‘So many doors were closed to us’: Britain’s top black entrepreneurs share their start-up secrets

Jamal Tahlil (left) and Edgar Chibaka launched First Response Group from scratch after coming to the UK in 2007

Credit: Charlotte Graham

They say sharing is caring, but when Edgar Chibaka and Jamal Tahlil co-founded First Response Group in 2007, sharing was their only option. 

Running their security firm out of a “cold, run-down office” above an internet cafe in Leeds, the immigrant entrepreneurs had just one laptop to their name, which meant implementing a rota for researching contacts and sending emails.

Fast forward 15 years and the duo not only boast 80 computers and laptops, but also a top corporate gong, having been crowned businesspeople of the year at the Black British Business Awards in October. 

The annual event, for which The Telegraph is a media partner, celebrates the achievements of some of the UK’s leading bosses and business owners.

The pair could not be happier to receive the award. “We’re humbled and feel empowered by the whole process,” says Chibaka, who dedicates the win to his “colleagues in the BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) community”. 

He hopes that winning will inspire the next generation: “It shows that if you’re determined and put in the hard work, the time will come for you to be recognised.”

Chibaka and Tahlil first met while working as security guards for separate firms. They would often swap stories when their paths crossed on a job. Through their regular catch-ups, the co-founders discovered their respective employers suffered from the same problem: a lack of hands-on, compassionate management. “There wasn’t much care about what we were doing and who we are as people,” recalls Chibaka. “It was very much: get on with it.” 

Thinking they could be better managers, the pair looked into climbing the corporate ladder at their companies, but the opportunities and encouragement were not there.

“I said to Jamal: ‘we can do a better job if we do this on our own’ – so we took that gamble,” explains Chibaka.

The entrepreneurs have not had an easy ride turning the venture into an operation with sales of £25m and more than 500 staff. 

The company offers a range of services, from security guards and keyholding to CCTV and fire alarm installation, to high-profile clients such as Axa Insurance and HS2 infrastructure developers. But in the beginning, the founders’ list of contacts and customers was non-existent.

“We were new to the country, and had no friends or family in the business world – you need those contacts to help you get started,” says Tahlil, who was first to quit his job to launch the business. “That was really nerve wracking, especially as I had a very young family at the time.”

The key, they say, is persistence. “We had so many doors closed to us because we didn’t have the client references back then,” says Chibaka. “But you keep going. Just because one door is closed, doesn’t mean they all are.”

And when a client does take a chance? Throw “everything” at them to deliver the best product or service you can, he says.

‘Being an entrepreneur is demanding. It’s really hard – it’s stressful,’ says Edgar Chibaka

Credit: Charlotte Graham

The duo believe they’re well on their way to achieving what they set out to do when they launched First Response Group: build a business where people are rewarded and applauded. 

“We support and empower our staff,” explains Chibaka. “We’re a business that thrives on growing leaders from the inside. People join and we look for potential: what might that person have that nobody else knows? We spend time with our workers getting to know them, so we can get the best out of them.”

That includes having an open plan office, adds Tahlil: “We’re accessible. We’re not locked in the corner. People can speak freely, and we always respect and accommodate different views.”

In terms of what’s next for the business, the pair say they are looking at “possible acquisitions in the short and long term”.

“We’re up for growth,” says Chibaka. “We’re looking at penetrating sectors where we’re underrepresented.

“We’ve pretty much moved away from being a start-up; we’re now a fully fledged business employing lots of people.”

The co-founders offer some advice for any aspiring entrepreneurs hoping to follow in their footsteps: go in with your eyes wide open. 

“Being an entrepreneur is demanding. It’s really hard – it’s stressful,” says Chibaka. “Add to that all the nos and knockbacks and it’s easy to get stressed and depressed, so have some self-care and protect your mental health.”

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