An increasing number of start-up businesses are female-led. Ailin Quinlan gets behind the statistics and meets five of our female entrepreneurs.
Sisters are doin’ it for themselves – the old Eurythmics song must hold particular resonance, these days, for Jean O’Sullivan.
Back in 2012, O’Sullivan was a member of an Enterprise Ireland team running a support fund for promising fledgling businesses.
Although the fund was successful, Enterprise Ireland was noticing a disturbing trend – only seven per cent of the business start-ups in which it was investing were female-led.
“In 2011, 93% of the business proposals we supported were coming from men,” recalls O’ Sullivan.
Why were so few women seeking Enterprise Ireland’s support to build businesses of scale? O’Sullivan was asked to investigate and develop a strategy to encourage more women to get involved.
“We wanted to encourage them to think bigger and we wanted to know why it was that men were doing this and women weren’t.”
Research showed the problem was linked to women’s perception that there was less access to finance for them. Women also tended to be more risk-averse, and lacked self-confidence, technical expertise, role models and appropriate networking opportunities.
In response, O’Sullivan and her team came up with a focused Female Entrepreneurship Strategy.
They set up a special female-only Competitive Start Fund, offering investment of up to €50,000 to women interested in applying for early-stage equity funding for their business.
The results were astounding. Enterprise Ireland’s Competitive Start Fund (CSF), which is open to both male and female applicants normally attracts about 160 applications, of which only between 15 and 30 are from women.
More than 100 women applied to the female-only CSF.
Their next strategy, says O’Sullivan, now Manager of Female Entrepreneurship at Enterprise Ireland, was to tackle the issues around skills, self-confidence and expertise with specific female entrepreneur development courses.
EI decided to support four female-specific entrepreneur incubation programmes.
However, Cork Institute of Technology was already ahead of the game.
In 2011, concerned by the miniscule numbers of female participants on its New Frontiers (formerly Genesis) incubation programme, CIT had established a special female entrepreneur incubation programme called PINC.
Explains Dr Breda Kenny, Head of the CIT Hincks Centre for Entrepreneurship Excellence:
“It was part-time, female-only and ran a few mornings a week.”
Confidence is a big stumbling block for women, believes Niamh Collins, Chief Operations Officer at DCU Ryan Academy for Entrepreneurs.
When the Academy set up its entrepreneur Acceleration programme Propeller in 2011, the application from females was between five and eight per cent.
Three years later, however, when it established the women-only Female High Fliers Programme the response was off the scale.
“We had 10 places. We got 135 applications and eventually increased the places to 12,” she says.
“We believe it’s a confidence thing. Women don’t see themselves competing against male entrepreneurs.
One of the best ways to address the lack of female role models, O’Sullivan believes is to promote and publicise awards and conferences such as ImageWomen of the Year Awards, the Tatler Women of the Year Awards and the Network Ireland Awards and Conference.
The team tackled the issue of networking by establishing a special Enterprise Ireland online networking platform and a policy which constantly alerts female entrepreneurs to networking opportunities in the wider corporate community.
Within just three short years O’Sullivan has seen a sea-change.
From a low of just seven per cent, female-led businesses now account for 23% of all overall business investments by EI, and that figure is steadily rising.
“There’s been a turnaround in women’s confidence.
“In the past three years I’ve experienced a very different level of confidence in the women coming forward in terms of their desire and ability to build and sustain businesses of scale.”
Out in the rough and tumble business world, says Kenny, men traditionally tended to be better at pulling in resources.
However, she’s found, that once it’s made clear to women that such supports really are available to them, they’re much more willing to apply.
Here, we meet five young female entrepreneurs, to see what inspired them.
Yvonne Brady, EVB Sports Shorts
After working as an engineer for 15 years Yvonne Brady’s life took a different path. She and her husband have their own company.
Then she started to make shorts.
In 2010 a few months after the birth of her third child, Yvonne ran the Dublin City marathon. During the training and in the latter part of the race, she suffered some light bladder leakage.
She completed the marathon, but realised that she had stumbled on a problem affecting thousands of women. Research showed a very high level of pelvic dysfunction in one in three women, including women who had given birth to women who had had surgery in the pelvic area or who were athletes competing in-high impact sports.
In 2011 she put her engineering expertise to work designing a garment for sporting young mothers which eliminate the impact on deep core muscles while allowing the women to exercise safely and in comfort.
Her EVB Sports Shorts, which are made of anti- bacterial, moisture-wicking, anti-chafing material are comfy, shape-fitting and provide uplift, mimicking the pelvic floor muscles, she says.
A place on the New Frontiers Programme in Dundalk Institute of Technology in 2012, helped with the business plan, further research and the perfection of the design. Brady sourced a manufacturer in Portugal with a track record in producing premium-quality sportswear for the top brands.
Enterprise Ireland’s Competitive Start Fund helped with the launch of her first range which went on sale in April 2013.
It’s doing well and she’s now looking at markets in America and Australia, while in March she linked up with sports retailer Elverys Intersport.
Paula O’Connor, Z-Charge
After studying Interior furniture design in DIT, Paula O’Connor, teamed up an online retailer, MyVolts, selling replacement power supplies and started working with the company as a design consultant.
O’Connor came up with the idea for the Z-Charge — a bedside accessory for charging smartphones and other devices. Her product was one of the first in Ireland to source start-up funding through online crowd-funding platform Kickstarter. “It’s a fabric pouch on either side of the bed connected by a special strap under the mattress,” says the 27-year-old from Walkinstown.
Each pouch has three pockets sized to take an iPad or tablet, a kindle and a phone. The product has a built-in hub for USB cables, as well as a lead and plug, enabling the user to charge six items simultaneously from one plug.
“There’s a safety switch enabling you to switch power on or off and the product has been rigorously tested.”
The award-winning product is now being sold online.
O’Daly sisters, Love & Robots
Qualified architect Emer O’Daly (36) spotted an opportunity in 3-D printing sector on returning to Ireland after completing her Masters Degree at Yale University.
“There wasn’t a lot of work for architects when I came back in 2011,” she says, and, together with her sisters Kate (33), also an architect, and Aoibheann (28), a computer science graduate, O’Daly set up a design studio centred around 3D printing and design.
“I could see 3D printing was going to change the world in terms of how we make things and that there are still not a lot of people using it.”
In 2012 the three sisters set up Love & Robots with the help of funding through the Enterprise Ireland, Competitive Start Up fund and finance from investors.
Welcome to the world of digital manufacturing:
“We make customised accessories for the home and for the self – everything from jewellery and men’s accessories to coasters.
“We use 3D printing to produce silver and gold jewellery, men’s silver and gold cufflinks as well as nylon products such as bow-ties and we also make coasters.”
The firm employs 10 and sells to clients all over the world.
“We aim to become a global design brand,” O’Daly declares.
Maeve O’Keeffe, Inspect4
The only girl in her agriculture class at Waterford Institute of Technology, Maeve O’Keeffe continues to push boundaries in the business world.
During a work experience stint on a mammoth dairy farm in New Zealand, she noticed farm-staff routinely pared the hooves of lame cattle – in Ireland this is a specialist service.
On her return home to Ballynoe in Co Cork, and while still in college – she graduated in 2013 - Maeve designed the Inspect4 Turnover Crate, a multi-award-winning gadget allowing farmers to safely trim the hooves of lame cattle.
“I wanted to be able to hoof-clip them as soon as they needed treatment, but I didn’t like the equipment currently available on the market as I felt it was unsafe for the operative and animal – I wanted something which involved less physical effort and which was safe,” explains the 25-year-old, who was a participant on the New Frontiers entrepreneur development programme at CIT before setting up her business in January 2014.
With support from the Competitive Start Fund from Enterprise Ireland, she now sells a mobile unit for contractors, and a fixed model for farmers.
The mechanism is selling steadily in Ireland and Maeve is now marketing it in the UK and New Zealand.
Audrey Holland, EpiSafe
Audrey’s Holland’s award-winning EpiSafe mechanism is a monitoring and alarm system for people diagnosed with epilepsy.
The NUI Galway graduate has a very personal interest in the condition - her brother Trevor died in March 2014 in an epilepsy-related incident and she herself suffers from it.
“This equipment provides continuous non-invasive monitoring for symptoms of a seizure,” she explains, adding that the device will trigger an emergency alert to individuals pre-selected by the user.
Because of its customised nature and highly sophisticated data collection function, the EpiSafe can also predict when seizures may occur.
By September the 40-year-old, currently a participant on an entrepreneur incubation programme, StartX6 in Galway, expects to be in a position to build a prototype and conduct clinical trials for the product which will be sold in Ireland and abroad.
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