When I speak to Sharon Keegan, it is days after her successful pitch on BBC’s Dragon’s Den and the entrepreneur is icing her thumbs in a brief reprieve from responding to the overwhelming amount of messages she has received.
“This is no word of a lie, I have ice packs on my thumbs for repetitive strain because I’m texting like a mad thing,” she says of the reaction.
“I can't even text because my fingers are that sore. It's going to take me the guts of a month to get back to people. My voice is starting to go, but I'm loving it.” On top of the mountain of messages, Sharon has been kept going by an increase in online orders for Peachylean prompted by her appearance on the TV show and she says the positivity surrounding her athleisure company is fueling her through the extra work.
“The country needed a bit of a lift and we got this bit of hope that Irish businesses can actually do well in the UK. It's a great bit of positive energy. I'm riding it and we're going to keep going until it flattens out.” Sharon got her business to where it is after what she describes as “hard bloody work and a rollercoaster of crap” and she is beyond delighted that both her products and her positive message are reaching further than ever before.
“It's such a wonderful, validating feeling for something I’ve built literally from home. Like I'm sitting here in Walkinstown, half-dressed, talking to you while surrounded by coffee and packages. Standing outside and looking in, I’d think that's great.” Sharon says she always wanted to be a businesswoman, despite not seeing many role models when she was growing up. She is also determined to platform other women.
“I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. The word ‘entrepreneur’ was just sexy to me. I always said if I ran a business, that it would be a female-led business, and it would be strong women doing their thing.”
Post-boom and post-crash, Sharon says she was in a slump. She went from having a high-flying career to being a stay-at-home parent with what would eventually be diagnosed as postnatal depression.
"It takes an immense amount of energy and I really struggled with the shift from being a busy entrepreneur. I was a stay-at-home mom with my beautiful son, but I was just so sad. I didn't know that I had postnatal depression at the time, it took about nine months for me to be diagnosed.”
Hand-in-hand with her mental health, Sharon was struggling with changes to her body.
“When I was pregnant with my first son, Liam, I put on about five stone. To lose that weight, I went to a local gym in Tallaght because they had a creche, so they minded the baby for one hour a day, and I got moving,” she says.
“It was in that gym that my confidence started to grow. I started to not only lift heavy weights, but lift the heavy weight of depression. In a gym or a community like that, if you're surrounded by really good supportive people, your mood changes and your confidence grows. You can start to explore the world again. It was there that PeachyLean was born.” After her diagnosis and feeling inspired by her newfound supportive community, she started to redirect her life.
“I decided to go back to college because I never had a degree. I felt like I needed some paperwork behind me to reinvent myself, which is so untrue,” she says. She began working on her product and the caring community it would create.
“I wanted to create a product that allows women to feel confident and gives them that little bit of extra support and then we can create a community around them.” She tells me she was taken on by DCU’s Female High Flyers programme but notes one (literal) bump in the road: “It’s very, very difficult to get into and I was just so overwhelmed and delighted to get in. And the first day of the course, I found out I was pregnant with my second baby.” Much like the lack of female entrepreneurs when she was growing up, another troubling narrative from her formative years made itself clear in Sharon’s mind.
“I thought, ‘Oh, no, I'm after working so hard to get back to my health and my work and now I’ll have to give it all up’. That shows the mentality, even in 2019, that I thought I wouldn't be allowed to finish the course because I was pregnant,” she says.
“That was in my psyche because in school growing up, God forbid, if any young girl was pregnant, they disappeared. That's very powerful.” Instead, Sharon built her brand during her pregnancy and kept going even in the days after giving birth to her son, Bob.
“I basically built the business while pregnant, had the baby, then the business took off, even when I had the second baby in my arms. When he was a few days old I was literally pumping breast milk in the toilet of the Image Business Awards when we were nominated for startup of the year. The visual of that is insane.” She describes her appearance on Dragons’ Den as an “uplifting story” that even inspired herself.
"I'm even uplifted by it. It’s a great vision of resilience, pushing through no matter what sets you back. I’ve failed loads of times, I’ve been on my knees, crying into the pillowcase, thinking this is never gonna work and struggling with depression.
“It's such a passion. Like, it is spandex and nylon, we are selling a product - but it's more than that. It’s a place for people to face their fears, tell their story and not be afraid to actually go after their dreams. I want to be a poster girl for that.” Sharon then tells me about a woman who reached out after seeing her on Dragons’ Den who was struggling with postnatal depression and felt inspired by Sharon’s message. Sharon sent her a pair of leggings and urged her to get outside for half an hour every day.
“If you heard the voice message I got back. Honestly, I was in tears. She was just so overwhelmed that someone would do that. This story is not about me, it's about being able to reach out to that person in that moment. She needs to be healthy for her kids too and we give that gift to somebody and say, ‘go and fight for yourself’. She's the only person who can pull herself out of it.” Sharon applied to Dragons’ Den in 2019 and got a call for a screentest in January 2020, on her brother Alan’s birthday.
“After the screen test for the BBC, I went to Blessington to meet him for his birthday lunch and he wanted me to tell him all about it. He was saying, ‘you're gonna get that, that's amazing, that's incredible’. Then Covid hit and everything just went out the window,” she says, pausing for a moment.
“In March 2020, we all went into lockdown and I lost my amazing, incredible brother. He was my best friend. He was only 35. It was horrendous because we could have no funeral, everyone was locked in our houses. It was hell, honestly, for 14 months, a really difficult period. And then Dragons’ Den rings.” While battling her grief, Sharon says he also had to contend with her “inner critic”.
“I was really battling with myself to actually do it. It was my father who said ‘do it for your brother, just go and whatever happens happens’.” She credits Alan with her successful pitch, which saw three of the five Dragons invest £100,000 (€115k) into Peachylean.
“It was just a wonderful experience, nothing like I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be hell on earth. But it was like a calm came over me. There was an energy with me there and I certainly put it down to my brother. He was definitely with us. I was so calm and it was a really beautiful conversation.” The Dragons themselves were surprisingly kind and helpful, Sharon says, adding they were the exact opposite of what she expected.
“They gave me great feedback, some nuggets of information, and they've been so wonderful.” Sharon says her passion for helping people is what made her stand out and what helps her business strike a chord with customers.
“If you're in it just for cash, forget about it. It's never gonna work. You have to be able to genuinely help people.” Sharon is delighted that her passion and, most of all, her hard work have paid off.
“It didn't happen overnight, it was hard bloody work. It was a slog, a rollercoaster of crap as well to have to deal with. But we're here and we'll definitely make the most of it.”