For more than 20 years, she was a close confidante and colleague of Richard Branson, under whom she helped found Virgin Money, the financial services company she steered through an acquisition of Northern Rock, a stock market listing and, earlier this year, an eventual sale to the Clydesdale and Yorkshire Banking Group.
But as of last month, she is more likely to be spotted with Marc Benioff, another moneyed philanthropist. Last month, Gadhia took over as the UK and Ireland chief executive of the San-Francisco-based Salesforce, the $140bn (£108bn) customer management software provider founded by Benioff two decades ago.
Demand for such services has increased dramatically as large corporations, such as Amazon, have expanded across different industries and geographies. That, in turn, has been reflected in Salesforce’s financial performance over the last decade and a half. For any investor who bought shares in the company at the time of its public listing in 2004, the value of their holding would today be worth almost 4,000% more.
“People have certainly joked that I have a way with bearded billionaires,” Gadhia laughs, speaking from her new office in Salesforce’s 46-storey UK headquarters in London, a stone’s throw from Liverpool Street station.
“But I think Branson and Benioff have a lot in common: neither take no for an answer, both are clear on their vision, and both are extremely passionate about creating business with purpose. That’s something that really resonates with me.”
Born in Stourbridge, near Birmingham, Gadhia attended a comprehensive school and was the first person in her family to attend university. She read history at Royal Holloway, then trained as an accountant at Ernst Young. Her husband, Ashok Gadhia, whom she met at university, became an accountant, too. But Gadhia says she “absolutely hated it”.
“I always thought I’d much rather run a business than criticise one,” she reflects. Fuelled by that ambition, she switched to work for one of her clients, Norwich Union – now Aviva – before she was introduced to Branson in October 1994. A few months later she became one of the founders of Virgin Direct, the precursor to Virgin Money.
Her first meeting with Branson was at his house in Holland Park, where she was invited to a meeting about a “special project”. Gadhia and a team of Branson’s close advisers were taken up to the attic of the Victorian mansion where, around a covered snooker table, they hatched a plan to expand into financial services.
Three years later, Gadhia launched the Virgin One account, a personal bank account that was bought by Royal Bank of Scotland in 2001. She stayed with the business and spent several years working for the now disgraced RBS boss Fred Goodwin. But in 2007 she returned to Virgin Money, where she remained as CEO until last year.
Diversity and inclusion have been non-negotiable pillars of her corporate strategy in every role she has had. At Virgin Money, she committed to achieving 50:50 gender balance throughout the business by the end of 2020. She helped cut the overall mean gender pay gap at the bank from 36% in 2016 to 29.7% last year, and while that is still a gaping chasm, it represents faster progress than at numerous rival institutions.
In November 2016, her campaigning efforts earned her the title of Women in Finance Champion from the UK government, and in July 2017 she became a founder member of its Business Diversity and Inclusion Group. She was made a dame in the 2019 new year honours list for her services to business and philanthropy.
Gadhia caught the attention of Benioff after being approached by a headhunter looking for candidates to work as an adviser to Salesforce as it planned to invest $2.5bn in the region over the coming five years.
Gadhia says she accepted the advisory role partly to learn more about the technology sector in light of the launch of her own startup, Snoop, an app that aims to take advantage of open banking regulation to help consumers generate savings. But after an informal meeting with Benioff, he offered her the top job for the UK and Ireland.
She also admits that her knowledge of the sector was limited. “My 17-year-old daughter would tell you that I can’t even sort out my social media accounts and here I am trying to run a tech company,” she laughs. “But Salesforce has amazing people,” she adds, saying it is therefore not important for her to understand every technical aspect of the service.
Taking on the role has meant some professional sacrifices. Gadhia had been lined up to join the Bank of England’s financial policy committee, the group that monitors macroeconomic and financial issues that might threaten the UK economy, from April 2020. But she withdrew when her move to Salesforce was made public, citing time constraints.
In 2016, the company became the first major public business to appoint a chief equality officer. It has launched initiatives across several regions to encourage and promote more women into senior leadership positions and it is also known for its “1-1-1” model under which it gives 1% of employee time as volunteer hours, and 1% of its profits and resources to charitable causes.
Salesforce’s average gender pay gap in the UK, at more than 33% last year, is still substantial, but Gadhia says that, walking around the office, diversity – in terms of both gender and ethnicity – is far more evident than in other places she has worked. “There’s still more work to be done, but we’re on the right path.”
One goal of Gadhia’s, as she assumes her demanding new role, is to heed her own advice and lead by example when it comes to mental health. In her autobiography, The Virgin Banker, published in 2017, she wrote frankly about her battle with postnatal depression. Today she admits that when she bowed out of Virgin Money last year, a company she had grown and fostered for so long, she suffered a real sense of bereavement.
“Leaving Virgin Money definitely had a negative impact on my mental health. It was a bereavement. I’d lost something,” she says. “I wasn’t firing on all cylinders so getting back into the workplace has been very helpful.”