Flexibility is the business for women of enterprise


National Women’s Enterprise Day heard stories of success from female entrepreneurs

WHEN DEIRDRE Murtagh of Causey Farm speaks of the business she co-founded with her two siblings – which allows various groups to get a taste of life on their family farm in Co Meath – you get a real sense of the passion she has for it.

“Being in a successful business brings many rewards – I love the variety, flexibility, seasonality and opportunity of what I do. There is a constant ebb and flow of each type of event, juggling anything from putting cream on scones to making sales presentations to tour operators for incentive groups a year hence,” she says.

Causey Farm first opened up in 1998 to give school tours an experience of farm life, and has expanded to include hen nights, tourist groups and corporate team-building events, participants of which are invited to take part in activities such as milking cows, baking bread and set dancing. At peak times the farm employs up to 40 people, and Murtagh has also set up a wholesale bakery on-site as an off-shoot to the main business.

While there are aspects of the business she finds challenging (paperwork being one of them), Murtagh says having her own business affords her a lifestyle, diversity and flexibility which she feels she would not have in a typical nine-to-five job.

“Business is a way to earn a living, implement a lifestyle – and Causey Farm gives me wonderful flexibility as a mother. I am available for school runs and activities. Simple things like organising paperwork for a new passport or a visit to the bank just fit into my normal day, rather than being a lunchtime dash.”

Murtagh yesterday shared her passion for her business with over 200 female entrepreneurs for National Women’s Enterprise Day, which took place over two days in Portlaoise.

Eamon Ryan, chairman of National Women’s Enterprise Day 2011 says the annual event brings together both established and budding female entrepreneurs who are encouraged to network with and gain inspiration from their fellow businesswomen.

It also aims to counter some of the perceptions which women hold regarding business: the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report for Ireland 2010 showed men were still 2.5 times more likely to be an early-stage entrepreneur in Ireland, and were more confident than their female counterparts in their belief that they had the necessary skills and knowledge to start a business.

“The event provides inspiration for women in business. It shows that women have done it and can do it,” Ryan says, adding that enterprise boards around the State supported 12,000 businesswomen last year, providing them with valuable information and pointing towards a wide range of supports.

“Even after National Women’s Enterprise Day has come to an end, the network of County and City Enterprise Boards still provide year-round support services to anyone thinking of setting up a business. We’d encourage women in particular to find out what supports and networks are available to them at a local level.”

Such supports have helped Birgitta Hedin Curtin and her husband Peter Curtin, founders of the Burren Smokehouse in Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare, to grow their business over the past 22 years. The business now has numerous strings to its bow: manufacturing and direct sales to speciality food shops, restaurants and hotels, a growing e-business and a visitor centre.

This year, as well as having the privilege of smoking some fish served at the State dinner held in honour of Queen Elizabeth, the business also began supplying three high-end international speciality stores: Fortnum Mason in London, Dean Deluca in the US and Kaufhaus des Westens in Berlin.

It is a path Hedin Curtin feels other Irish businesses could follow: “I am convinced that, because of our very clean soils and pristine waters, the opportunity for Irish food products here is fantastic and that very high quality artisan products have a place in these top-end markets,” she says.

Hedin Curtin, whose children range in age from six to 23, adds that business and family are not mutually exclusive: “One of the hardest things as a woman is to balance work and family, but it is important to balance both. It’s hard – but it is achievable.”

Another businesswoman featured at the Women’s Enterprise Day event, Cork native Lisa Myers, notes her business was born out of an old-but-true adage. “Necessity is the mother of invention, she says, relating how her mother’s very personal experience of hair loss led her and her sister, hairdresser Fiona O’Riordan, to set up the Wig Clinic.

The negative experience their mother endured in getting a wig fitted, having lost her hair through chemotherapy, led the sisters to think this service could be delivered with more sensitivity to the women involved.

The company offers a pre-consultation service to women, mainly those who are facing hair loss due either to chemotherapy or alopecia, after which they invite their clients in to choose a hairstyle. They later fit the wig and style to suit the individual, and show clients how to maintain their new hair and provide a follow-up service when clients come back for their first trim on their own re-grown hair.

The business is going from strength to strength, with two permanent offices based in Cork and Mallow. It joined forces with Boots in 2008 and caters to clients in consultation rooms provided by the pharmacy chain.

The sisters first started up on a part-time basis while working in other jobs, something Myers says was advantageous as it meant they could “test the waters before making the leap”.

Now four years in business, Myers says she is under no illusion that there are also disadvantages to owning your own business – noting that the hours they put in at first were such that “you could actually earn more [by] stacking shelves the first couple of years”.

Myers advises those thinking about starting their own business to “go over the top on your business plan” to ensure the idea is actually viable, to be able to let things go if they aren’t really a runner and to contact their local enterprise board, which will provide invaluable support and expertise.

But, having said that, she adds the flexibility and diversity she enjoys through her business makes it all worthwhile: “We want it all really, don’t we? We want to be successful and spend time with our kids. For me it’s having the flexibility.

“The security of my [previous] job was fantastic – but now my day is different from one day to the next. The diversity is only fantastic.