‘Contacts are so important in the beginning’

Jeanne McDonagh: The benefit of self-employment is the freedom to take an idea and develop it from scratch

Jeanne McDonagh is CEO of the Open Doors Initiative

I’m CEO of the Open Doors Initiative, and I’m self-employed.

We are a collective of over 130 organisations – companies and NGOs - who work with the Government to create pathways to education, employment and entrepreneurship for all marginalised people who face barriers.

Since our work began in 2018, we have helped nearly 100,000 people at various stages in their careers, through our own work and that of our member companies. We carry out training, internships, mentoring, research, and create other resources to help people and imbue confidence.

The idea emerged from a Diageo Learning for Life training programme in hospitality skills, which was developed to help refugees find work. The impetus came from the then minister for equality David Stanton TD, to get more companies to help marginalised people in a coherent, targeted and meaningful way.


My leaders in Diageo, Liam Reid and Oliver Loomes, were instrumental in helping get Open Doors off the ground and gave me the freedom to develop it while in role there and eventually make it stand alone. Diageo continues to donate core funding to the work to ensure stability and that it progresses. We also had support from 14 corporates, as well as then taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

I studied communications at DCU, which was a really good all-round course. From there, I did an MA in political communication and, later, a diploma in public relations.

The benefit of self-employment is the freedom to take an idea and develop it from scratch and grow. There’s a lack of “Sunday night dread” as you are doing something really meaningful and purposeful and the value that brings to people’s lives. And the variety each day brings as you develop new ideas and meet new people and bring them on a journey with you, to align to the vision to create impact and change.

The downside? The fear of the unknown. There is constant learning, every day, trying to see around corners as to what challenges await.

I do think it’s better to get some experience under your belt before launching your own business. Contacts are so important in the beginning, as is knowing who to turn to for advice and help. You also need basic knowledge of what you need to do to start a business, set up a board and ensure proper oversight to ensure you get it right from the off.

I would advise graduates to hone their interests.

No matter where you are currently working or studying, try to pivot through your work, employee groups, volunteering and other extracurricular activities, towards your area of interest. Learn all you can and become an expert in your chosen field. I found board volunteering very useful.

- In conversation with Peter McGuire