These women mean business


National Women’s Enterprise Day is tomorrow and here, five Irish women entrepreneurs share the business wisdom they learned on their way to the top

‘Stop being afraid. That will stop you from achieving anything

JOAN FREEMAN is a psychologist and founder of Pieta House, a crisis centre for the prevention of suicide and self-harm

TEN YEARS ago I closed down my private counselling practice to research suicide and self-harm. I wanted to create a space that would help bring people through a time of crisis, an environment that would be non-clinical, compassionate and respectful.

Pieta House opened in 2006. By the end of this year, our turnover will be about €2 million, and we will have seen about 2,400 people. We have great people fundraising for us because there is a belief in what we do. We now employ more than 100 people, and are opening four more centres in the next 12 months in Roscrea, Galway, Cork and Kerry.

Being a female social entrepreneur has its advantages and its drawbacks. I think we have to accept and embrace that women have an innate radar that can look out for and care for people in trouble. No matter how successful women are in business, we shouldn’t forget that talent we have.

Being a woman has been difficult sometimes, however, especially in the early days when I was trying to set up something that had never been seen before in Ireland. It was a struggle at times to be taken seriously, to get the point across that I didn’t just want to set up a new service, it was about social change, about talking openly about suicide and self-harm in society. But I persisted and that paid off. Ten years ago, suicide was not only under the carpet but down in the basement. We have progressed from that point.

To other budding social entrepreneurs, I would say, have a vision and believe in it. Don’t let things like money get in your way. If you truly believe in what you are doing, and what you are doing is helping people, then your idea has to succeed. You have to stop being afraid, because that will stop you from achieving anything. You need to be fearless in whatever you do.

‘Don’t abandon a good idea because you don’t have money’

MARY ANN O’BRIEN began making chocolates from her kitchen in Kildare in 1992. Her chocolate and dessert company now employs more than 100 people. She is co-founder of the Jack and Jill Foundation and a Senator

TO SET up a business you need to have an incredible work ethic. You need tenacity and a desire to succeed, a huge sense of humour and a passion for what you are doing, or else you’d be better off just getting a job somewhere and working for someone else. Creating a successful business is a long road, but it is a wonderful road.

I have always been an ambitious and enterprising person. Even as a child I used to sell lemonade at the side of the road. I believed in my business idea, and thought big from the beginning. I always believed in export too, and the trade shows I did abroad in the early years of Lily O’Briens were instrumental in its success. Goals are very powerful things.

The recession nearly crippled the business and we were scared for a while, but now I realise it is the best thing that could have happened. We went right back to every recipe to make it the very best it could be, and built a dessert factory that has given us a whole new lease of life since it opened last May. The experience has proved how important it is to be adaptable.

It can be difficult starting a business at any time, especially in a recession, but I would advise people not to shy away from a good idea because they don’t have enough money or they think the banks won’t lend. There are some excellent agencies out there, such as Bord Bia and Enterprise Ireland, that will hand-hold young entrepreneurs now. Take advantage of them.

Get educated. I had no background in business when I started Lily O’Brien’s, nor was I very educated, but I wish I had an accountancy, marketing or business degree. I would have saved myself a fortune. Go and work for someone else in the industry for a year or two first, even if you have to go abroad to do it.

‘Success isn’t about luck. It’s about being as clever as you can be’

NORAH CASEY is owner and CEO of Harmonia, Ireland’s largest magazine publishers. She is an investor on RTÉ’s Dragons’ Den, co-anchor on Newstalk Breakfast, and a member of the National Paediatric Hospital Development Board, the London-based Women’s Irish Network and the International Women’s Forum.

I don’t have much time for people who talk about work-life balance, a term that implies that something you do for a sizeable proportion of your day is not part of your life. I am lucky enough to have worked in jobs and taken on roles that I absolutely love, and I have never thought my life begins when I finish work.

Since I began on Newstalk last month, I have had to manage my time more strictly and rely much more on virtual officing. The first thing I do when I wake up in the morning is check my emails, which I do throughout the day right up to when I go to bed.

My 13-year-old son Dara has been a part of my work life and vice versa from the very early days. He used to come into the office and rate the comics for me. I am lucky I had my son at a point in my life where I was running my own businesses, which made things more flexible.

We see fewer women in Dragons’ Den but more women are given investments. Women are more diligent about doing their research and preparing themselves. Although women are very good at lifestyle and microfinance businesses, not many of them are involved in high-potential start-ups. We need to encourage women in corporate life to think bigger, and give new graduates confidence to develop significant businesses.

Often women are so busy networking with other women that they forget that the politics of their organisation means they have to get on with their male colleagues. I would love if it wasn’t the case, but it is. I used to walk into the boardroom and you could hear a pin drop because everyone stopped talking. I got paranoid about it until I realised they were only talking about the rugby. So I learned about rugby even though I didn’t like it very much.

If you ask any successful businesswoman how they got to where they are they will tell you it is by being the brightest and the best. By putting their hand up faster than their male colleagues. By getting the reputation of delivering.

Don’t think that mediocrity will wash. Success isn’t about good luck. It is about you fulfilling your potential and being as clever and as intellectually astute as you possibly can be.

‘The secret of a successful business career is contacts’

MARY ROSE BURKE opened her own pharmacy in Mallow, Co Cork, in 1992. She is now director of pharmacy at Boots Ireland, and a board member of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce

I did an MBA in University College Cork in 1999, which exposed me to people from very different backgrounds. I learned as much from the other people on the course as I did from the lecturers and the books I read. That gave me a great grounding in business and economics, and an interest in wider commercial activity.

For me, the secret of a successful business career lies in creating a network of contacts, which I have done across health services, regulation and business. Through my work at local pharmacy level, with the Health Service Executive [Burke worked with the Southern Health Board and the HSE for three years] and with Boots, I have engaged with various stakeholders and have worn different hats, which helps me to think about things from different points of view. That’s what I bring to the boards I sit on.

As a pharmacist I never perceived a gender issue, but in the business world there is a huge divide. There were 16 doing the MBA, 13 men and three women. I learned a lot about new ways of thinking there. The ways men network can be very different from the ways women do, but we all need to be flexible and meet somewhere in the middle.

Having a successful career is not about being superwoman. Ordinary women can balance home life, work life and their own personal life, too, including sports, socialising and activities they enjoy. It is about being good enough at all those things without seeking to be a perfectionist in everything you do. If you can keep all the balls in the air, sometimes it is okay to accept that good enough is good enough.

‘There is no such thing as work-life balance. Searching for it will drive you crazy’

MOYA DOHERTY is the producer of Riverdance, and director of Tyrone Productions and Today FM. She currently sits on the board of the Abbey Theatre and Business2Arts

The women of my generation were the first to benefit from those who came just ahead of us, the Nell McCaffertys, the Nuala O’Faolains and the Mary Kennys, who fought hard for the rights Irish women now have. I think my generation have emerged as the best off – younger women today are under more pressure to have it all, and with the economy the way it is, there are fewer opportunities for people starting out.

I entered RTÉ in a traditional female role as a secretary in the late 1970s but became a producer in a very short space of time. It was a very free organisation then and there was great opportunity for promotion.

One of the best things I ever did was move to the UK for five years in the 1980s. RTÉ had a monopoly on the media market in Ireland, so you had to go abroad to get other experience. That helped enormously when I came back to Ireland. To travel, work and live in another city, no matter what the economic climate, is something everyone should attempt to do.

The gender divide is reasonably balanced in the artistic community in Ireland. When I look around at producers who are making their mark, they are all female. The likes of Anne Clarke and Garry Hynes are making work for the international stage that is very highly regarded, and I can’t think of many male producers who are doing the same thing.

I don’t believe there is such a thing as work-life balance, and if you keep searching for it you will drive yourself crazy. I am in a place now where I can work every hour God sends because my children are raised, which is hugely liberating. It is incredibly difficult and painful when you have young children and you have to work long hours. There is no easy way. But you can only do the best you can.

National Women’s Enterprise Day 2012 takes place tomorrow and Thursday with a conference – hosted by county and city enterprise boards – at Portlaoise Heritage Hotel, Porlaoise, Co Laois. See

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