Nurturing new business in rural Ireland

A group of 17 women in rural areas recently completed a start-up course — from a vegan skincare practitioner, to home baking tutor, a bridal alterations specialist and and nutritionist, writes MARTINA O’DONOGHUE.
Nurturing new business in rural Ireland

STEPPING OUT: Nessa Goggin of Bridal Alterations at the WREN showcase. Pictures: Darragh Kan

IT may still be a man’s world when it comes to business in Ireland but women are continuing to step out from the shadows to address the underrepresentation of female entrepreneurs, largely thanks to the support and encouragement received through a number of start-up courses and programmes.

One of these is the WREN Programme — the Women’s Rural Entrepreneurial Network, which recently saw its first group of participants graduate with a showcase at the Radisson Hotel.

Led by SECAD, the WREN programme supports female entrepreneurs, start-ups led by women or those interested in becoming self-employed through training and business development supports.

The programme is operated in partnership with Ballyhoura Development, Cork Institute of Technology’s Rubicon Centre and Hincks Centre for Entrepreneurship Excellence and funded by Department of Justice and Equality and the European Social Fund.

The WREN programme includes personal development and business skills training, one to one and group mentoring, female ‘role model’ sharing of experience and support, themed networking and experiential learning events, formation and facilitation of the facilitated networking sessions and a networking / business pitching event.

SECAD’s Frances Doyle, course co-ordinator of WREN, also coaches the participants in the Personal Development Module of the programme and explains that the module is all about building confidence, setting goals, challenging ourselves as business people, asking what’s working for us or not working for us in terms of the business plan, and examining the impact on the lives of family when setting up as a self-employed person.

Each participant also compiles a reflective journal outlining what she learned at each session and what to do with that learning.

Frances has a plethora of information to pass on relating to the challenges and pitfalls of being self-employed; often points that the women might not have considered in advance of the training.

“No-one is going to buy off you unless they like you. That’s kind of how we operate in this country — maybe it’s talking about the weather first”, she suggests. “You have to be aware of that when you are selling to people.”

RIGHT DESIGNS: Joanna Kaminska of JOKAMIN fine art design studio with one of her 100% silk scarves.
RIGHT DESIGNS: Joanna Kaminska of JOKAMIN fine art design studio with one of her 100% silk scarves.

“Also, when you are self-employed you ARE the business and the business is YOU. I’m an employee, so if someone comes up to me on at the weekend to talk about SECAD, I can politely offer them a business card and ask them to call the office on Monday, but when you’re self-employed if someone comes up to you in a bar at 11pm or in Super Valu when you’re buying carrots at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, you have to talk to them about the business.”

The reality of working alone can also take some getting used to.

“When working for yourself it can be very lonely. In another workplace people are coming and going. But working on your own, you also have to deal with the concept of time management”, she says.

There was nothing lonely about the WREN programme as the women had the company and solidarity of each other through its nine month run. The programme runs part-time (one day per week from 10am to 1pm) and is designed to suit existing work and family commitments. As a result of the course just completed, 17 women in rural areas have now created jobs for themselves and potentially for others, through the establishment of their businesses.

For the programme, women attended from Macroom, Clonakilty and the city, as well as a large contingent from the Midleton area, where the course is run (another operates in Croom, Co. Limerick). There was also a diverse range of business interests represented, with participants including a nutritionist, a photographer, a woman who wishes to do baking classes from her own home, a skincare practitioner working with vegan products and a bridal alteration specialist.

So what was the selection process like when accepting participants for the programme?

“We had 50 applicants last year and we interviewed all 50 and offered places to 20,” explains Frances.

A PIECE OF CAKE: Suzanne Kearney, SECAD with Silvia Lopez of Hola Students, Claire O’Connor of East Cork Cookery School and Frances Doyle, SECAD at the WREN Showcase, the Women’s Rural Entrepreneurial Network (WREN). See www.secad.ie Picture: Darragh Kane
A PIECE OF CAKE: Suzanne Kearney, SECAD with Silvia Lopez of Hola Students, Claire O’Connor of East Cork Cookery School and Frances Doyle, SECAD at the WREN Showcase, the Women’s Rural Entrepreneurial Network (WREN). See www.secad.ie Picture: Darragh Kane

“They should have a good business idea and the personality to match it. We don’t look for qualifications but rather, do they have the drive and personality to follow it through? They should be within two years of starting their business — or else just starting it — and they should have a get-up-and-go attitude and a passion for their business.”

One imagines that those who have already set up their businesses might have a head-start on those coming to the table with only a concept but Frances says this isn’t always the case: “Surprisingly enough the people already in business say ‘I’ve been doing this all wrong’, ‘I haven’t looked at this properly’, ‘I never knew I could get funding there’, or ‘I never knew digital marketing was so important’.”

Sometimes the lesson is that the business is not actually going to be viable. One woman from the programme realised that she wasn’t going to be able to get the funding for her plan so is now scaling down her original idea. It’s better to find out now than to waste more time and money on a doomed project.

One of the four modules on the course concerns finance and funding, which Frances feels can be a real eye-opener: “Here they are creating a financial statement for their business plans — how much will everything cost? I sometimes have to explain that they cannot survive unless they charge enough for their products. Often they wouldn’t have charged for their own time. You also have to factor in ingredients, electricity, insurance and so on, to see if it is a viable option.”

Modules are also conducted in conjunction with the Rubicon, such as Exploring Business Viability, which involves putting the business idea down on paper and creating a market research project. Another such module is Business Planning and Execution, which involves finishing off the business plan and participating in the final showcase.

A PIECE OF CAKE: Silvia Lopez of Hola Students and Claire O'Connor of East Cork Cookery School as they graduate the Women's Rural Entrepreneurial Network (WREN) programme. Pic Darragh Kane
A PIECE OF CAKE: Silvia Lopez of Hola Students and Claire O'Connor of East Cork Cookery School as they graduate the Women's Rural Entrepreneurial Network (WREN) programme. Pic Darragh Kane

The involvement of the Rubicon is a great attraction for would-be entrepreneurs and WREN is an accredited training programme (Certificate in Enterprise and Development), for which the participant gets 20 credits, meaning those credits can be used towards any IT in the country for further study if desired. Others present it to the Department of Social Welfare with a view to getting the Back to Work Enterprise Allowance.

So how should participants feel at the end of the programme?

“The bottom line is that they feel more confident in themselves and their product”, says Frances.

The programme is currently recruiting for the next round of potential female entrepreneurs to begin the next WREN programme in September 2018 until May 2019. Interested parties should contact Frances Doyle at SECAD by email: info@secad.ie or phone: 021 4613432, visit www.secad.ie or the SECAD Facebook page.

The WREN Project is co-funded by the Irish Government and the European Social Fund as part of the ESF Programme for Employability, Inclusion and Learning (PEIL) 2014-2020.

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