Ahead of the International Business Women’s Conference, which takes place in the Brandon Hotel, Tralee, Co Kerry on Monday 22nd August I spoke with Sarita Johnston, Manager, Female Entrepreneurship in Enterprise Ireland (EI) to find out more about it.

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Sarita shared her vision and the themes of the conference. She explained how challenges that impact female entrepreneurs can be addressed by hearing the stories of strong female role models who have a ‘can do’ attitude.

Sarita also feels very strongly about the areas of diversity and inclusion and has included these topics in the conference.

It’s shaping up to be an inspiring and informative conference with many positive messages and key takeaways. It is taking place during and in conjunction with the Rose of Tralee International Festival, together with the Department of the Diaspora and sponsored by AIB.

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Here are some of questions I put to Sarita.

The theme of this year’s conference is “The Changing Face of Success”, with the main focus being on strong female role models. Why has Enterprise Ireland chosen this theme?

Over the last number of years EI has put a lot of emphasis on the whole area of female entrepreneurship. What we are trying to instil into this year’s conference is that success and female entrepreneurship go hand-in-hand.

In 2012, research conducted by  EI identified challenges that impact female entrepreneurs, some of which are:

– Fear of failure

– Lack of self-confidence

– Perceived less access to finance

– Perceived less ambition

– Lack of role models

I want to:

“Knock these perceptions on the head”

and ask how we can deal with the challenges and issues that we face, and to say:

 “OK guys, let’s move forward and see we how can empower and instil a sense of ambition and success amongst females.”

The conference themes are:

– Breaking through barriers

– How I made it

These are positive messages, and for every positive message there is always a back story. 

Strong Female Role Models:

We have great role models in this country such as Louise Phelan, PayPay, Anne O’Leary, Vodafone. They care very much about diversity and inclusion. Not just for females but for other groupings amongst senior and middle management in order to have better corporate governance, better returns and performances for their companies.

We have a large number of successful females In Ireland which we emulate as role models. It’s important that we look to them to show us the way forward.

Eleanor McEvoy, CEO of Budget Energy Ltd

Nora Casey, Broadcaster and Publishing Entrepreneur

Paula Fitzsimons, Founder and Managing Director of Fitzsimons Consulting

Madi Sharma, Entrepreneur and Founder of the Madi Group

Madi is a great instigator and advocate for females in business.  A single mother, and former victim of domestic abuse, Madi set up two companies, and employs over 35 people.  She was assigned by the Prime Minister to sit on the European Economic and Social Committee. Her story is not about the victim mentality, but a positive one.

When women hear the stories of these female entrepreneurs they get a sense of a ‘can do’ attitude.

Diversity and Inclusion:

Women are more risk adverse, which can be both positive and negative. When I say that I don’t say it lightly. I think that by having more females as part of senior level management teams, and on boards, more calculated risk taking decisions happen.

I love the whole area of diversity and inclusion and wanted to give examples of them in the conference.

Anastasia Volkova. CEO of Survival Russia

Anastasia originally taught English in Russia. She relocated from there to Ireland after successfully coming through EI’s Competitive Start Fund and Programme.

The reason I asked her to tell her story was because we have a large number of immigrant populations in Ireland who can add value and contribute to the Irish economy.

Young female entrepreneurs are females who have a ‘can do’ attitude.

Sarah O’Connor, Co-founder, Cool Food Company

Pamela Newenham, Co-founder, GirlCrew

These are young enthusiastic entrepreneurs who are at the start of their journeys . They have a lot of energy and a different  take on things. Instead of looking backwards, they are looking forward.

These are the types of females and companies that EI believes have the ambition to grow, scale and make an impact. It’s about delving into these diverse groups and saying:

“Right where can we make and extract from them the maximum impact to contribute to Ireland and the economy as a whole?”

In relation to female entrepreneurship in Ireland can you please give me some statistics and any other interesting facts in this area?

In 2012, EI rolled out its first Female only Competitive Start Fund and Competitive Feasibility initiatives (CSF). The success of these initiatives has been not only in demonstrating the high number of applicants we get, on average 120-130 per female fund, but can also be shown in the growth of High Potential Start-Ups (HPSUs) led by females since 2012.

In 2012, 7% of HPSU’s were female led, this increased to 22% in 2015 (3 fold).  In fact, in 2015 EI invested in 61 female led companies across both CSF’s and HPSU’s.

– Investments up from 7% in 2011 to 23% in 2015.

– Investments 50% Regional and 50% Dublin

– 84% of our Investments in 2014 were in Technology Led Businesses

We have started to make an impact on getting those numbers up, but now it’s about helping those companies to scale beyond the €1 million plus mark and beyond.

What are some of the supports, both financial and practical that female entrepreneurs can avail of not just from EI but other EI partners and programmes?

We network with a number of different partners where we see the best impact.

This year we had a very close relationship with Network Ireland which has over 500 members around the country. Their members are entrepreneurs, and career women and they have a very diverse membership base.

EI together with Network Ireland ran a ‘Fuelling Ambition Roadshow’ in six locations outside of Dublin:

Donegal, Athlone, Dundalk, Galway, Limerick, Cork

Other EI collaborations, initiatives and programmes:

– Going for Growth

– CIT Rubicon Cork Exxcel STEM Programme

– DCU Ryan Academy, the Female High Fliers Accelerator Programme.
(This year there are two cycles , previously there was only one)

– NDRC

From a female perspective we are very conscious of the whole area of STEM. We are trying to increase the number of STEM and technology female lead companies.  This is the first year EI has rolled out an initiative with the NDRC.  It started in June and coincides with a €50k investment by EI and a €5k investment by the NDRC.

We also sponsor many conferences and events hroughout the year. We realise that in order to get our message out we need to collaborate and work with various partners.

It’s not just about financial supports which EI is well known for,  it’s about the myriad number of supports that we bring to the table.

Sarita spoke about the event itself, where it’s being held and why, and about the partners, sponsors and input from former Roses:

I hope the International Business Women’s Conference is going to be successful as a new forum. I believe the themes this year are very meaningful and extremely good discussion points.

The conference is being held in conjunction and in partnership with the Rose of Tralee International Festival.  It’s also the first year it’s being sponsored by AIB and the Department of the Diaspora. Never is there such a huge Diaspora influx into Ireland than during this festival, which has come so far.

The Roses themselves are highly professional and careers focused females and they have their own stories to tell.

Former Roses speaking at the conference are:

Dr Clare Kambamettu, a clinical psychologist and who is a presenter on RTE 2’s Bressie’s Ironmind.

Arlene O’Neill, Assistant Professor in Physics and Director of Trinity Walton Club.

Elysha Brennan, a third year medical student in the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin.

These are extremely strong women, they are at the start of their journeys and deciding which course they are going to take. Former Roses have a lot to give back, so it’s about harnessing as much of that as possible.

What are the key insights and takeaways that EI would like attendees to gain during and after the conference?

The mission for this conference is that attendees feel they have been informed. That they go away with a ‘tool kit’ of information about what is available to them. That they know about the supports, and services not only from EI, but also AIB’s financial initiatives for females. This the black and white stuff.

What is most important is that they will feel inspired, motivated and encouraged to think about their next steps. Whether it’s to become a junior, middle or senior manager or to take the leap into that entrepreneurial journey.

The day will also be about networking. It will be important for attendees to speak to their neighbours and say:

“My name is ….”

“This is what I do.”

“I’d love to hear a little bit about what you do.”

One of the important things that I have learnt through my own role is that:

“A female who knows another female entrepreneur is 5 times more likely to be an entrepreneur and set up her own business.”

Sarita shared her vision and explained extremely well the themes behind this conference. It  will be a place where attendees will hear from strong and diverse female role models who will share their stories of success. They will have the opportunity to network and hopefully feel motivated and inspired to create their own businesses and to move forward. They will also leave the conference with a ‘tool kit’ to help them ‘go for it’.


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