Virginia Gibbs has always loved solving puzzles, “figuring things out,” and making connections between people, resources, and ideas. While locals know her best as the former Chamber President, Virginia’s career has ranged from engineering to entrepreneurship to community leadership, a progression that seems unusual to many. To her, though, it’s always made perfect sense. After all, every position she’s held has boiled down to the same basic task: bringing people together to accomplish great things.
Virginia grew up in Winter Park, Fla. and decided to become a scientist in second grade. After high school, she entered Duke as a physics major but, over the course of several internships, she discovered a passion and aptitude for engineering. She made the switch, graduating with a BSE in mechanical engineering and materials science in 1982.
“Virginia did a bit of everything growing up,” says Barbara Coats, who’s been one of Virginia’s closest friends since childhood. “She’s known for her academic and business achievements, but she also played championship volleyball and edited the school newspaper. She really is the epitome of ‘well-rounded.’”
Shortly before graduation, Virginia began her job search. She knew she wanted to work in materials manufacturing, but the economic downturn of the early 80s was in full swing, so it took a few months to find the right fit, which came in the form of a position as an applications engineer for Borg Warner Plastics in Parkersburg, W. Va.
“That job was an incredible chance to experience the world – and business – in a whole different way,” she says. “In plastics, you get to learn about all parts of the economy and work with a huge range of industries. Plastics are an integral part of everything from computer technology to medical goods to consumer products. It really was a fascinating look at how everything works together.”
During the early years, most of Virginia’s work took place in the lab, evaluating the way that various companies were using her company’s materials and making recommendations for improvements. She was part of the team that reviewed the Apple 2c and tested the first plastic bumper on the Ford Taurus.
“Evaluation of materials comes early in any manufacturing process, so I had a chance to see some really innovative new products 12 to 18 months before they went to market,” she says. “I also saw a lot of interesting ideas that never quite made it to the public!”
In addition to working with exciting projects, Virginia’s first job helped her develop two other important skills: public speaking and networking. Part of her duties included speaking to the engineering departments of her company’s major clients, which included IBM, Apple, and other tech giants.
“There I was at 21 and 22, speaking to engineers and executives of these amazing, cutting-edge companies,” she says. “Who gets to do that? It was such an incredible opportunity.”
Virginia earned her MBA while working and soon proved herself to be something fairly rare: an engineer with a solid understanding of business and great communications skills. This unique combination of abilities opened up an opportunity on the business development side of the company. After a few years, she was transferred to California and later switched to a company where she worked largely with tech innovator Hewlett Packard.
“My job at that time was to visit clients and try to get them to spec our materials in their high tech products,” she says. “To me, it was really fun because I’ve always loved figuring out solutions and helping people. In that job, I got to do both. Every day was about connecting my knowledge of the products and the process with the client’s needs. Every day, with every client, I asked myself, ‘How can I help these engineers make a better product?’”
While she loved the work, something was missing. One day, while she was sitting on a plane, Virginia, then in her late 20s, decided to make a list of the 10 things she most wanted to accomplish in life. To her surprise, she found that she wasn’t on track to reach most of her goals, mostly because her travel schedule was so demanding. So she did something no one expected: she walked away from her corporate job.
“People were really blown away by that decision,” she says, “I was doing very well and I was on the fast track to the kind of career my peers all wanted. Career was important to me, too, but I also had other priorities. I wanted a family and I wanted to be a part of a community. Those things would have been almost impossible to accomplish alongside the kind of work I was doing at the time and I didn’t want to wake up 15 years later and realize I’d missed out on half of the things I wanted in life.”
Virginia’s family was still in Florida, so she decided to return home and take a few months off. Within a few weeks of the move, however, she ran into a colleague who had started his own manufacturer’s representative firm. He encouraged her to do the same. Just three months after she left the corporate world, Integrated Plastic Services was born.
“Owning a company was a completely new experience, and it gave me a different perspective,” she explains. “Even though I was still working in the same industry, being the president of a company you own is completely different than working for someone else. But again, I found that I was doing the two things I love most: helping people and presenting very complex concepts in a simple way that everyone can understand.”
A few months into her new venture, she received an invitation to the Super Bowl in New Orleans. A huge football fan, she accepted with alacrity. What she didn’t know at the time – and for quite a while afterward – was that the invitation was part setup. One of the families who’d issued the invitation had also invited their son, Dan, who they believed would be a great match for Virginia. The strategy worked like a charm. After a few days of conversation and fun, Dan and Virginia pledged to keep in touch. Virginia had her doubts – after all, Dan was part of a thriving law practice in Cheyenne, Wyo. – but when she got home, she found a dozen red roses awaiting her. The couple began a long-distance relationship, getting to know each other through letters, expensive long distance calls, the occasional visit, and one other unique technique.
“We were both travelling a lot during that period,” Virginia says, “so we each bought a mini-cassette recorder and we’d record messages as we drove about what we were thinking and doing. Then we’d mail the tapes to one another.”
When the couple decided to marry, they began thinking about where they would live. They joked that Atlanta, where Virginia’s mom had grown up, would be halfway between Wyoming and Florida, then discovered Peachtree City while visiting Virginia’s friend, Barbara, who lives in Decatur. After their 1991 wedding, Virginia and Dan bought a house in Peachtree City and relocated. Their two children were born in 1996 and 1997, not quite two years apart. Then, in early 1999, Virginia realized that, much as she’d enjoyed being an entrepreneur, she missed being part of a larger organization. That summer she closed her company and accepted a position as VP of Sales and Engineering at the locally-based Wilden Plastics. For the better part of five years, she worked for other companies, leading their sales forces and helping them succeed. Then she had another epiphany.
“Oddly enough, I was on a trip again,” she says. “But I had a similar realization. My children were just starting school and I wanted to be more a part of our community. So, I decided to take another break and reset.”
Once again, the break lasted only a few short months. Jim Pace, who was then the outgoing board chair of the Fayette Chamber, cornered Virginia at church.
“Jim approached me one day and said ‘now just hear me out,’” Virginia laughs. “Actually, I loved the idea almost immediately. To me, working for the Chamber seemed like a new way to do what I loved doing: connecting people with resources and helping them grow.”
Virginia became president of the Chamber in 2004, a position she held until the end of 2014. Her key focuses were on developing the organization and its team, figuring out how to best serve local small businesses in a changing marketplace, and developing and implementing a plan to weather a major economic downturn. Virginia also worked to bring various community organization, sectors, and leaders together to think about Fayette’s future. The Fayette Visioning Initiative, with which Virginia volunteered even after leaving the Chamber, evolved largely from those partnerships and meetings.
“As her husband, I so appreciate the amazing example Virginia sets for our kids every single day,” says Dan, “but she’s also just an amazing leader. She leads from the background, though, and that’s unusual. She’s really focused on helping other people shine. Her ethical sense is always very clear and she can show people how to get where they want to go by doing the right thing. I really admire those things about her.”
“Virginia is the embodiment of servant leadership,” adds Dawn Oparah, co-founder of local non-profit AVPRIDE. “She is completely focused on how she can bring people together, bring out their gifts, and make our community better for everyone.”
Virginia, herself, cites developing the team as one of her proudest achievements.
“I believe so much that everyone has a God-given gift,” she says. “My job is to recognize those gifts and help people develop them. When you look for giftedness, you find good – and I love to see the good in people.”
Her friends absolutely agree.
“Virginia is a vastly experienced, super intelligent professional all wrapped up in an unpretentious package,” says friend and colleague Deborah Britt. “But underneath this cool veneer is a wickedly fun woman who wouldn’t think twice to set you up for a prank or dance the night away at the drop of a hat. I admire Virginia for these reasons and for so many others, but none more than her devotion to her family and our community.”
As the 11-year mark in her Chamber career approached, Virginia began feeling the familiar urge to move on. Once again, people were surprised, but the change made perfect sense to Virginia.
“People kept asking why I was leaving just when ‘things were getting interesting,’” she says. “For me, things had been interesting all along and I felt I’d done what I came to do, built what I came to build. I think it’s so important for leaders to do what they can, then be willing to step aside and let others bring their talents to an organization, help it grow to the next level. And, as people and professionals, we should never be afraid to ask what’s next.”
Virginia took six months to think through her next move. She spent lots of time with family and friends and caught up on her reading. She’d been interested in working in education in some capacity and, in 2015, the perfect position opened up with the Fayette County Board of Education. Today, she serves as Coordinator of Innovative Partnership Development, Work-Based Learning and Youth Apprenticeships for Fayette’s public schools, a job in which she forges connections between student interests, education, and internship opportunities with local businesses. As always, she says she is doing what she loves best, just in a new environment.
“When I was with the Chamber,” she says, “one of the cool things our team did was to come up with individual ‘titles.’ Mine was ‘Catalyst’ and I’ve come to realize that’s what I’ve always been. People say I make things happen, but that’s not quite true. I really just make the connections so that other people can make things happen. I love being the person who sees everyone else’s talents and interests and then brings them together. I can’t imagine doing anything else.