her employer gave her one day’s notice of redundancy, paid her £2,000 and sent her on her way.
“I saw the redundancy from my recruitment role as a positive because I always wanted to have my own business. The day after I was made redundant, I registered my own company, took my £2,000 and that’s when the business started.
“I approached a handful of my existing customers and told them I didn’t want to stop working with them, and asked them to still consider me. They were thrilled and gave me their backing. These were major city organisations but because I understood their culture so well, they confided in me that it was me, and not my old company, that had impressed them,” she says.
Despite a series of knockbacks, Farida launched her company in 2005 with an ethos of giving great service and seeking out new opportunities. For the first few months Farida’s new working life was formed of a tough schedule to make precious time with her daughter, but also for her growing enterprise. When her daughter was in bed, Farida would work long into the night, but after six months realised that she was “actually really good” at balancing business and motherhood.
Fresh with the confidence she had built in the previous six months, Farida had new momentum in her entrepreneurial vision, something she shared with her sister. “I asked her to join me. I needed someone I could absolutely trust,” she recalls. Soon after, Farida’s sister Ameera left her high profile job and the two sisters started to run the company together.
However, it wasn’t long before the credit crunch soon pulled the economic rug from under Farida, as it did for many other businesses – especially in recruitment – and the business lost a major client, Lehman Brothers. When the company collapsed overnight Farida had to do some consolidation of her own and let staff go, something she describes as the “hardest thing” she had had to do. “I could have just walked away – the economy was dire and I could have found something else, but I felt a very strong need to carry on,” she explains.
“I wasn’t going to give up, but had to make some redundancies, leaving just three of us in the business again. Fortunately, our customers remained loyal to us and we could work with them to build the business back up again,” she says.
In 2008, a chance encounter with Cindy Pasky, CEO of US firm Strategic Staffing Solutions (S3), put Farida onto a new path. “A great relationship with Cindy developed and a strong commonality in culture between us and the way we do business was pretty evident from the outset,” she describes. “We saw a gap in the market and took the opportunity to set up a strategic partnership. Maximising both our strengths, our collaboration allowed us to support our major customers globally, giving them the opportunity to select us as a supplier across the UK, US and Europe to support their IT and business service needs.”
In 2009, a strategic partnership was signed between both parties in which Farida took full responsibility and accountability for the UK and Europe as CEO of Gibbs S3. “It wasn’t about the money,” recalls Farida, looking back on the deal. “I love what I do and I knew we could make a difference. I wanted to be my own boss; I wanted to be able to be there for my daughter. If I want to finish work at 2.30pm to pick my daughter up from school, I didn’t want to ask anyone’s permission. Nowadays, me and Cindy have a very strong partnership and work really well together.
“We look at each other as one operation,” she explains. “We are now able to service companies globally. So, for example, we are dealing with financial services companies in the UK and we are also able to support them all over the US.”
In the last three years, Farida’s share of the UK arm alone has seen annual turnover increase from £1.3 million to around £18.6 million. Gibbs S3 and S3 are delivering an annual turnover of $220 million in the global group – Farida delivered $30 million in Gibbs S3’s first three years. This incredible growth has won Farida some major industry awards, including the Fast Growth Business Awards.
Key to her success has been a project solutions approach, rather than simply fulfilling staffing requirements under a contingent labour programme. The company offers managed services and statement of works and fixed-price work packages in the areas of technology resources and business change, project and programme management, as well as solution architects.
“We work closely with our customers, look at resourcing challenges and issues, and create solutions and work packages to deliver upon their needs,” says Farida. “Clients are buying into the idea of project solutions and fixed-price projects, so that they know where they stand from one project to another. The Programme Solutions team are incredible! They will make sure we deliver in the period we say we will. We are cost-effective, flexible, adaptable and passionate about helping our customers. We never say no and we always find a way.”
While business was on the up, and bidding for a major new customer, Barclays, Farida’s family life took an unexpected turn for the worst when her father, her “role model”, fell ill in Pakistan. “My sister and I flew out to be by his side and at the same time I knew I couldn’t let the bid go. Some people thought it was selfish and that I was putting work before my father, but I wasn’t. I was there giving him the best level of care. I took all my savings, my sisters and brother and my husband also put in some of their savings and we made sure Dad has the best care possible in the best hospital.
“There wasn’t much I could do but sit by his side while he was in intensive care so I sat there with my laptop working on the online bidding process to win the business. I remember clearly I was sat in a hospital in Pakistan, my sister, brother and husband were also online bidding for this new customer in the UK, and my partners in the US also took part in the US. It was a big deal. I knew the bid could secure the future for my daughter, husband, brother and sisters,” she explains. Luckily, her father recovered and is now back on his feet. Farida spent three weeks in Pakistan nursing her father back to reasonable health. Farida also won the Barclay’s bid.
“I won that business because I didn’t give up. I truly think God could see how passionate I was about my intentions for my father. It was for the best because when you’re a good person and you mean well, what goes around really does come around,” she states.
Likewise, Farida is philosophical about her past and grateful for the opportunities it presented her. “I look at my life and I think, ok I didn’t have much of a childhood. I didn’t have pocket money or toys and I didn’t do what normal girls do. I begrudged it when I was younger, but now I do not regret my past or upbringing, it has made me who I am today. I feel like I’m being rewarded, the lovely awards, recognition or the hard work and achievements and things that are happening to me are because of that graft.”
And recognition is certainly coming Farida’s way, including recognition at the Enterprising Women of the Year 2012 awards, winning the Fast Growth Business Awards and GrowingBusiness.co.uk’s Family Business of the Year Award, additionally being recognised by GrowthBusiness as one of its Top 50 rising stars in 2011, recently winning Business Woman of the Year at the first ever British Muslim Awards 2013, and shortlisted for Business Woman of the Year at the English Asian Awards later this year.
“I’m having a wonderful time with my daughter. I’m re-married now and have an incredible husband Paul and wonderful step-daughter. I’m truly the happiest I think I can be,” she says with a grin.
As always, Farida credits her family for her happiness and her drive to succeed. “I always put my family first, it’s the right thing to do,” she says. “I love my family. They are what push me. I was once told I would never be good at business! I think if you tell me I can’t do something I’ll go and do it. And now I have succeeded and can provide for the people I love the most.”
Safe to say, Farida has demonstrated that she is a successful businesswoman and proved her detractors wrong. Now it is her time to become a role model for the next generation of wannabe entrepreneurs, and Asian women who perhaps lack the sureness to strive out on their own. “A lot of Asian women are burning to go into business but culturally, sometimes they can’t do it or they don’t have enough confidence to,” Farida says.
“I wish I could reach out to those women and say, ‘If you truly believe you can do it then you can! What is the worst case scenario if it doesn’t work out? You just move on and get another job. Why not give it a go if you truly feel a strong desire and passion? If it doesn’t work out, it really it doesn’t matter, at least you have to give it a try.”
This inspiring businesswoman has also been asked to support the Women of the Future Ambassadors programme, connecting 100 successful women with 100 sixth-form students in London and the Home Counties, to support and mentor the next generation of emerging business talent.
Self-belief is instrumental in Farida’s considerable success. A self-confessed “grafter”, it is her hard work and talent that has made her the entrepreneurial powerhouse she is today, and if this is the lesson taught to the children she mentors, then the next generation of creative business talent will be exceptional.
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