Women’s Enterprise Day: Go forth and be successful

Four female entrepreneurs share the secret of their success to mark National Women’s Enterprise Day, which aims to help women in business to take their ideas global, writes  Helen O’Callaghan

National Women’s Enterprise Day 2018 takes place today — just one day, but with 16 major female entrepreneurial events planned. This programme of events — themed ‘from local to global’ — has been organised by Local Enterprise Offices (LEO). The aim: to inspire and educate the next generation of female business leaders to take their local ideas and make them a global success. It’s expected over 1,000 female entrepreneurs and women in business will attend countrywide. (See www.localenterprise.ie).

To mark the day, we talk to four successful women entrepreneurs:

Joan Walsh Partnership International

Joan Walsh

On a year-long Erasmus programme in France in 2002, Cork woman Joan Walsh met husband Paul Crean and got the idea for award-winning business Partnership International.

An international business degree student at the time, Joan grappled firsthand with the challenges of living abroad: finding accommodation, negotiating a lease with a landlord, finding part-time work, learning the language and having a social life.

She’d always learned from an “action-oriented” mother to “crack on”, be a solution-finder.

Four months in, I’d sorted myself out and was helping others negotiate similar challenges.

She graduated, worked some years in language schools and then struck out on her own. “I took Ryanair flights all over Europe. I stayed in hostels. I visited schools with Erasmus programmes. Would they like to send their students to Ireland? I could take care of them.” Joan was selling a company that didn’t yet fully exist but she knew the needs. “One Irish teacher in an Italian university gave me 15 students to take care of while doing their programme in Cork — that was the beginning of Partnership International.”

Today, the company’s a one-stop shop for groups/individuals (mostly 18 to 24-year-olds) moving to a new country for work, study or travel. “We look after them from arrival to departure. They could be here anything from four weeks to three months. We book their accommodation and language course. We work with host companies where they do traineeships. We assist them with tours, social activities and welfare. We offer 24-hour support. There’s always the student who loses their passport or needs a doctor. We do full orientation programmes pre-arrival — language kits, guidelines for safety in a new city, budget management, how to live with other international students, what’s expected of them.”

Partnership International started in Cork in 2009 and now operates in Kerry, Dublin and London. An office in Spain opened this year. “We deal with 3,000 students minimum a year across the locations. I love the helping-people element. Meeting different nationalities of young people, all starting out in their career, living in a new country, encountering new challenges — it’s exciting to see.”

Sharon McDermott, Ky Ky Kids

Sharon McDermott

It started by accident. A single mum living in Turkey eight years ago, Sharon couldn’t find cotton sheets for newborn son Kaya’s cot. “I sourced material and had sheets tailor-made. I started making duvets just for Kaya’s cot. Friends liked them so I started making them as gifts.”

With a career background in travel, Sharon returned to Ireland four years ago, knowing she needed to work. “I’d found 100% cotton bedding for cots in Turkey. I started manufacturing cotton sheets there, with a plan to import to Ireland.”

A visit to LEO in Mallow led her to a 12-week Woman in Business course. “By now, I was selling at markets and Christmas fairs, doing pop-up shops wherever possible. That was my market research. Customers started asking for cotton baby gifts — the business took a road of its own, from bedding to baby gifts to realising mums wanted something different in a pretty dress for their daughters.

There was a gap for reasonably-priced occasion wear. They wanted something unique, very pretty and of good quality material.

Ky Ky Kids’ collection of smart casual and occasion wear mainly for girls, aged six months to six years, is manufactured in Turkey and

imported to Ireland. “Social media has made the world very visual. Mums dress up a lot and they want their little girls dressed too. It could be for Granddad’s birthday, Sunday lunch — all the way up to a wedding.”

Sharon’s biggest challenge has been cash-flow as clothing collections are seasonal. “I have waves in the year when it’s very busy and I have plenty of cash coming in. Then there are quiet times: in summer when mums have gone on holidays, Holy Communion is over and I’m waiting for the new collection to come in. There’s a lot of expense preparing for the autumn/winter season.”

Her biggest achievement was starting the business. “Getting it off the ground was a huge challenge but the best thing I ever did.” She urges women starting/growing a business to believe in it. “You have to feel it at a gut level, to love it. More practically, you must get the foundations right — the figures must add up. Then face your fear and do it.”

Michelle Keane, Mibeau Interiors

As an independent 16-year-old with a relentless passion for design, Michelle got the opportunity to design a family friend’s kitchen. The modest commission kick-started a journey that culminated in setting up Mibeau Interiors. The Kerry-based company provides consultancy services for clients for both the domestic and contract market. It designs, sources and fits out “anything from tired old sitting rooms to complete hotel refurbishment”.

Between that teenage commission and setting up her own business in 2000 — when “the Celtic tiger was just beginning to roar and I was ready to go” — mother-of-two Michelle was awarded a post-graduate scholarship from Scottish College of Textiles, Galashields. She was a finalist in the Smirnoff Young Designer of the year Award 1994.

In December 2016, she received a €5,000 Trading Online Voucher from her local LEO office, allowing her set up her online presence at www.mibeauinteriors.com. “Four months later, I signed a licence agreement for Ralph Lauren Home as their only online presence in Ireland.”

In September 2017, Enterprise Ireland awarded her the New Frontier Scholarship Programme. “The really valuable thing about this is the mentoring support from Enterprise Ireland. From a list of 10 highly successful mentors, you choose one and get five mentoring sessions.”

A big challenge has been working in what’s often a male-dominated arena. “Working on commercial projects, I’m dealing with architects, builders, project owners. It’s a particularly male-dominated industry. You have to be strong, stick to your guns and at meetings, reinforce your ideas a few times to get them over the line.”

She advises would-be entrepreneurs to know the target market, perfect the business model, seek help from LEO and Enterprise Ireland — and to listen, digest and communicate with mentors/salespeople/suppliers. She admits to working crazy hours. Her day begins at 5am in her back-of-home studio. “At 7.30am, I help get the kids up for school. I’m married to a fantastic rock of support, Keith Darcy — I couldn’t do it without him.”

Eleanor McEvoy, Budget Energy

Eleanor McEvoy

Dragons’ Den star and serial entrepreneur Eleanor McEvoy has successfully set up three businesses – most recently, Budget Energy. No light-bulb moment sparked any of the businesses, she says. “They were all based on the same principle: this is something I think has legs, that I think can develop and grow.

“The thing about a business is you start off implementing the plan and — like life — circumstances change and how you thought you were going to implement things changes too. If you’re a rigid thinker, business will be difficult.

If I’m looking for creative people who can adjust to new situations — I’m not talking about lawyers or accountants who have to be methodical — but creative people, I ask ‘do you like shopping in TK Maxx?’ If someone answers: ‘I can’t bear the mess’, they may not be very good at the chaos of change.

“Whereas I like if they say: ‘Oh, I love going in for an hour and a half and rooting around and finding a bargain’.

“It’s important to remember no individual ever successfully built a medium-to-large business on their own — the people around you matter. Recruit slowly. If you have the wrong people, change them quickly. If you have the right people, give them the respect and responsibility to deliver. I’ve had situations where I’ve put the right person in the wrong role — put them in a different role and they flourish.

“I think we’re finally embracing emotional intelligence as a skill — the ability to relate and get on with others, the likeability factor. These skills you need when relating to customers or to your own team, when you’re selling them the dream of what you’re trying to achieve.

“To be credible [as a business owner/manager], the responsibility is always yours — you have to wear that. When things go right in your organisation, you praise the others; when things go wrong, you step up to the plate. It’s the only way to be credible.”

Eleanor’s delighted to be involved in National Women’s Enterprise Day. “I love addressing women. I succeed if people in the room take away something.”

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