Three women speak about their experiences as successful entrepreneurs

Tomorrow is the deadline for applications to Going for Growth,a peer support programme which helps women grow their business. Afric McGlinchey spoke to entrepreneurs, Oonagh O’Hagan, Siobhan Lawless and Marion Murphy Cooney, about what they learned on the programme

Three women speak about their experiences as successful entrepreneurs

WHEN we think of big businesses, we visualise men at the helm. “Men tend to be bigger risk-takers. They don’t see barriers; they just go for it,” says Siobhan Lawless, the founder of Foods of Athenry. “Women tend to take a more measured approach.”

Given that tomorrow is the deadline for applications for the Going for Growth programme, which educates women on how to run a business, we spoke to three entrepreneurs about how it helped them.

OONAGH O’HAGAN: Meagher’s Pharmacy Group

Oonagh O’Hagan studied pharmacy rather than medicine, because, she says, “I was petrified of needles.”

She interned with Pierce Meagher and loved the look of his shop.

“I really believed in the family values, the sense of caring. I loved the diversity of clientele, too: local residents and an office crew,” she says.

But Oonagh became more ambitious. She wanted to buy the shop.

“I tortured him, called in all the time. I said, ‘if you sell, will you let me know?’ When Pierce got an offer from a multinational, he said if I could match their price it was mine. So I went, without a penny, to the bank, and got the loan.”

Oonagh says she inherited her drive from her mother.

“I was always ambitious. I was the eldest and also the eldest grandchild. I was put on a pedestal and had to make sure I didn’t fall off. My role model is my mum. She ran a lingerie factory in Northern Ireland and was always winning awards. She taught me to strive for excellence,” says Oonagh.

“I was going in blind at the start,” she says. “But I knew the competition, what they were good at and what they weren’t good at. Also, I was buying a heritage. I have huge respect for Pierce and the family. I feel I’m the third generation, really. I asked him if I could use the name and he agreed.”

There are now six pharmacies in the Meagher Group and 60 employees.

But being the boss is isolating. “The reason I got involved with Going for Growth was because being an MD can be quite lonely. Everything stops with me. That’s a dangerous place to be. I can ask myself ‘was that the right decision’? But no-one else will tell you. You can feel guilty about decisions you’ve made,” she says.

“I wanted to meet like-minded women. Also, digital was new. I wanted to launch an online site but I wasn’t great at IT. One of the good things about Going for Growth is that you with mix people with different strengths. I would encourage anyone to do it.”

“Advice to my younger self? Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s the learning that’s important. Ask yourself, ‘what’s the worst that can happen and is that really so bad?”

Oonagh challenges herself regularly. “I’m always looking for new sites and existing pharmacies to buy. The biggest challenge is managing effective use of your time,” says the mother of two young children.

“My husband is a barrister. His work is very intense too and he has his own challenges. It’s crazy in our house. We’re like passing ships! But every day is different. That’s what I love.”

SIOBHAN LAWLESS: Foods of Athenry

Siobhan Lawless calls herself “an accidental entrepreneur”.

She started Foods of Athenry out of a converted bicycle shed. A former participant of Going for Growth, her venture into business “was a mixture of opportunity and necessity”.

Her husband’s dairy business in Co Galway was struggling “and then, someone asked me to start baking bread for their restaurant”. Within a few years, they had dropped the dairy.

“We rejigged the milk parlour to make a new bakery and went from there.”

Siobhan says every day is a an adventure.

“I remember, when we bought our first van, thinking, ‘I’ll never fill this’,” she says.

“Within three months, the space was too small.”

Initially focusing on breads and scones, she later broke into the gluten-free market.

“I wanted to expand but I didn’t realize how huge the ‘free-from’ industry would grow.”

With her eye on the international market, Siobhan had to rethink their branding.

“We made the logo less twee and designed new packaging.”

But there were setbacks.

“Our ‘journey’ included a fire. The place was burned to the ground: all our packaging burnt and the hard-drive in the server melted taking with it barcodes, recipes, customers, suppliers. We had to close for 10 months. We were like a chicken in the middle of the road. ‘Do we go back, or cross to the other side’?”

Again, the universe stepped in.

“{English singer} Ellie Goulding, a vegan, instagrammed a photo of herself eating one of our cookie shots and it went viral. She has four million followers.”

So Siobhan went for it.

“I’m unintimidatable now,” she says. “I came back from a fire.”

She approached Going for Growth.

“I was sceptical,” she said, “desperate for exposure, help, influence, on a mission, in a hurry, with no time to waste. I remember sitting at that first meeting, going ‘oh my god, what am I doing here’? But I discovered everyone has the same issues. It was humbling. I met some amazing women. You can be so immersed in your business, you forget there’s a whole other world going on out there.”

MARION MURPHY COONEY: Fashion design

Marion Murphy Cooney got her first sewing machine when she was 12 and has been designing clothing since.

“My first job was working for a drinks company, but, on the side, I made clothes for friends,” she says.

She worked at her kitchen table, but “word-of-mouth meant I could risk going part-time to focus on designing,” says Marion.

“Then I got the opportunity for a pop-up shop, through the local authority. That gave me the idea to go into retail. Going from pop-up to pop-up shop gave me fantastic exposure.”

Marion’s bespoke dresses are worn by celebrities Miriam O’Callaghan, Lorraine Keane, Maura Derrane, Karen Koster, Celia Holman-Lee and Lisa Fitzpatrick.

She is also setting her sights on the international market.

“I’m just back from Abu Dhabi, where I’ll be showcasing my collection at Formula 1 Fashion Fever,” says Tipperary-based Marion, who is also expanding into the United Arab Emirates.

Since joining Going for Growth, she has started a ready-made brand. From fellow entrepreneurs, she’s learned that preparation is key.

“Don’t jump in. Do your research. Learn from others. Be prepared to work hard.”

In 2014, 71% of the Going for Growth participants increased their turnover by an average of 15%, totaling €47m between 60 women.

Going for Growth is calling for applications for the its latest programme. Female entrepreneurs can register at www.goingforgrowth.com.

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