30 Irish women you need to know

To mark International Women’s Day on Wednesday, here are 30 women who are shaping Irish life

Business & entrepreneurship

Ciara Donlon
Entrepreneur and CEO, Theya Healthcare

It has been a rollercoaster three years for Ciara Donlon. The 40-year-old former marketing executive and lingerie boutique owner founded Theya Healthcare in 2014, after she identified an issue facing some of her customers.

“Women would come into the shop looking for a bra they could wear while recovering from breast cancer or surgery, and there really wasn’t anything that met their needs. They might have scarring, or have had lymph nodes removed, or be undergoing radiotherapy treatment or hormone treatment, which makes them sweat a lot.

“If you put that into a synthetic bra that you have to wear 24 hours a day, every day for six weeks, it can be very uncomfortable,” Donlon says.

So her solution was to create one herself. With no previous manufacturing experience, she found a designer, and established Theya to manufacture a new range of bras made from bamboo, which has antibacterial properties. Comfort and femininity were top priorities, along with features such as modesty pads and front-zip closures. “We come at it from the woman’s point of view from the very get go,” she says.


In 2015, then barely a year in business, Donlon's fledgling company won armfuls of awards, including the gong for Best Innovative Start Up 2015 by the DCU Ryan Academy, and a Bank of Ireland Startup award. The following year, Theya became an approved supplier to the British NHS, covering more than 1,200 NHS trusts in the UK, and was awarded two worldwide quality standards.

Even so, she says: “I had dark days where I didn’t know if I could continue, between the stress of trying to find funding, while trying to keep everything running and grow our market. When that happened, I wouldn’t even let myself think negatively. I had to keep focused on my vision.”

Donlon also found herself turning for support to her network of other female entrepreneurs. "I did the DCU Ryan Academy Female High Fliers Accelerator programme two years ago, and met a network of women. When you're having those dark days, it is really important to be able to see other women who are out there doing it."

Donlon now divides her time between Ireland, where Theya is headquartered, and the family home in France she shares with her husband Laurent, and young son Senan.

She'll be spending International Women's Day in Paris, at the Cartier Headquarters, which just announced her as a finalist in its Women's Initiative Awards. It looks like 2017 is going to be another busy year. JOC

Julie Sinnamon
Enterprise Ireland CEO

Julie Sinnamon is one of a number of women using her influence to bring more gender balance into the Irish entrepreneurial landscape.

Sinnamon, who is chief executive of Enterprise Ireland, points out that in 2011, just seven female entrepreneurs out of a total 100 were supported by the agency. “Last year we supported 230 entrepreneurs in total, and 63 were women. Within high potential start-ups, women accounted for 17 percent, so although we still have a bit to go, globally only 8 per cent of tech entrepreneurs are female. So we are doing much better than that.”

Encouraging more women to become entrepreneurs “is mission critical for Enterprise Ireland – and for me personally as a woman,” she says.

Part of the challenge is putting a spotlight on the women who are succeeding as entrepreneurs. “If you don’t see it, you won’t want to be it.”

But it is also about creating better support networks, especially at times in women’s lives when it can be challenging for them to lean in to work. “Coming back after maternity leave can be a real pressure point. It was for me personally.

“Everyone who has been there will tell you that it gets better, but when you’re in the middle of that tough merry-go-round of constant juggling, it doesn’t feel like it. So it’s at times like that it’s really important for females to have those support networks, in addition to mixed support networks.”

The entrepreneurial landscape in Ireland has already changed significantly for women over the past few years, Sinnamon says. “Ten years ago women were less willing to come forward to those networks, but today it’s much more acceptable and women really see the benefits of being able to network with people who have had similar experiences.”

Before becoming chief executive of Enterprise Ireland in 2013, Sinnamon was head of global business development, and also worked in senior roles in the IDA and banking. She has an MBA in International Business from New York's Fordham University and is an alumni of the Stanford Executive Program. The Derry native says admiration for entrepreneurship runs deep in her veins.

"My grandmother on my mother's side was a businesswoman, long before it was common. My father had a business, and my mother was very involved in it. So I think the influence of what we see as kids is key. To me, one of the really important things for female entrepreneurs isn't the impact they're bringing today, it is that they will be the role models inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs." JO'C

Breege O'Donoghue
Chair of the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland

"Where did you get that?" "This? It's only Penneys." Breege O'Donoghue might not be a household name, but the brand that she presided over for 37 years most certainly is. Few things are as Irish as the Penneys humblebrag. O'Donoghue was a long-standing member of the board of Primark – better known here as Penneys – and part of a team (known in retailing as the gang of four) that oversaw the brand's growth from 17 stores, when she joined in the mid-1970s, to more than 300 in 10 countries, most recently the US. She moved on from Primark last year, leaving her role as head of new markets, although she remains an ambassador for the brand.

However, at the age of 72, O’Donoghue does not appear to have retirement even remotely in her sights.

She immediately took up a position as chair of the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland (DCCoI). The organisation is hoping that her experience in international markets will help the council build on the Irish Design 2015 initiative.

If O'Donoghue can do for the craft industry even a fraction of what she managed to do for the pile-em-high-and-sell-em cheap clothing industry, then we could soon be humblebragging "This? It's only an original piece of handcrafted Irish design." JO'C

Jules Coleman
Entrepreneur, Index Ventures

Originally from Leixlip, Jules Coleman hit the headlines in 2015 when she sold the business she cofounded, Hassle.com, to German company Helpling.

Founding Hassle.com in 2013 was a bit of a leap of faith for Coleman, who at 25 had been working for PwC in London for two years, following a graduate placement at Accenture. She took some time out to do her own thing, teaching herself how to code and trying her hand at her own business. Despite some scary moments – a lack of a regular wage when you are living in an expensive city will do that to you – it turned out to be a good move. The sale of the on-demand cleaning company netted Coleman and her cofounders Alex Depledge and Tom Nimmo €32 million in cash and stock. It also put Coleman on a different path.

She left Hassle.com in 2016, along with Depledge, but these days, she has another role – as entrepreneur in residence at Index Ventures, an international venture capital firm that backs startups across all stages, from seed to growth. She is also a venture partner at Ignite 100.

But you wouldn't be surprised to see Coleman back creating her own business from scratch before long. CO'B


Anne Anderson
Ambassador of Ireland to the US

If there is a glass ceiling in the dusty, clubby world of international diplomacy, nobody seems to have told Anne Anderson about it. The Clonmel woman joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1972, fresh out of UCD at the age of 19, and since then, she has steadily climbed the rungs of the diplomatic ladder.

Her CV reads like a long list of firsts. In 2001, she was Ireland's first female ambassador to the European Union; and in 2005 she became our first female ambassador to France. In 2013, she became the first Irish female ambassador to the United States, prompting Barack Obama to say it was "past time but that he was very glad to see me".

For her, it was a bitter-sweet moment. “Most professional women enjoy the sound of glass shattering. At the same time, one is conscious of the historical background against which this is happening,” she told the Irish Times.

“I am very aware of that, that we had a marriage ban in the Irish diplomatic service until we joined the European Union, so there were generations of women whose talent and potential could not be fully utilised.”

She immediately set about connecting with the new wave of young Irish emigrants and set one of the top items on her agenda as immigration reform – an agenda that's likely to get even busier in the years ahead. JO'C

Social campaigning

Joanne O'Riordan
Student and campaigner

Joanne O'Riordan is one of only seven people in the world with a condition called Total Amelia, which means she was born without limbs. Not that she has let that hold her back. Her mantra is that "it's not the disability, it's the ability."

Now 20 and a student of criminology at UCC, O'Riordan, who is from Millstreet in Cork, catapulted onto the national stage in 2011, when she memorably tackled Taoiseach Enda Kenny about cuts to the disability benefit. She went on to give a keynote speech to the United Nations about technology, and put a challenge to the tech community to design a robot for her.

In 2015, she was awarded the Junior Chamber International Outstanding Young Person of the Year award, and last year she led Dublin's St Patrick's Festival parade, making her the youngest ever grand marshal. "I have been around the globe, to New York and Japan, giving the people with a disability in this world a voice," she said at the time. "I'm incredibly proud to be a voice for the voiceless."

At the UN, her determination not to let anything hold her back was clear: "All my young life I've struggled and overcome barriers. I've surprised doctors, strangers, friends and even my own family by what I have achieved. I don't want to live in the shadow of others, because I want to make my own journey in life and I know if I'm given that chance I can and will succeed." JO'C

Sinead Kane
Blind marathon runner

Sinead Kane is a woman for whom the words 'can't', 'impossible' and even 'pain' seem to have no meaning. When we speak, three weeks after she completed the incredible feat of running seven marathons in seven days on seven different continents, she is just back from a four-hour training run ahead of her next challenge – a 24-hour run in Finland that she planned to complete last weekend. She's also in the midst of doing a PhD in Law. Yes, this is the same Sinead Kane who is 95 per cent blind.

“I was doing this training run, and I was fatigued. I go through a lot of self-talk. I just said to myself, ‘Snap out of it. This isn’t supposed to be pleasure. This is a job. If you had to put in a four-hour shift filling boxes in a factory, you’d just be getting on with it. So get on with it’.”

Because of her vision impairment, Kane runs with a guide runner, John O’Regan. “It’s a very trusting relationship. He knows I get very frustrated in extreme races, and I don’t have the advantage of being able to focus on scenery or spectators to get me though.”

In 2015, Kane was successful in challenging the organisers of the VHI Women’s Mini Marathon to allow male guide runners to take part. “I’m always thinking two goals ahead. Some people are addicted to chocolate and some people are addicted to alcohol – I think I’m just addicted to goal setting,” she says.

When it comes to challenges, Kane believes there are several still facing women with disabilities in Ireland today. There is, she points out, “a lack of understanding of the ways in which gender and disability issues interact. Women with disabilities are only beginning to become visible and their needs only starting to be addressed within the policy-making process.”

Partly, this is down to organisations, networks and groups not being proactive enough about encouraging people with disabilities into their organisations. “I haven’t been approached by any women’s organisation to be patron or to be part of the decision making process,” she says. “Women in general need to challenge their own prejudices and stereotypical views of disabled women.”

Completing the World Marathon Challenge changed her own definition of boundaries, she says.

"Before, I used to think on a daily basis that I was tired. I used to feel cold when it was 10 degrees in Ireland. Now I know I can stand running at minus-30 in Antarctica, I feel that anything is possible." JO'C

Sinéad Burke
PhD candidate, teacher, public speaker, writer

Burke is a PhD candidate, primary school teacher, public speaker, broadcaster, blogger, fashion obsessive, and more. As winner of the final Alternative Miss Ireland title, she used her experience as a "little person" to her advantage, with her character creation Minnie Mélange, also the title of her blog.

As an inspirational speaker, Burke is just that. Her talks on confidence, carving out one’s own career path, defying expectations, and becoming your best self, bring full conference and lecture rooms to attentive silence. Burke is an exceptional speaker, calm, clear and captivating. Last year, she took that style of delivery to the Late Late Show audience, with a well-received appearance on the chat show.

Burke writes about fashion with a lyrical style. "Clothes are a malleable armour," she wrote in the Irish Times, "defending us from the elements, our own emotions and others". It's that thoughtfulness that encapsulates her attitude. UM


Sinead McSweeney
Twitter Ireland MD

Sinead McSweeney is used to working in male dominated environments. Before she joined Twitter four and a half years ago, she worked for An Garda Siochana as director of communications; prior to that, she had a stint with the PSNI in a similar role, and spent some time in politics. She took on the role of vice president of public policy and communications before landing the managing director's role in December. But despite the tech industry's reputation for being somewhat imbalanced when it comes to gender representation, Twitter Ireland's newest managing director says things are definitely improving – particularly when it comes to leadership roles in Ireland.

“My eras of being the only woman in the room are behind me,” she said. “For years I’d be the only woman in the room and the youngest. That rarely happens now.”

The tech sector may be under the spotlight right now but it’s by no means the only industry with the problem. Eight years in policing has taught McSweeney that diversity is a constant theme.

“Increasingly if you look across technology, particularly in Ireland and across leadership, it’s becoming female dominated,” she said. “I think we need to be careful of the male dominated narrative; that becomes an obstacle in itself.” She concedes that some roles are more male dominated, but it is a tide that hopefully stays on the turn.

The company – and its new MD – is committed to supporting diversity within its ranks. Resilience and respect are the two most important things to bring to the leadership role, especially when it comes to supporting diversity and discouraging any behaviour that would threaten that, whether it is down to gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, and so on. The example comes from the top.

“You have to make it clear there is low tolerance for any of that behaviour,” she said

While Twitter offers support in the form of various training – from unconscious bias to resilience training – and groups that can support different people within the workforce, McSweeney makes one important point: things start much earlier than applying for a job.

“People have to want to work in an industry. The seeds are sown a long time before they fill out an application form,” she said. That means changing the perception of careers in the tech industry, something that has been a focus in recent years.

"Technology is not alone in facing the diversity challenge," she said. CO'B

Cathriona Hallahan
Microsoft MD

When Cathriona Hallahan started in Microsoft, it was as an accounting technician around 30 years ago. The firm was just getting established in Ireland, and Hallahan was one of the first employees through the door; there were only 24 employed at the company. Since then, she has seen the company grow to more than 1,500 and it's set to grow further, with 600 people set to join the firm in the coming months as Microsoft opens its new inside sales operation here and expands its existing operations.

In February 2013, she took over as managing director of Microsoft Ireland when Paul Relis stepped down from the role, adding to the ranks of tech companies that had appointed Irish women to top jobs.

She has never wanted to be seen as the token women though – something she has been spoken about in the past. And who would want to be? Everyone wants to be recognised for their own talents.

She certainly has been. In 2014, she was named Image Magazine’s CEO businesswoman of the year, inducted into the Women’s Executive Network Hall of Fame in 2015 and is a member of the International Women’s Forum.

Hallahan was also sponsor for diversity and inclusion at Microsoft for the Irish operation for a number of years, so has been at the coalface, so to speak.

“What you find is women are a lot slower to take those risks. They feel like they have to be over qualified for the job before they’ll put themselves forward,” she says. “I’ve seen the unique perspective that women can bring to the boardroom. I think they have a different thought process, their style is much more inclusive, they like to listen to different perspectives before they’ll make a decision.

“When I think about diversity I think about styles, opinions, not just gender. It’s about having unique perspectives, bringing people from different industries into the boardroom that can offer a different way of looking at a problem, and finding a unique solution.”

That is something that Hallahan has been trying to push within her own organisation – having the confidence to put yourself forward, take opportunities and self promote. CO'B

Helen Dixon
Data protection commissioner

Ireland's Data Protection Commissioner was always going to have a tough job. With some of the biggest tech companies in the world locating their European operations here and attention turning to how data privacy was being treated, there was bound to be some difficult days ahead. The office is essentially responsible for the protection of the personal data of hundreds of millions of European citizens. No pressure there.

Dixon took up the role in 2014, when outgoing commissioner Billy Hawkes departed. She is the first woman to hold the position. With it came a pending case by Austrian privacy campaigner Max Schrems over Facebook and ultimately a battle over the transfer of data between Europe and the US that led to the striking down of the Safe Harbour agreement between the two territories.

Before taking up the Data Protection Commissioner’s role, Dixon was Irish Registrar of Companies, and previously with positions in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation in the areas of economic migration policy, and science, technology and innovation policy.

But she also had an insight into how things work in multinationals, thanks to 11 years in two US multinationals based here.

And she's no stranger to taking on difficult tasks. She has a degree in Applied Languages, a Masters in European Economic and Public Affairs, a Masters in Governance, a Postgraduate Diploma in Computer Science, a professional Diploma in Official Statistics for Policy Evaluation and also successfully passed all eight subjects of the FE-1 Final Examination of the Law Society of Ireland in one year. It makes you tired just thinking about it. CO'B

Cathy Kearney
Apple VP European Operations

Cathy Kearney isn't one to hog the limelight. You rarely see her name in newspapers, and she isn't a regular on the conference circuit. But she still ranks as one of the country's most important business figures, heading up Apple's operations in Cork.

Kearney, a Cork-based accountant, has a number of job titles, including vice president of operations for Apple Distribution International, a role she took up in 2012, and director of operations at Beats Electronic Services, which came after the $3 billion acquisition of the firm in 2014.

Not a lot was known about Apple’s operations in Cork until recent years, despite the fact the company has been in operation here since 1980. But all that has changed, first with Apple’s decision to lift a bit of the veil of secrecy surrounding the Irish operation, which employs around 5,000 people.

Kearney has been thrust into the spotlight somewhat, thanks to the investigation into Apple's European tax affairs. Not only has she appeared before a private session of US senate officials, she has also spoken to the European Parliament's Special Committee on Tax Rulings. And she was widely reported as being the woman responsible for saving Apple billions of dollars – though it's not known if she is happy with that assessment. She was also honoured by UCC in 2015, as part of the university's Alumni Awards. CO'B

Sonia Flynn
Soundcloud VP

Originally from Kildare, SoundCloud's international vice president Sonia Flynn started out on a less traditional route into the tech industry. A degree in Applied Languages from the University of Coleraine was followed by a masters in German literature from Queen's University Belfast.

But an almost five-year stint in Google Ireland, ending with her final appointment as EMEA director of user operations led to a career with Facebook in 2009, with Flynn joining as director for community operations. In 2011, she took over as managing director of Facebook in Ireland, and steered the company through its years of growth here.

But the lure of the more creative sector proved to have a lot more pull for Flynn. The chance to combine a passion for music and a love for technology led to the SoundCloud move in 2015, and a relocation to Berlin. The platform enables its users to upload, record, promote and share their originally-created content, and Flynn was tasked with growing it, much in the same way as she oversaw expansion in her previous roles. In between all that, Flynn has also found time for a business of her own – Roller, a blow dry bar located in Dublin's Docklands area, in the heart of tech industry – still connected to the tech world but with its roots in the real one too. CO'B


Sene Naoupu
Rugby player

In a short space of time, Naoupu has become a key player for the Irish women's rugby team, and also an integral part of the Sevens team, which at times for those players involved in both camps, leads to controversial decisions such as pulling Naoupu, along with two of her teammates, from this year's Six Nations campaign to compete in the Sevens in Las Vegas instead.

As a centre, her speed, vision, and excellent set of second-nature skills, make her a ferocious force on the pitch. Technically gifted, strong and fast, Naoupu won the Women’s Player of the Year trophy at 2016 at the Rugby Writers of Ireland Awards.

New Zealand-born, with Samoan parents, Naoupu moved to Ireland with her husband George, who played for Connacht before moving to Harlequins.

She has spoken about overcoming anorexia, and it is that mental strength that seems to typify both her personality, fitness training work, and of course her rugby. With the World Cup in Ireland this August, and plenty of eyes on the host team, Naoupu is set to shine. UM

Sarah Keane
President of the OCI

After a chaotic 2016, the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) desperately needed a safe pair of hands. Enter Sarah Keane, the CEO of Swim Ireland, who beat acting president Willie O'Brien and CEO of Basketball Ireland Bernard O'Byrne to the post Pat Hickey had vacated.

Keane became president of the OCI in February. Previously the CEO of Swim Ireland since 2004, she is now effectively the most powerful woman in Irish sport. A lawyer, water polo international, OCI and Federation of Irish Sport board member, Keane was also at the centre of managing the fallout from the Rio Olympics ticketing scandal, as one of three people on the OCI’s crisis management committee.

Keane said she felt "humbled and privileged" upon her election, and it is certainly seen as a changing of the guard, as a woman who represented that change, conclusively winning 29 out of 43 votes. Keane will serve a four-year term, and with a damaged brand to repair in the public's eyes, a fresh face with a legal background will go some way to refresh the organisation. UM

Entertainment & Arts

Ruth Negga

Irish actors have always excelled, but perhaps none in recent times with the grace and subtly of craft of Ethiopian-Irish Ruth Negga. Her remarkable performance in Loving earned her an Oscar nomination as well as seven award wins, and BAFTA Rising Star, Golden Globe, Critics' Choice and other nominations. Negga's rise has been gradual, yet every performance has been worthy of praise, from Misfits to Marvel's Agents of SHIELD.

Her Loving performance also landed her on the cover of US Vogue’s January issue this year, and endless plaudits from the fashion world for her unique style in a world of dressing-by-committee. She also currently stars in the AMC series Preacher with Dominic Cooper.

“I became an actor to hide,” Negga told Donald Clarke in a recent interview in The Irish Times, “You oscillate between being really tough – warding off hurt – when you’re told you’re not good enough to having this really translucent skin, so you can absorb people and their vibrations. So you can do your job basically. It’s no wonder we’re all so peculiar.”

Having now 'arrived', being set up for stardom after such a trajectory working in Ireland, Britain and the US, there is a calmness about Negga's disposition in such a heady industry. "I don't think I was prepared for how much I have to talk about myself," she said in that interview. She will probably have to get used to that. UM

Louise O'Neill

Cork woman Louise O'Neill's first two novels, Only Ever Yours, and especially Asking For It, remoulded the young adult literature landscape. She has won countless awards for her writing including Newcomer of the Year in 2014 at the Irish Book Awards and Book of the Year the following year. Asking For It was named a Printz Honor Book by the American Library Association.

Outside of fiction, she is a passionate advocate for women’s rights and a mature conversation around sexual consent. Advice that sticks with O’Neill is, “What other people think of you is none of your business,” she says. “In a career like writing, you have to build up a residence, you can’t worry what people think, that paralysis you have when you’re trying to be honest in your writing.”

O’Neill says she had to let go of other people’s perceptions of her, “and just really focus more on how I felt about myself and creating a career that felt meaningful and fulfilling for me, disregarding what looked impressive and cool from the outside”.

O’Neill speaks about trying to shed that pressure of perception. “It’s just trying to let go of that need to be liked. Who cares? Who cares about strangers? All that matters is [that] your friends and family like you. Hopefully they do, I haven’t asked them recently!”

For O’Neill, ambition is “one of the strongest driving forces” in her life. “When I was younger I felt ambition was a dirty word, particularly for women. When I moved to New York, I learned very quickly that by being self-deprecating ... they had no time or patience for that and they sort of discounted you. I needed to admit to myself that it was okay to be ambitious. That’s been very useful for my career. Self-promotion is an important part of being an author now, and I know that can be hard for Irish people, but I don’t have a problem with it.”

As for future plans, “I just want to keep getting better, keep pushing myself as an artist. There was a Facebook memory today on my timeline from three years ago and it said, ‘Did I tell you all about how I’m going to be nominated for an Oscar? Probably best adapted screenplay, but I’m flexible. 2018 is my deadline.’ That might be pushing it.”

Maybe not. The film and TV rights to Only Ever Yours were bought by Killer Content in the US, and the TV rights to Asking For It were acquired by Bandit in the UK. UM

Annie Mac
Radio and TV presenter and DJ

BBC Radio star, Other Voices presenter, the front woman of several documentaries, tastemaker, DJ, and more, Annie Mac is one of the most significant people in British radio and dance music. Her name now a brand.

Her Annie Mac Presents (AMP) brand, which has hosted live concerts, tours, and released compilation albums, has also developed an entire festival, called Lost & Found, in Malta. A regular across the British festival calendar, she draws big crowds at Glastonbury, and her laid back but remarkably astute selection choices endear her to a wide range of fans increasingly likely to hop from genre to genre in their fandom.

Presenting on BBC Radio 1 five days a week, the BBC champion her as a successor to John Peel and Zane Lowe, given her ear for quality new music. Her latest documentary for BBC Three examined the closure of nightclubs across the UK, and she previously presented the Channel 4 series Superstar DJs.

Her gradual yet lofty climb through the ranks has also been typified by hard work and a top attitude. Is there a more influential Irish person working in radio anywhere in the world right now? UM

Sharon Horgan
Writer, producer, actor, director

Writer, producer, actor, director, the woman who Caitlin Moran calls "a f***ing goddess", Sharon Horgan broke America with the Emmy-nominated Catastrophe and secured a second season of her HBO show Divorce. Last year's pilot of Motherland, written with Graham and Helen Linehan and Holly Walsh, was brilliant.

Before those, her collaboration with Dennis Kelly birthed Pulling, and with Holly Walsh she created Dead Boss, which she also co-wrote and starred in. But it was her teaming up with Rob Delaney for Catastrophe that brought her work to a wider audience around the world. It confirmed her status as one of the biggest talents in television and comedy in Britain, and crucially showed American audiences how to make TV about real life love.

Her production company Merman is working on several film and television projects, and she recently took on an animation acting project, as the voice of Minerva Mertens in Cartoon Network's Adventure Time.

Acknowledged by her peers as a ferociously disciplined and dedicated worker, Horgan confesses to "an in-built awkwardness, plus a healthy kind of cynicism and, like, a bit of a sneery head on me. It's easier to stand back and look at situations and have something funny to say about them. I don't think I've ever found myself in any social engagement or situation where I've felt comfortable, or where I've felt 'these are my people' or 'this is where I should be'. I'm always awkward". UM

Marian Keyes

Fifteen novels, five non-fiction books, more than 33 million copies of her books sold, Keyes is undoubtedly one of the most successful Irish writers of all time. Her honesty and strength in dealing with depression and alcoholism has inspired as much as her books are loved, and her chatty but acutely smart writing style has launched a thousand copy cats.

This hilarious and warm banter has migrated on to Twitter, providing insights into her love of Strictly Come Dancing and restoring furniture.

Speaking at an Irish Times Women’s Podcast event recently, Keyes said, “I had no idea I was funny until I was in my 30s and I started going to AA meetings … I was telling people all these awful stories and they were roaring laughing. I realised I was hilarious and thought, ‘Jesus maybe I’ve a bit of a gift for this’.”

Later this year, she will publish a new, much anticipated novel, The Break, about a husband who ups and leaves.

Striving to be 'the next Marian Keyes' has become shorthand for massive global success and adoration from readers, yet somehow, despite her prominence on the literary landscape, she has remained as down-to-earth and familiar as the characters she so expertly draws. UM

Stefanie Preissner
Screenwriter, playwright and actor

Overnight success stories in the Irish entertainment world are as rare as … well, RTÉ comedy series appreciated by millennials and their parents alike. But the whipsmart and hardworking Stefanie Preissner apparently managed to pull off both in 2016, with the runaway success of Can't Cope, Won't Cope, her six-part comedy-drama series about, as she said, "women who are difficult and make bad decisions and [ARE]vulnerable and endearing".

In fact, she wasn't really an overnight success: the 28-year-old Munich-born, Mallow-raised writer and actor had been grafting steadily, often getting up at 4.30am to write, since she left the Gaiety School of Acting in 2012. Her earlier work includes a sell-out Irish run of her play Solpadeine Is My Boyfriend, which also went on national tour in Bucharest, Edinburgh and Australia, and eventually became a hugely popular podcast.

Preissner’s great gift to young Irish women is to show them versions of themselves they can actually relate to, as opposed to what she has called “a real fetishised version of youth, a real glamorised version of going out for the night and having sex with people and then meeting up for brunch the next day and dissecting it over avocados”.

It's shaping up to be another busy year for her. Can't Cope, Won't Cope is back for a second series, and was recently acquired by BBC3. Her first book, Why Can't Everything Just Stay the Same? (and other things I shout when I can't cope), is out in the autumn. JO'C


Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara

Farrell and McNamara co-founded Grafton Architects in the late 1970s, and set about redefining what Irish architecture could be. The boldness and sophistication of their designs have won prestige, awe, and fans in equal measure.

Imaginative, challenging, and very often simply outstanding, their architecture dots the Irish landscape, from the Solstice Arts Centre in Navan to the University of Limerick Medical School, but it is the scale and impact of their projects abroad that has brought Grafton Architects global acclaim. They won the World Building of the Year Award in 2008 for Universita Luigi Bocconi in Milan, and the RIBA International Prize in 2016 for the stunning UTEC University campus in Lima. Lord Richard Rogers, chairing the RIBA jury for the prize, described the building as "modern day Machu Picchu".

Farrell and McNamara are also both elected members of Aosdána.

They are currently working on, among other things, a new School of Economics for University Toulouse 1 Capitole, the new Paul Marshall Institute for the London School of Economics, and the Parnell Square Cultural Quarter Project in Dublin. In 2018, Farrell and McNamara will curate the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale. UM

Fashion & beauty

Marissa Carter
Entrepreneur and Cocoa Brown CEO

Five years ago, Cocoa Brown Tanning was still just a big idea by its creator, then beauty salon owner Marissa Carter, who came up with it while on maternity leave. The first batch was bottled in November 2012 and today, four bottles of the product are sold every minute across the globe.

“We have 10,000 stockists around the word, in Scandinavia, Australia, the UK and Ireland. The next step is opening a US office in New York. We have a distributor, and in June myself and my husband Ronan (who joined the company six months ago, as CFO) are moving to New York, with our two little ones and the dog,” she says.

Carter says mentoring from other women has been a key factor in helping her to succeed. “A woman is much more likely to set up her own business if she has a mentor or a fellow female in business advocate. If you see someone else succeeding it makes you think, ‘that could be me, if she can do it, why can’t I?’,” she says.

Carter, who is a graduate of Enterprise Ireland’s Going for Growth programme aimed at female entrepreneurs, now does a lot of formal and informal mentoring and speaking to other women.

Her advice to other women is that you can never be over-prepared. “I’ve always loved learning, so I try to educate myself enough so that I can be the best I can. With knowledge comes confidence – the more of an authority I am on something, the more confident I feel, and the better I deliver.”

Carter is aware that she has the opportunity to be a role model for her predominantly young client base, and it is not a responsibility she takes lightly. “So many of my customers are on social media, and they’re following my story, so I feel a responsibility to them. I’m aware that young girls are watching me, so I always try to give out the message that self-confidence is one of the most important factor for success. Growing up, I think my Mum really did always try and instil in me that I was capable, above all else.”

The rest of her success, she admits, may be down to genes. "I was probably born cocky. To survive in business, you need thick skin and you need steel in your bones, and you need to be able to take rejection with a pinch of salt, because you're always going to come across no more than yes." JOC

Ruth Curran
Global Chair of IIC Partners

Organiser of one of Ireland's biggest annual charity fashion shows and passionate about Irish fashion and supporting young and up and coming designers, Ruth Curran has raised much needed funds for the National Maternity Hospital and last year's star studded event at the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham was another sell out success, attracting ticket sales and sponsorship of over €50,000.

Global Chair of IIC Partners, one of the largest executive search firms in the world, Curran travels widely internationally and was last year awarded Galway University’s Business and Commerce Alumni of the Year. She is also on the board of the university, chairs its academic planning and resource committee and is proud of the fact that NUIG is the only university that has consistently risen in the highly competitive World University Rankings.

An accountant from a distinguished academic family in Galway, she has a Masters in Business from the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School and a Bachelor of Commerce degree from NUIG. Before she joined MERC, the Irish arm of IIC in 1999, she worked for Consolidated Press Holdings, one of Asia Pacific’s largest media organisations.

Her job entails finding exceptional talent all over the world and she credits the team around her for MERC’s success. When interviewing prospective candidates, what does she look for? “First impressions count,” she says, “but what is important is the energy level, how they communicate, whether they have a can do, will do attitude, so resilience is important and the ability to inspire others.”

A busy mother of four children aged from 3-10, she is married to fellow Galwegian Darren Cunningham, founder of a biotech company pioneering new ways of treating cancer. DMcQ


Anne-Marie Tomchak
UK Editor, Mashable

You might not have heard the name Anne-Marie Tomchak, but take note of it – she is one of the people shaping the international digital media landscape in her new role heading up Mashable's operations in the UK. "When I was growing up, we didn't even have a phone, so it's quite funny that I've found myself in this position," she says.

Now 34, the Longford native got her start at RTÉ, where she worked on Morning Ireland, before joining the BBC. She worked her way up the ranks, creating and presenting BBC Trending, and ultimately finding herself at the forefront of its digital media offering.

By 2016, she found herself looking a for a new challenge, that would allow her to take on a more strategic role in an organisation. The job at Mashable gave her that opportunity, and she is now at the helm of a digital operation that employs 20.

Irish people “do very well in social media and digital media internationally”, she says. “I don’t know if it’s just that we’re such good storytellers, or that Ireland hasn’t traditionally had such a hierarchical culture, but we’re very good at putting others at ease.”

Tomchak says she has been helped by both male and female mentors, but she believes women in particular can help to pave the way for one another. “Now I’m lucky enough to be in a position where I’m hiring and managing people, I’m very conscious that women sometimes face different challenges than male colleagues. Overall, I think it’s an amazing time to be a woman in the media. Sure the internet has brought some negatives, but the positives of the digital world far outweigh them.”

As an identical twin, Tomchak has a broad notion of what constitutes success, and believes career advancement is not the only yardstick. "Everyone is on their own journey and the quickest route to dissatisfaction is comparing yourself to others in a negative way. My twin sister is a mother of three small children, so we're leading very different lives, and that gives me an interesting perspective. JO'C

Dee Forbes
Director General, RTÉ

If there was some surprise surrounding Dee Forbes's appointment to the top job at RTÉ last summer, it wasn't about whether the former head of Discovery Networks in Northern Europe was up to the task. After all, her previous role involved managing 27 TV brands in 18 markets, reaching more than 270 million households.

Instead, it was because some found it hard to believe that an RTÉ outsider would want the role of director general in an era likely to prove the national broadcaster’s most challenging yet, as it struggles to figure out how to adapt and survive in the digital era.

But Forbes is not only undaunted by the prospect of turning RTÉ around, she seems to positively relish it. “Change can be disconcerting, but ultimately I have always believed that change is good,” she wrote in an early email to staff.

She has already said she believes the RTÉ five years from now will be a very different beast to the one we have today. Top of her agenda from a content perspective is the mix of programme genres on schedules, the marketing of channels and services, how it fulfils its public service remit, the need to reach younger viewers and to work with what she playfully calls RTÉ’s “frenemies”.

However she chooses to navigate those issues over the next five years, it's safe to say the only thing with a permanent place on the schedule at RTÉ is change. JO'C

Maeve Higgins
Comedian, broadcaster

It was always unlikely that Higgins' talent would be confined to a small island. Having excelled on Naked Camera and Maeve Higgins' Fancy Vittles, a broader audience called. She moved to London, then to New York, where she teamed up with Jon Ronson for a monthly show in Brooklyn. An excellent radio documentary-maker, Higgins has brought this prowess to her latest venture, an insightful and funny podcast about immigration, Maeve In America, where she again excels at storytelling. She has written for the New York Times, Elle, had a much-loved column in The Irish Times, appeared on Inside Amy Schumer, co-hosts Neil deGrasse Tyson's StarTalk, and has written two excellent memoirs; We Have A Good Time… Don't We? and Off We Go.

Her writing and columnising casts surreal nets on a tide of sometimes pleasantly meandering and sometimes biting one-liners, with a style lying somewhere between David Sedaris and Phoebe Robinson, but still very much all Higgins. Her creative voice is so her's that it's impossible not to hear it when you read her work, and in a live standup context, her disarming self-deprecating style has a habit of snapping into focus revealing a piercing intelligence underneath. UM

Health and science

Johanne Powell

Influence isn't only about career accolades or chunky pay packets. Johanne Powell's contribution to Irish society was to force us to revisit how we think and talk about those who do the important, undervalued, and still predominantly female, work of caring.

In an interview with Irish Times journalist Rosita Boland in November 2016, she spoke with searing, and often uncomfortable honesty, about the struggle she faces to care for her profoundly disabled 32-year-old daughter Siobhan.

“I’m not doing this job by choice,” she said. “I’m doing this job because I have to do it, because there is no alternative. I don’t want to do it anymore. I’m bored. I’m bored out of my tree doing the same thing day in, day out, with no changes.”

Siobhan had by then spent three years on a waiting list of 61 people for a residential care place in their native Co Wexford.

Powell's interview lifted the lid on the unrecognised acts of heroism and endurance being carried out on an hourly basis across the State, and resonated with many other carers who are also in crisis. She demanded that we stop seeing them as saints "who'll get their reward in heaven" and start seeing them for what they really are: overworked and underpaid humans, who desperately deserve a break. JO'C

Dr Nora Khaldi
Founder and Chief Scientific Officer, Nuritas

At a time when the paucity of women in science is a real and pressing issue for the industry, it is hard to think of a better role model for aspiring young female scientists – or women in general, or humans in general, for that matter – than Dr Nora Khaldi.

Born in Algeria to an Irish mother and a French father, Khaldi is a mathematician with a PhD in molecular evolution and bioinformatics from Trinity College Dublin. Shewas the first scientist to show gene transfer between multi-cellular species.

Impressive though that sounds, it's not actually what she's best known for. In 2014, she set up Nuritas to develop the future of food – healthy living through functional, scientifically proven, and readily available ingredients, including things as ordinary as milk. That is every bit as revolutionary as it sounds: the company is currently trying to help people at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes fight it through the use of peptides, or molecules, that can be added to food.

“Food is not the problem; food is the solution. And we should look at food as the solution,” she says.

Last year, Khaldi's start-up won a €3 million research grant from the EU and raised €2 million in funding from major investors including Salesforce founder Marc Benioff; Ali Partovi, who was an early investor in both Dropbox and Facebook; Bono and The Edge.

Oh, and Nuritas was named one of Europe's top 10 most innovative start-up companies by the European Commission. So what did you get up to in 2016 again? JO'C


Tara McCarthy
Bord Bia CEO

Unlike many high achieving business women who operate in male-dominated environments, Tara McCarthy, who is chief executive of Board Bia, leads an organisation where women are strongly represented in the higher echelons of the command chain and throughout the company.

“Traditionally the food and farming sector has been male dominated; however within Bord Bia almost 65 per cent of staff are female,” she says.

McCarthy joined Bord Bia’s graduate programme having completed her primary degree in commerce at UCG and a Masters at the Smurfit Business School. In her 20-year career at the Irish food board she worked in France and Germany for more than 10 years, and fulfilled a number of senior management roles, rising to director of the food and beverages division.

In September 2015, she took up the position of chief executive of Board Iascaigh Mhara. But with the imminent retirement of former Bord Bia chef executive Aidan Cotter, just 18 months later she was back in Lr Mount Street, at the helm of an organisation facing challenging markets and global uncertainty.

“Brexit is a major concern and has certainly changed the landscape and how we will operate hereon. It has also made the industry, and all of us working on its behalf, more focussed and determined than ever.

“Under Food Wise 2025, the industry-led strategic plan, we have an ambitious export target of reaching €19 billion by 2025, compared to €11 billion last year. This, and delivering on Bord Bia’s strategic plan, is my priority right now and will continue to be for the years ahead,” she says.

McCarthy has been a regular contributor to the Government's Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025 reports and is involved in the Pathways for Growth programme. "I always did like a challenge," she says. MCD