The challenges of changing and adapting to life on three continents during her formative years, and her father’s encouragement and example, instilled a deep sense of hope and optimism in Gina Pacumbaba-Watson. These qualities served her well when she decided to enter the engineering field and launch her own award-winning business, GPW & Associates, in 1997.
Born in the Philippines, she moved to Manhattan at age 2 where her father, a Rockefeller scholar, completed his doctorate in plant pathology at Kansas State University. Pacumbaba-Watson and her two siblings faced some challenges during grade and middle school.
“Other kids bullied and taunted us. They called us ‘foreigners’ because we looked different to them and spoke a second language,” she says.
“My father advised me not to let anyone make me feel less than who I was. He told me to be proud of my roots because they define who I am.”
Early high school years (1976-79) were spent in Kinshasa, Zaire, where her father was part of a task force of scientists who discovered 200 resistant varieties of Cassava now thriving throughout Africa. Although the initial culture shock was immense, Pacumbaba-Watson adapted well and enjoyed her time there.
Her family returned to Manhattan for her final year of high school. She became a U.S. citizen and enrolled at K-State’s College of Engineering. Despite not knowing any minority women in architectural engineering back then, she remained undaunted.
“I loved drawing and design, had an aptitude for math and wanted a profession where I could support myself and a family,” she says.
Pacumba-Watson supported herself financially by working as a drafter and graduated with a B.S. in architectural engineering in 1988. She secured work at Albert Kahn Associates in Detroit. She married Karl Watson in 1989, moved to Lawrence and worked for several engineering companies in Kansas City before working in lighting design at Hallmark.
Two children later, life got tough.
“I commuted to Kansas City and Karl to Topeka, so our daughters (2 and 3) were spending nearly 10 hours daily in daycare,” she says. “I re-prioritized. Family needed to come first.”
She left Hallmark in 1997 and set up a lighting design company in her basement.
“The flexibility was great. The children spent limited time in daycare while I went out looking for clients,” she says.
Finding steady work was initially challenging. She kept knocking on doors, built good relationships, gained national certification as a Woman Business Enterprise (WBE), a Minority Business Enterprise (MBE), and completed an executive business program at TUC University, Dartmouth. She eventually expanded her company into an engineering consulting company specializing in lighting, electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems design.
Her company, now situated at 1001 N.H., has 20 employees and numbers Bank of America, Walmart and AT&T among its clients. Despite the increased business, she prioritizes and treasures family time. She’s heavily involved in her son’s grade school and her daughters’ extracurricular activities.
“It’s vital for me to balance business and family life,” she says.
“It’s also important to continue growing the business to support our employee’s families.”