Lady Gaga’s hat designer among the back-to-work scheme winners

Lady Gaga’s hat designer among the back-to-work scheme winners
Lady Gaga, with a hat designed by Margaret O'Connor Millinery and Design in Co Clare

A hat designer favoured by Lady Gaga, a financial brokerage with 300 clients and a thriving new cleaning and maintenance service, are just three of the 18 finalists through to the Irish Local Development Network CLG (ILDN) National Enterprise Awards on May 16.

The winning businesses were nominated to ILDN by their Local Development Companies (LDCs).

The 49 LDCs nationally have been supported by the Department of Employment Affairs & Social Protection supports under the Back to Work Enterprise Allowance (BTWEA)as well as by the Social Inclusion Community Activation Programme (SICAP).

Clare LDC nominated Margaret O’Connor Millinery and Design from the Burren.

Having trained with Philip Tracey, Margaret is a very talented milliner and now a successful entrepreneur. Having Lady Gaga order a hat was quite a coup.

“The hat worn by Lady Gaga wore was a very detailed piece. It was a high end, avant garde fashion piece,” says Margaret O’Connor, who has also been shortlisted for global awards in Jakarta and China.

I don’t think I would have achieved any of this without Clare LDC’s help. I certainly wouldn’t have managed to open my shop in Ennis without them.

“It’s one thing being a creative person, but now I really am a business woman, I balance the books and I do PR. I used to just wear a creative hat, now I wear lots of different hats,” she joked.

Others who have accessed schemes like BTWEA and SICAP will know what a great benefit it is to effectively have some level of finance to help kickstart a new business.

All of the ILDN finalists will have enjoyed varying degrees of business success, but they’ve also started out from a position of being unemployed.

KM Financial has been nominated for the ILDN awards by Ballyhoura Development in North Cork.

Michael Knightson and David Mulvihill launched KM Financial having having taken a redundant package from FBD Financial Solutions in 2017.

They have grown KM Financial to over 300 clients.

Michael runs an office in Charleville, with David running the Dungarvan office.

“We were both given a short-term employment allowance,” recalls Michael Knightson.

“That gave us the freedom to think in the medium- to long-term without having to worry about the immediate lack of cash. There is always a lag in terms of being paid by clients in the first six months.

“We knew that we could use our allowances to set up the business properly. We were both experienced life and pensions brokers, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be good at running a business.

"Ballyhoura and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection have been fantastic.

“They went through our business plan with a very critical eye, with a level of thorough analysis that really made us think about what we were doing.

"My job was always about advising people, but now I’ve grown into being a business person. We worked hard to build up our client base in Charleville and Dungarvan.

ILDN MidWest Regional Awards presentation: Jim Lynch, DEASP; Mike Knightson, founder, KM Financial; Margaret O'Connor, milliner; Karen Cunneen Bilbow of Fabricate; with Jim Finn, ILDN regional chair.
ILDN MidWest Regional Awards presentation: Jim Lynch, DEASP; Mike Knightson, founder, KM Financial; Margaret O'Connor, milliner; Karen Cunneen Bilbow of Fabricate; with Jim Finn, ILDN regional chair.

“We attended a lot of Chamber events, did networking on LinkedIn, and did some work on our media profile.

"We’ve been lucky enough to land one very large pension scheme. We really owe our great start to the advice we’ve been given.”

In due course, the likelihood is that KM Financial will increase its staff numbers from its current level of two full-time and two part-time roles.

It is just one of the many success stories of the local development model.

ILDN is the representative body for the country’s 49 LDCs, not-for-profit, multi-sectoral partnerships that deliver community and rural development, labour market activation, social inclusion and social enterprise services across the country.

LDC boards comprise of local, voluntary directors alongside public-sector personnel and in many cases employers, unions and elected representatives.

They link to Local Economic and Community Plans and Local Community Development Committees, ensuring wide-ranging oversight and democratic accountability. To date, the LDCs have helped 5,712 people develop businesses.

What’s perhaps surprising is that 3,116 of those are rural businesses.

Joe Saunders, ILDN manager, said: “There are very few schemes that can claim to have a better than 50:50 ratio between urban and rural. All of the people at the ILDN awards are people who were on the unemployed register before they created a business.

“For people in rural areas, the choice is very often to either migrate for work or create your own business. That is why these awards really are celebrating people who deserve to be applauded for the journey they’ve made.

“They’re often people returning to the workforce after a long time away. In some cases you’re talking about people who have had difficult medical histories, and certainly people who are often involved in working from home before creating a bigger, more ambitious business.”

Last year, LDCs supported more than 15,000 communities and community groups and 173,000 individuals by delivering approximately €330 million worth of programmes on behalf of Government Departments and state agencies.

Examples include the Social Inclusion Community Activation Programme (known as SICAP), LEADER, education, childcare, public health and social enterprise programmes and employment supports.

The finalists from the Mid-West region are a great model for others to follow, and notably those based in rural locations. Fabricate (Limerick) was also nominated for the Mid-West, along with KM Financial (North & East Cork) and Margaret O’Connor Millinery & Design (Clare).

Karen Cunneen Bilbow, is the founder of Fabricate. Karen designs and manufactures bespoke quality Lampshades, Textile products and delivers craft training and workshops.

Karen operates from her studio at Burlington Business Park Corbally, Limerick. Karen’s business began in February 2018.

Eamonn O’ Reilly, vice-chairperson of ILDN, said: “All the companies and entrepreneurs at the ILDN Mid-West Regional Finals are winners in reality.

"They have created viable startups to viable, profitable businesses.

"They have all shown real determination, business acumen and market knowledge, and have benefitted from on the ground support of Local Development Companies and the Department of Employment Affairs & Social Protection.

"Congratulations to Fabricate as the winner, and KM Financial and Margaret O’Connor Millinery & Design as runners up.

"We wish them every success at the ILDN National Enterprise Awards next month.”

www.ildn.ie

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