WITH ten years experience as a senior development advisor for Irish start-ups with Enterprise Ireland, Alison Walsh was well qualified to take on the role of Exxcel programme manager at CIT’s Rubicon Centre last January.
Now, more than six months into the job, Ballinlough-based Alison has found time to reflect on the programme and those she has met along the way.
Exxcel is a part-time programme aimed specifically at female entrepreneurs who have a business idea with high growth and export potential, within the STEM sector (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths).
“It’s a six month programme of one-day classroom sessions on different business topics,” explains Alison.
“Participants undertake modules over six months on Saturdays. These include Business Strategy and Planning, Finance, Funding and Scaling, Digital Marketing, Selling and Presentation Skills. They are supported by one-to-one mentoring, so while they are taught a lot of theory and there is cohort collaboration, they then get the opportunity to validate their business ideas with their mentors and that’s what sets it apart from other programmes out there. And it’s the only one in Ireland dedicated to the STEM sector.”
How would Alison describe those who have been drawn to the Exxcel Programme?
“People who typically come are highly skilled individuals with ideas, seeking to meet the needs of the STEM sector. They are mostly still in full-time employment but with no opportunity to progress their business idea. With Exxcel they get to remain in full-time employment while they validate their ideas.”
The graduation of the latest round of 13 entrepreneurs took place earlier this summer at a special showcase evening at The Rubicon in CIT, attended by mentors and trainers as well as previous participants. Among the graduates were Riona Flood of Smart Groom, the first and only wedding website/online magazine for men; Genevieve Hayman of Quieter, an app for those who wish to find quiet areas in their locality in real time; Breffni Allen of Habitus, a posture awareness and correctness system; Niamh Parker, founder and CEO of Grifalgo, a HR tech software for bespoke graduate recruitment; and Sinead Smyth of Love Rock, a company offering the design and manufacture of laboratory-grown diamonds.
All have seen a gap in the market and with the Exxcel progamme behind them, they are better placed to make their businesses a success.
“Each participant produces an investor-ready business plan by the time they’ve completed the programme. Those who want to take the leap into entrepreneurism then have a document to send to Enterprise Ireland,” says Alison.
And the relationship with the Rubicon doesn’t cease on graduation day either; something Alison feels is a huge bonus for the programme.
“The journey of engagement doesn’t end, as they become part of the Rubicon family. They always have the opportunity to re-connect with trainees and mentors.”
There are now quite a few incentives for female start-ups, including Enterprise Ireland’s €750,000 Competitive Start Fund (CSF), specifically for those who are active in the manufacturing and Internationally Traded Services sectors; female-led start-up companies that have the potential to employ more than 10 people and achieve €1 million in export sales within three years.
However, such initiatives are not without their detractors, with some questioning why — in this age of equality — women are getting what is perceived as special treatment.
“In an ideal world, maybe there wouldn’t be a need for this but women are still under-represented in business,” says Alison. “Despite making up 50 per cent of the population and performing better in education, recorded figures for EI show that in 2011 only seven per cent of high performing start-ups were female-led, meaning there is significant untapped potential. That figure had jumped to 20 per cent in 2016 and the difference is as a consequence of support for female enterprise.”
Alison points to a 2015 Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation which issued a report on key issues for female entrepreneurs in Ireland and for their participation in the tech sector.
“That report supported the contention that female founders must have dedicated support and networking systems,” she says.
“In STEM, there is a lack of female leaders and a lack of visibility.”
Alison, who relocated from Dublin three years ago, having also worked in London and Australia, is quick to praise the Cork-originated I Wish initiative, which seeks to entice secondary school girls to consider STEM subjects and careers.
“I Wish is trying to grow the ambition of young girls to have careers in STEM and take on tech subjects in order to follow it on to third level,” she says.
So, what other reasons are there for women to still be in the minority in the tech business world, thereby needing the encouragement and guidance of the Exccel programme? Is it the still abiding tradition of women taking on too much of the family and home responsibilities?
While Alison — a working mother of four children under the age of eight (with the youngest just 21 months old) — recognises this as a “fundamental issue”, she is witnessing change right before her eyes.
“We had four women pregnant on the programme. They were a living, breathing example of how you can realise your dreams. At the showcase evening, we had two new babies there! I had to ask myself: when I was facing motherhood for the first time, would I have had their bravery? I was really blown away by them. It’s hard starting a new business whether you’re male or female. It takes a steely determination to not let go of the dream of putting your service or product on the market. I think if I was them I might have waited,” she admits.
“It was a humbling experience to see such incredibly bright, ambitious women with the bravery I don’t have. I got to benefit from all their energy. It really was a huge reward for me to tap into that energy. They had the bravery to leave a job with a salary and take a leap of faith; I take my hat off to them, each more impressive than the next.”
I suggest that the women would also find it inspiring to have a female programme manager in her.
“Men have managed the programme in the past,” she replies. “But I do enjoy the camaraderie of sharing the working mum stories. We have a nice connection. And of course I relish the chance to squeeze a new-born that’s not my own!” she adds.
She is clearly very impressed by the work ethic of working mums, joking that she herself is a “part-time domestic CEO,” ferrying the kids to hurling blitzes and other activities outside of her professional hours.