2009 Asian Women Achievement Awards

While fashion icon Liz Hurley, First Lady Sarah Brown and awards patron Cherie Blair were big attractions at this year’s Asian Women of Achievement Awards, it was the bold, beautiful and brainy group of winners who stole the show, says Zekra Rahman.

Gracefully carrying themselves in their colourful saris, hundreds of Asian women from all walks of life joined hands to celebrate their achievements at London Hilton Park Lane on May 20th. Co-founded by Pinky Lilani OBE in 1999, this year marked the ninth anniversary of these prestigious awards.

Hasfa Abubacker beat tough competition to secure the title of Entrepreneur of the Year, while Ruby McGregor Smith won the title of Business Woman of the Year Corporate.

Abubacker is usually too busy cracking on with her booming business to reflect on her personal milestones, so, when she spoke to Asian Enterprise moments after winning her award, she was shocked and in high spirits. “It really does take a moment like this where you can reflect on what you have personally achieved. You are almost like the last person that anyone cares about in a business. You are always worried about your employees, your distributors or your suppliers, so it’s nice to be recognised,” she said.

With a 12-year background in home shopping, Hasfa, aged 31 from Southall, soon became Britain’s first and youngest woman to own a shopping channel. It all began when she realised that pushy gimmicky US-style commercials did not appeal to traditional British consumers. “I thought the UK consumer is far more sophisticated than that.

“And I came up with a new concept that wasn’t going to be presenter led, with no actors, no scripts, it was going to be the real deal and demonstrate a grafting of products and talk about the benefits in front of a live audience and that’s what we filmed and made available as a commercial entity.”

She started her own company Pitchwell Group in 2004, putting together commercials to sell products on television shopping channels. “At every stage of Pitchwell, from the moment we started, there were challenges. I left my job, I had no security and I had a mortgage to pay. I thought if this doesn’t work out for a couple of months, I’ll get another job or go back to doing a 9 to 6. That was the first hurdle,” she explained.

From a product idea to a 24-hour shopping channel, Abubacker has built Pitchwell into an £8.5m turnover business generating international interest. Currently it has 1100 promotions in retail and its products are sold across stores in Britain and Ireland.

For Abubacker, simply being good at your job doesn’t suffice when it comes to reaching the top. “For you to stand out over and above everybody else, being an Asian woman or otherwise, you’ve got to be absolutely outstanding at what you do.

“And not just be good at what you do, it’s having your hands in so many different things, thinking outside the box, having foresight, knowledge and understanding of what people do within an organisation in order for your role to be bigger and better than everyone else.”

Shortly afterwards, Business Woman of the Year Ruby McGregor-Smith revealed yet another inspirational story of success.

She told Asian Enterprise: “If you are female and good at what you do that can now open doors for you as opposed to 20 years ago when being a woman would have been a big hindrance to your career”.

 And who better than the chief executive of Mitie, the £1.2bn business services group, and still the first and only Asian woman to run a FTSE 250 company, to make that claim?

Undoubtedly an inspiration to Asian women, McGregor-Smith juggles work with motherhood. “I think these awards are important for the Asian community, because I don’t feel there are enough women who want to necessarily rise to the top of their careers as they tend to be precluded in terms of their backgrounds and their families.

“I guess I’m someone who can do both. There aren’t enough mums around like me who make a conscious decision to do both,” she said.

McGregor-Smith came to England with her parents when she was two and grew up in north London. She qualified as a chartered accountant with BDO Stoy Hayward and after six years with the accountancy firm, she undertook senior finance roles at Serco, a company that worked in outsourcing.

After taking time out from her career to have her two children, she took up her first PLC board role as chief financial officer of the Mitie Group. By March 2007, she had risen through the ranks to become the company’s chief executive.

“We are a support services business, we employ 50 000 people, we work in buildings and infrastructure in Britain. We look after buildings, from cleaning, landscaping, pest control through to engineering and fit-out work,” she explained.

It is no surprise that McGregor-Smith was awarded Business Woman of the year, considering her achievement in a male dominated field. “I’ve always worked with guys, it’s great. Most of the management team are male. It’s not an issue. The workplace has really changed over the last
10 years since when I first started out”.

Ambitious, passionate and possessing true business acumen, McGregor-Smith affirms that no matter how many responsibilities she has a woman, her business will always be high on her list. “It’s in my head all the time. I may be a mum and I may be an individual, but ultimately I look after Mitie and that is with me day and night.”

Other winners on the night included Shobana Jeyasingh for Arts and Culture, Afshan Ahmed and Sue Ashtiany for Professional of the Year, Arti Lukha for Media Professional of the Year, Asha Khemka for Public Sector, Bala Thakrar for Social and Humanitarian, Snigdha Singh for Young Achiever of the Year and Wasfi Kani OBE for The AWA Lloyds TSB Award.

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