The rural businesswomen: ‘I’ve a gun and I’m a good shot’
Start-ups by women in rural Ireland benefit from low overheads, a mentoring network and conversation without ‘bullsh**t’
Snail farmer Catherine Cocollos, of Celtic Escargot, based in south Co Galway. Photograph: Ger Ryan
“Sometimes women just cut the bulls**t out and talk without all the business buzzwords that men love to use,” says Karen Keane, and the four other women around the table nod their heads in recognition.
We’re in a hotel in Portlaoise, chosen for the fact that its midlands location is more or less equidistant to where these five women are based. All of them are running recently established businesses in rural Ireland, and all of them are participants in an innovative pilot scheme called Acorns, which has been running over the past couple of years.
It’s very hard to get a job when you live in the countryside, it’s easier to create your own job. We are showing that businesses don’t all have to be based in Dublin.
This is a scheme for women entrepreneurs living in rural Ireland, who are mentored over six months by women already long-established in business.
Together with her sister Natalie, Keane set up an artisan chocolate business, Bean and Goose, in Ferns, Co Wexford, in 2014. Like the other women in the project, she sees her rural location as a business advantage, not a negative.
“It’s very hard to get a job when you live in the countryside,” she says. “It’s easier to create your own job. By setting up our own businesses, we are showing that businesses don’t all have to be based in Dublin. It’s much cheaper to do it where we are based. You’re able to employ local people, and then people are also proud of you locally.”
“People are inspired by their surroundings in rural Ireland, if they are creating art and craft,” says Clare Colohan, who is behind the Galway Food Company. Based in Loughrea, Co Galway, in 2015 she launched a range of all-butter shortbread that incorporates locally sourced ingredients, such as seaweed and lavender.
“I see living in rural Ireland as an opportunity. There are so many people working with food and craft, and we need to bring them under the one umbrella,” she says.
Her shortbread is now in 350 shops in Ireland and Britain.
“In rural Ireland, we have the land and we have the views,” says Joanne Browne, from Hacketstown, Co Carlow, who makes her own solid perfumes. She is self-taught, and her range of three solid perfumes for women and two colognes for men are now in 120 shops in Ireland.
Caitríona Considine’s business, Moher Cottage, in Liscannor, Co Clare, opened in March. The shop and cafe stock a number of Irish-made craft and design items, and in the summer she will be selling her own home-made fudge, along with Irish coffee.
“The business is providing a destination stop for those visiting or living locally. Local people can avail of the cafe as a meeting place,” she says.
Snails roaming free
When Catherine Cocollos’s uncle gave her a small piece of land 10 years ago, near where she lives in south Co Galway, she and her French husband wondered how they could best use it. Their idea was to cultivate free-range edible snails.
The business, Celtic Escargot, is now in its third year. They import the young snails from France in April, and they’re ready in September. They export their stock to France and Britain.
“They roam freely in the field,” Cocollos says. “We started breeding them this year as well, so we will be self-sufficient.”
I have a gun, and I’m a good shot. You hang up a dead bird to scare the live ones, and the others don’t like seeing that.
Last year, they had no less than 350,000 snails in their small bit of land, and this year, they are importing half a million.
“Their journey is a little bit stressful, so we lose a few of them in transit,” Cocollos says.
The snails’ natural predators are rats and birds, but Cocollos has a way of dealing with the thieves of nature.
“I have a gun, and I’m a good shot,” she says. “You hang up a dead bird to scare the live ones, and the others don’t like seeing that.”
The mentoring method
Acorns is a mouthful of an acronym. It stands for Accelerating the Creation of Rural Nascent Start-ups. It doesn’t mention that it’s specifically for women entrepreneurs, but it is.
There were 56 places available per pilot scheme, one of which ran between autumn 2015 and spring 2016. The second pilot, which started in October last year, will end this April.
The project is funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, through its Rural Innovation and Development Fund. It’s one of the projects included in the government’s Action Plan for Rural Development.
Women in rural Ireland who had set up a small business no later than June 2014 were eligible to apply. Although the project is being facilitated through the Department of Agriculture and Food, there wasn’t any restriction in the type of business that was considered. “Rural” was defined as areas outside the city boundaries of Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford. Paula Fitzsimons, of Fitzsimons Consulting, won the tender to design and run the programme.
What was offered to those who were successful in their applications was free mentoring and advice with business and marketing plans, as well as strategy and finance.
The larger group of 56 was divided into sections of eight. There was care taken to mix up the different kinds of businesses represented in each group, so that not everyone in any single group, for example, would be working in the food sector. In the same way, groups were carefully mixed so that not all of the participants were at the same stage of developing their businesses, the idea being that in addition to learning from their mentors, participants could also learn from each other.
Women helping women
Each group of eight had its own mentor, also all women. These included Deirdre McGlone, of Harvey’s Point Hotel in Donegal; Alison Ritchie, of Polar Ice, the country’s largest manufacturer of dry ice; Anne Cusack of Westmeath, who set up Critical Healthcare, a manufacturer and distributor of emergency medical products; and Mary B Walsh, of Ire Wel Pallets in Wexford, a company that supplies pallets, boxes and crates.
All of the participants meet in one big group at the beginning and end of the project, and, in between, they meet once a month for a morning in their mentor’s home town. At each meeting, they are given targets to set, and then they report back the following month.
“There was a lot of trust involved, because there was a lot of commercially quite sensitive information, especially for a start-up,” Colohan says. “We all learned from each other.”
They stay in touch, and offer advice, ideas and feedback through their own WhatsApp and Facebook groups. The emphasis in the mentoring is “entrepreneurs supporting entrepreneurs”. Do they think it has made a difference that they are being mentored in business by other women?
“Yes,” Cocollos says. “It’s women helping women.”
“It is a fact that there are not enough women in business,” Colohan says. “There was a different kind of energy and a sense that we were empowering each other. We really lean on each other, and there was honesty and transparency from day one. There was no agenda. We just say it as it is. We are here to try and make our businesses grow, and help each other. We felt supported. It’s a different kind of empathy.”
“Perhaps thoughtfulness is part of the difference,” Considine says. “My mentor sent me a bunch of flowers on the day my business opened. Would a man have done that? Probably not. And it’s the fact that it’s other women who have your back.”
“Ultimately our mentors are our role models, because they are all successful businesswomen,” Keane says. “Working in a rural business can be very lonely, and now we all have our own networks with each other, and can call on each other for support. Now we all have a community, no matter where we are working in the country.”
We get so far in a man’s world and then it’s, like, can we really do this? It’s societal, I think
When asked what they consider the single most important thing they have each learned over the course of the pilot scheme, almost everyone answers “confidence”. It says a lot about modern Irish society that women who have already proved their initiative by getting selected on to a mentoring programme cite confidence as something they believe they are lacking in. Why do they think this is?
“It’s like women get to so far and then we stop,” Colohan says. “We get so far in a man’s world and then it’s, like, can we really do this? It’s societal, I think.”
“If I find myself really struggling, I think what would a man do in this situation? and I always think that difficulties wouldn’t bother him,” Keane says. “Women have to try harder and prove ourselves more.”
Considine says: “I wish now I’d started out in business by myself sooner. It is hard to leave a permanent, pensionable job, which I had, but the freedom I have now is amazing. There is no Sunday-evening feeling of dread any more, about Monday morning.”