Home Content Articles Becoming a force for good: Zed’s story

Becoming a force for good: Zed’s story

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It’s safe to say that Zarir (Zed) Vakil has well and truly embraced the portfolio career lifestyle. As a Fractional and interim CEO and Commercial Director, business growth consultant, non-executive director (NED), mentor and peer-to-peer forum leader (amongst other things!) Zed’s passion is spurred on by a desire to inspire business leaders and investors as they navigate their entrepreneurial ventures.

But the golden thread that weaves through everything is his motivation to make a difference. Whether that be in his day-to-day career, via his pro-bono mentoring work or through the newly created Portfolio Peer Forums, Zed’s drive to help those around him and leave the world a better place shines through. 

We sat down with Zed to find out more about his journey and learn a thing or two about how he’s cultivated such a purposeful and impactful portfolio career.

As one of our Founding Members and someone who’s been engaged in The Portfolio Collective (TPC) since the very beginning, lots of people in our community already know you. But for those who don't, we’d love for you to tell us a bit about your career journey.

I’m Kenyan born and of Persian descent. I immigrated to the UK when I was 13 and have been in London ever since. At 18, I wanted to be a pilot. But there was a surplus at the time, so I went looking to the RAF. Unfortunately, I didn’t make officer selection. That left me feeling battered and bruised, but it also inspired me to go out and prove them, and everyone else, wrong. 

Luckily, I got tapped on the shoulder by the HR director of a jewellery company I worked at on weekends who learnt of my story and invited me to join their graduate training programme. I spent two years training as a general manager and then moved into a number of high growth subsidiaries of large multinationals where I specialised in commercial operations, retail, HR, leadership development, training and recruitment. I launched a new retail concept for BAT industries and designed their recruitment and training for accelerated expansion before working for a UK waste management and environmental services subsidiary as their first Head of Management Development. I went from selling jewellery to working in waste – and I loved every minute of it. 

After 10 years in corporate life, I joined a small investment management group with a few friends, which morphed into a venture capital business. I was a partner and investment portfolio director for 12 years, which was a great experience that allowed me to apply what I learned in corporate life to the challenges SMEs face every day. The business grew quickly and employed around 250 people. Our investment criteria attempted a degree of sector specialism in Finance, Property, I.T., and Leisure although I can remember some disputes about more oblique investments! 

My notable portfolio investment company role at the time was founding and operating New Horizons Computer Learning Centres in the UK and Ireland and overseeing the group’s IT investments.

Sadly, lots of technology companies crashed around the millennium and it proved to be too much for some of our shareholders. So we sold the IT division to another business. It was a big exit success but a bitter pill to swallow because it felt like I’d lost our baby. But, like all things in life, you learn from it and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right? 

Is that when you then started looking at a portfolio career as an option?

Not quite. After spending six months designing a shared services model for my group, I started my own company Worksource, which provided HR outsourcing services and consultancy. Because of my experience, I was able to commoditise and monetise what I knew people wanted to buy, which was a much needed solution for the red tape that was coming across from Europe on employment relations and law. It also quickly morphed into a business growth consultancy, which was partly enabled by the reputation I had built running and exiting companies. I started charging for that advice and, as a consequence, my business role changed. That led me to an interim board position, as CEO at an insurance claims outsourcing company, when one of  my corporate clients made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

That led me for about six years back to corporate roles. I was Group Commercial Director at the UK’s first private casualty and healthcare business and then the UK Commercial Director for the London office of a Dubai financial group private bank. That was the best job at the worst time, during the financial crash, and everything came to a juddering halt. So I took some time to reflect and figure out what came next. 

Afonso Pereira © The Portfolio Collective

I drifted into a portfolio career accidentally because people began asking me for my help. I worked as an interim director at any company that would have me, and it was all down to my network that I was able to get those roles. I was a gun for hire, a commercial director, a change and transformation project manager, a board advisor, NED and interim CEO. I even coached the Head of an East London Academy and experimented working as ex-Dragon’s Den James Caan’s right-hand-man. 

My final role before the pandemic was as an Interim CEO for a London-based wellness company called StepJockey. That position showed me how far I’d come in my career. It felt so natural and I was truly able to empower people to meet and grow company objectives without having to do it myself. 

Soon after, during the pandemic lockdown, I met Ben Legg. That’s why I pivoted my portfolio career back to working predominantly with SMEs. I blame Ben!

You’ve done so many different things across a diverse range of industries. How do you think those experiences have shaped where you’re at now in your career?

When I was at StepJockey, I had a eureka moment. I realised that I could draw on the experiences from my career and provide valuable advice for nearly any situation. I knew my team had things covered, and I was empowering them to get things done.

Trying so many different things has made me really comfortable with making mistakes. You won’t grow if you don’t make mistakes and learn from them, so being able to do that and feeling empowered to try so many different things has definitely got me to where I am today. 

We talk a lot about how important your ‘Why’ is. Could you tell us more about the Why behind your portfolio career?

When I came to England, I distinctly remember having this feeling of being othered. I had a desire to prove myself in order to assimilate. I knew I had to at least be as good as, if not better than, others in order to keep up. I’ve heard women talk a lot about this feeling too. I never felt like a victim, but I knew I needed to make a difference. And that idea of making a difference has stuck with me throughout my career. 

I want to be a force for good and I have this approach not just in my professional life, but in my personal life too. It’s in my nature to want to do things for others – whether that’s helping friends or supporting strangers. But I think all of that comes back to wanting to make a difference to other people’s lives, in whatever way I can. 

And part of the way you’ve been making a difference is through the Portfolio Peer Forums you launched with fellow TPC Founding Member Mike Richardson. How did that come about?

I’ve been toying with the idea of networking groups and communities for a while and stumbled across REF Peer to Peer Forums through Mike. It instantly spiked my interest and Mike persuaded me that it was the right time in my career. I trained with REF and became a Certified Forum Leader as part of their expansion into Europe. This sort of forum has been available to C-Suite executives and successful entrepreneurs for years, and often companies are paying for expensive membership fees for them to take part. 

So we thought, why shouldn’t portfolio professionals have the same access? The Portfolio Peer Forums are the result of that, and something Mike and I are passionate about as servant leaders. We have been working on this since the summer of 2023, and have now launched it with the support of The Portfolio Collective community.

We all know that portfolio careers can be lonely, and sometimes isolating, so having this structured environment people can come to for regular accountability, community and support is really great. The collective intelligence of a group, compared to when you’re working on your own, is so valuable. The trial (with TPC members) actually took my breath away – it was extraordinary to see how deep the connections got during the 12-week pilot forum. By the end, participants formed genuine friendships. I’m super passionate about it because I genuinely believe it will help so many people take their careers to the next level. 

Speaking of taking things to the next level, how do you think your portfolio career will evolve in the next few years?

I recently sat down and mapped this out. One theme that came up was this notion of annuity. How can the things I do now keep paying, so that in the future I can help others without having to charge them? I think that’s one of the reasons why I decided to pivot back to SMEs in the pandemic. I get a huge amount of satisfaction from helping others with their businesses and being able to see the tangible difference I’m making. 

In a more logistical sense, I want to focus on the Portfolio Peer Forums, my growth consultancy business and the NED and advisory positions I hold. I’d also love to get into lecturing at universities and business schools. I completed an education and training course last year and lecturing and teaching is a part of my career I’d love to take off. 

Finally, I’m also looking to digitise my knowledge so I can provide affordable resources and stop the reliance on selling my time instead of my knowledge.

And finally, what’s one piece of advice you wish you’d known when you started a portfolio career?

Know your worth because YOU are awesome. I see people undervaluing themselves time and time again. If you discount yourself too much, you’re signalling that you don’t value what you do, which is tough. So, set your price, stick to it and recognise that you’re worth every penny. Be clear on what you offer and the problems you solve.

Motivated by Zed’s journey? So are we! We love nothing more than getting to hear the stories of our wonderful community members and how they’ve crafted their portfolio careers. We hope this has reminded you to remember your worth and inspired you to make a difference in the lives of those around you. 

If you’d like to meet more professionals, then join our community and start engaging with our members. You never know what you might discover about yourself or your potential.

Think this sounds like the right path for you? Come along to our monthly Get started event for new members to find out what a portfolio career could look like and how The Portfolio Collective can help you take those first steps towards professional success – and don’t forget to connect with our community!

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