Anxiety about the public nature of enterprise, especially communicating and selling a business idea, is a fear shared by jewellery designer Sabine Lenz and addressed through women-only networking events.
SHE is one of the most highly regarded jewellery designers in Ireland and her reputation for creating exquisite pieces has even reached the White House, yet in her ideal world, Sabine Lenz would rather not talk about it.
It may be difficult to comprehend, but the West Cork designer behind the Enibas range of jewellery — of which pieces were gifted to the Obama girls on Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s 2013 visit to the White House — finds showcasing her work and speaking in public the most difficult things about running a business.
Originally from Germany, Ms Lenz started her business in the early 1990s, making jewellery in a caravan powered by a generator at her home in Schull.
Her pieces quickly became recognisable for their Irish inscriptions and she began to supply Kilkenny shops, before opening her first shop in Schull, where her collections are still made, and another in Kinsale.
Today Ms Lenz, along with her husband Len, employs seven people full-time and her jewellery is sold worldwide via the Enibas website.
Last year the online operation had sales of €150,000, with a target of €180,000 in 2017. They may be burgeoning, but online sales remain the smallest aspect of the business.
It is an astonishing success story, yet one Ms Lenz finds difficult to publicise.
Talking to the Irish Examiner in the wake of the positivity surrounding International Women’s Day, she says she wants aspiring women in business to know they are not alone in feeling anxious about the public nature of enterprise.
She empathises with women who feel they may have a good business idea but who lack the confidence to push it forward.
She says: “I remember being behind the counter in the shop at the beginning and I was so shy. I was in a little cocoon. I knew nothing about selling and communicating with people. I was just an artist.”
Learning to deal with the shyness came through experience, she said.
She’ll never liked public speaking, courting publicity, or commandeering meetings, but she has learned to harness her fears.
She wants women all over Ireland to feel empowered to do it too.
“You just learn it. It’s definitely just a case of doing it,” she says.
“I’m now so comfortable in the shop, I’m completely relaxed with my customers. I still haven’t put myself out there with the public speaking much. But it does get much easier. I have to do some staff training sessions now.
"You just have to do it simply because some things you just have to do to stay in business. I actually had to do a PowerPoint presentation and staff training in front of 30 staff last year for the Kilkenny stores that we supply.
"It actually was a good challenge. Once I was in there, you just do it. You obviously learn by going through it many times.”
Business adviser at the Local Enterprise Office North and West Cork, Christine Heffernan, says she has come across stories similar to that told by Ms Lenz countless times.
Most of the time, confidence is the key issue in getting a small business off the ground.
The local enterprise office is there to help, she says. “One of our key objectives is to run women-only business networking events.
“We are encouraged to run business programmes for women to encourage entrepreneurship.
“We ran one in Clonakilty and held an information morning.
“Within two minutes, it came up that they didn’t have enough confidence. They wanted to stand up and tell people what they did but they were very shy. It was similar in Kinsale,” says Ms Heffernan.
Boosting confidence has become an integral part of the business management programme.
The difference at the end of the course was like night and day, she says. “Those who were shaking with nerves at the start were standing up on the last day doing their pitch, outlining their key objectives. They just needed that support. Solicitors, flower-growers, cafe-owners — confidence was the issue.”
With confidence gained from networking with like-minded women, small business owners are going to banks with business plans, applying for LEO funding, and making their business dreams a reality.
Ms Heffernan adds: “A lot of women I come across have great strength in them. The core is strength and the power is hidden an awful lot of the time. Women have high expectations and we do put ourselves under pressure to deliver.
“Deep down, that strength just needs to be nurtured.
“Meet like-minded people. Network once a week at the very least. Ask advice. Get friendly with would-be mentors. Gain that confidence,” she advises.
The ability is there, it just needs coaxing.
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