With mentors announced for this year’s Fast Forward 15 programme, we meet with FF15 founder and Zibrant MD Fay Sharpe to see how she’s helping women get ahead in events
Words: Russell Cook Photos: Max Miechowski
I learned the haka last Friday – and all the words,’ says Fay Sharpe. In fact, she’s acting out the Maori war dance from her seat as we speak. From the way she describes this in-at-the-deep-end learning experience, you get the feeling that it’s the sort of thing she does a lot.
Fay certainly has a lot of initiative: in the few minutes I’ve been with her, she’s found us a new venue – our original choice was too dark for photography – ordered our coffees and, before I’ve even had a chance to hit the record button, she’s anticipated and answered most of my questions. ‘I’m full of energy and ideas. If I don’t know how to do something, I don’t care. I’ll just work it out.’
Now that we’re sat in the window of a busy Holborn coffee shop, it quickly becomes clear that Fay is a seasoned interviewee. Adjusting her voice to the volume of the buzz around us, she asks whether I want to hear her ‘story’. I get the feeling she’s going to tell me, whatever I say.
‘I was raised in a house with a tin roof. My parents worked hard but, until my father was lucky enough to come into some money, we didn’t have much. He put it into a little sweet shop on our estate but, not long after, was diagnosed with cancer and passed away.’ She pauses to collect herself.
But these were her formative years, and she used the negativity that ‘surrounded her’ – a teacher even told her she’d never amount to anything – as the motivation to work as hard as possible to achieve something.
After doing several jobs to put herself through college and university, Fay’s first opportunity in events came as a graduate with Hilton International. At 23, she became the group’s youngest ever director of sales, but decided to ‘get out fast and go it alone’ when one of her peers implied that having kids could hamper her career.
‘Those remarks made me firmly aware of the glass ceiling, and I knew I’d have to do things differently to achieve my personal goal of becoming a millionaire by the age of 30. So I took a leap and went into business with two investors.’ That’s when she set up venue-finding service IBR, which was subsumed in 2005 into the Zibrant brand.
As well as hard work, Fay says the values she works and lives by – pride, passion, creativity, leadership and respect – have been integral to her success. Those same values are at the heart of the Fast Forward 15 (FF15) scheme she set up in 2015. Designed to give women a better chance to progress further up the event sector ladder, it brings some of the industry’s leading lights together with its newer female entrants. Over the course of a year, the former mentor the latter.
When she chooses her mentors, Fay looks for ‘people who have longevity in the business and have demonstrated an interest in helping others.’ Throughout the year, these industry pros are tasked with providing structured guidance for their mentee through a range of one-on-one meetings and events. Selecting the mentees, she’s always impressed by perseverance. ‘If somebody’s applied in the past and not been accepted, then they apply again, it’ll definitely catch my eye.’
Eighteen months on from its launch, the impact of the programme is noticeable, with past mentees showing signs of progress, and some going on to start their own businesses.
‘Part of the problem is that women haven’t always put themselves forward for things. They’re backwards about going forwards. It’s a mindset that stems from a lack of confidence, I think.’ And that’s what FF15 helps to undo, through one-to-one assistance, in line with a mentee’s career goals.
A handful of industry figures have described FF15’s focus on women as ‘unfair’, with one remarking that ‘if you’re good enough, then you’re the right gender.’ But Fay, as ever, is adamant: ‘The initiative is about equality and diversity at the top. Until there is a fairer balance of women to men in senior-level positions, there’ll be a need for this kind of thing. Women need to be encouraged to keep knocking at the door to ensure a more balanced boardroom is a thing of the future.’
I’ve spent just over an hour with Fay and only stopped to sip my coffee once. Her passion for her job is quite infectious, and I think our conversation’s reminded her how much she still has to do. One thing’s for sure – she’s got the energy for it.
WHAT THEY SAID...
+ Selina Donald is a former FF15 mentee and is now co-founder of event production agency The Bulb
‘Fay was an inspirational mentor and challenged me to set goals that I didn’t think were possible. She also provided me with the guidance to achieve them. I now run my own business which produces creative, but sustainable, events – something I’m extremely passionate about.’
+ Hannah Walley is sales director here at Squaremeal Venues + Events, and a mentor for 2017’s programme
‘I started my career as a placement student and I’ve been drawn to supporting others ever since. I was given a great start in my own career and, with this initiative, I hope to help someone else achieve their goals. It’s also a challenge for me, as it’ll force me to think differently.’
This article was first published in Squaremeal Venues + Events, Spring/Summer 2017