Leigh Gibson (picture above left with Jane Carrodus from Kiss Kill Lingerie) lives by the motto 'Be brave, take risks, take time - opportunity is always knocking'. This belief in ability and a strength of will has seen Leigh excel in the male-dominated world of IT. With a resume that includes management of highly visible and highly political multi-million dollar projects in Australia, Asia and the UK, in 2011 Leigh spotted an opportunity to go out on her own, establishing the Australian designer focused online retailer HalyconState.com. The mother of a 10-month old son admits the world of small business has been challenging, providing a dose of reality that rounding to the nearest million can allow you to forget, but it is a move she is glad she made.
“I’m the black sheep of the family. My father was a science subject master involved in setting the Queensland curriculum. My mother was a primary school teacher librarian. My sister and brother-in-law are also teachers. I went into IT,” says Leigh, a self-aware smile tinging her voice.
It’s a weekday morning and Leigh’s son is down for a morning nap, leaving her with a window of opportunity to chat about how her career in IT evolved into owning her own fashion retail business - and why she has decided to take the brave move of moving from the relative security of large scale IT roles to running her own business.
"I went to a tough school, and the kids there didn't quite know how to categorise a girl who was good at sport but also spent lots of time in the computer labs and liked science. I was given a hard time by some people, but still managed to become sports captain and prefect. I kept to myself and waited it out,” she says alluding to the sort of school experience more than a few people may recognise as ‘bullying’.
Having finished school, Leigh began studying IT at Griffith University; an area she quickly discovered was “a new frontier, a new industry – exciting, dynamic.” That was 1994: a time when email was new and the Internet was not the norm either at home or at school.
Her degree under her belt, Leigh stepped out into the brave new world of software development, beginning her career as a programmer. "I liked to make sure that I understood who was going to use the system and asked questions when I noticed areas of improvement. It was a bit daunting to speak up as a junior programmer and question software designs, but management seemed to like my observations and I was quickly promoted into other roles, such as Business Analyst, where I could have a lot more influence on the design and outcomes of projects."
This culminated in Leigh's first overseas project placement which was to work on a very large and diverse cross-cultural team tasked with re-engineering Singapore’s gas network.
“A Thai woman I met on this project and who I am actually still in contact with was pivotal for me. Booyanuch was incredibly forthright and would tell people if she thought something was wrong or she didn’t agree with the process. The guys really respected her. She taught me a lot about standing up for myself. I already knew that I didn’t have to be this shy, quiet girl, but I hadn't realised that I could be even stronger. I could be more direct and state my views more robustly,” Leigh explains of her dawning awareness around “being brave”.
Following Singapore, came a small project with Suncorp in Brisbane, during which Leigh noticed there was an opportunity to deliver something better than a band aid fix.
“I decided to be brave and pitch my thoughts to the General Manager at the meeting and said if he could find me some money I could design, using a new project methodology called Agile, a system that would do everything he wanted. He eventually gave me the go ahead and we were the first project to run at Suncorp using Agile. The system was a great success and paid for itself within the first three months of deployment, earning us a commendation in the 2003 Annual Report.”
A number of roles with Suncorp followed. "I completed the pricing model project when I was 24 years old, and despite great success, whenever I was moved into new areas of Suncorp, I was often relegated to junior roles for a few months before being promoted back to where I had been previously. It was a frustrating process so I decided to start looking for another job." Leigh then moved to Melbourne for a dream job working for the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games. In this role, she managed the design and development of a system called “Games Info”, the critical online results system used by athletes, competition officials, and worldwide media agencies during the games.
"The biggest challenge for our teams during the Games (outside of the tight budgets) was to ensure that results were available instantly, without any errors, and could easily be read and interpreted. With so many global media agencies using our system, any mistakes could easily become international incidents. Luckily, we managed to avoid drama!"
From there it was off to Telstra to join their ranging team as Device Developer and Customisation Manager.
“Working in the ranging team was another dream role. We worked directly with the big mobile device manufacturers, reviewing their roadmap of new devices and always planning up to three years into the future. It was my job to know what new technology was being invented and to be ahead of the game in terms of being aware of apps. At any point in time,” recounts Leigh, “I’d have maybe 40 mobile phones or datacards in development. Some of them would still be ideas, some ready to go to market. The weekly report meetings could have up to 60 stakeholders dialling in. It was high pressure, incredibly political and I loved it. There was no room in this role for a shrinking violet! It was the perfect role for someone who enjoys change and designing new things.”
Having never thought about her career in a planned way or as something she could predict, Leigh does acknowledge the value of taking and cultivating opportunities. In 2008, she and her then boyfriend (now husband), finance professional Chris, decided to migrate to London. They both lined up roles in London and spent a few months backpacking around Europe and Africa while their migrant visas were being processed. It took four months for the visas to come through, and by that time, the GFC had hit the UK and both job offers had disappeared without a trace. Leigh and Chris took a deep breath, decided to be brave and moved to the UK anyway. It took three months but Leigh managed to score a role at the 2012 London Olympics as Applications Project Manager.
“I lead a team developing a management system for 50,000 hotel rooms for Kings, Presidents and their entourages to be completed a year out from the games. You can imagine the security around that sort of information. At all stages of the work we were aware of the potential of hackers on the system. It was a massive task to make sure the information was easily available for users while keeping it secure,” Leigh explains.
With the GFC firmly entrenched Leigh took the tough decision to return to Australia with her husband in 2010. But, sticking to her motto, Leigh turned this disappointment into an opportunity. "While working in London, I found it difficult to buy Australian designer clothes online and it seemed to be an interesting business opportunity". After working a year in Australia to top up her seed capital, in early 2011 Leigh launched HalcyonState.com.
"There are many rewards in running your own business,” says Leigh. “I started Halcyonstate.com because I wanted the opportunity to build a business from the ground up and make a difference in the fashion industry. I have met and continue to work with exciting, positive and intelligent people. Halcyonstate.com works with some amazing designers, as well as with stylists, photographers, models and bloggers. Although the industry is different to IT, I have adapted my skills to this new business model and have been able to experiment with lots of emerging technology in the fashion space over the past few years. It's an exciting time for online shopping at the moment. Australia is really starting to embrace it."
Running her own business, Leigh admits cash flow management caused her some sleeplessness, but she successfully coped with the issue by keeping 'a weather eye' on finances and communicating in a timely, regular and positive manner with suppliers.
"I do worry that the Australian fashion industry is becoming unsustainable though. Independent designers don’t have the economy of scale that many of the overseas retailers (Zara, Topshop, H&M, Uniqlo, etc.) coming to Australia do. Australian designer clothes are more expensive to buy but it’s not due to greed on the designers’ part. A lot of people need to be involved in order to produce high quality clothing in Australia, and they all need to be paid a fair wage which is enforced by government legislation. Combine that with a public that our major retailers have trained to wait for frequent sales, and economically, it’s tough.”
Being as brave as possible has supported Leigh in the process of remaining open to opportunity and carving out many 'dream roles'. However, she now believes it is time, professionally, to consolidate on some of the work she’s done: “I’m pulling back on being brave for now to spend time with family. Time is precious and it disappears quickly with little people around. I've learned from experience too that new opportunities are always available when you seek them. Hopefully, I've got a few more 'dream roles' still to come in my career.”
On Telstra and NBN...
In 2006 Telstra had a network that was capable of 40MB per second upload and download, that's fast. I don't know why the government didn't work with Telstra and build on that.
I can’t live without…
My phone and email to keep track of my constantly updating to-do list. But more importantly, my family, along with regular walks with our dogs Betsy and George. My best ideas come when I exercise. I read a whitepaper online recently, about exercise and how when you move your body, your brain synapses operate differently and can draw from different stores of information. If you’re ever mentally stuck on something, get up and move!