Cork business woman: I gave up a pension, access to good healthcare, in a recession and stepped onto self-employed rollercoaster

Ahead of the Network Ireland Women in Business Awards this week, LINDA KENNY and EMMA CONNOLLY catch up with some more of the Cork finalists
Cork business woman: I gave up a pension, access to good healthcare, in a recession and stepped onto self-employed rollercoaster

Michelle Dinneen who won the best Solo Businesswoman category at the Network Cork's Businesswoman of the Year Awards 2021 and goes onto the national finals on October 8. Picture: Darragh Kane

WHEN entrepreneur Michelle Dinneen’s name was read out as the winner of the prestigious Solo Businesswoman of the Year at the recent Network Cork awards ceremony, the celebrations reverberated far beyond her home in Dunderrow and into her parish of Innishannon, writes Linda Kenny.

“I got the shakes”, she admits. “I thought I didn’t care. But I did. It was really lovely to have that recognition.”

More than 20 years of hard graft and innovation was stacked up behind that award and it was well earned.

Michelle’s first entrepreneurial venture was at the tender age of 21 when she and two friends took a four-month lease on a premises in Galway city centre, and ran an ice-cream parlour for the summer. They hired all the equipment and furniture and made a decent profit.

Following this, she spent 15 years working her way up the ranks in Boston Scientific. While there, she identified training as the area in which she wanted to invest her time.

Realising she had no education or know-how in this field, she spent five years working by day and studying by night with UCC and CIT, and completing her education with a Masters Degree in Human Resource Leadership with Sheffield-Hallam University.

She was heavily pregnant with her son Callum when writing up her Masters dissertation, which was due on August 31, 2007. She feared that the longer she went on, the stronger the likelihood was that she mightn’t finish it before the baby arrived, so she gave herself a false delivery deadline of June 30.

Good job too, as Calum made his appearance into the world on August 31.

A few minutes in Michelle’s company and you realise she is someone who could rule the world. She is a veritable powerhouse of energy, determination and focus, with a sparkling personality to boot.

But work-life balance is very important to her and the motivating factor that influenced her ultimately leaving the steady pensionable job in Boston Scientific and launching her hugely successful Ardin Career Development almost 10 years ago.

“It was a crazy decision to make”, she explains. “I remember sitting in the Boston Scientific car park, after I had handed in my notice. And the gut-wrenching feeling when I asked myself ‘what have I done?’”

“I had given up a pension, access to good healthcare, and Ireland was still in a recession,” she continues.

“I realised I had stepped off the corporate ladder and onto the self-employment roller-coaster!”

But with three kids under four, and a 12-hour working day, Michelle was juggling the relentless daily intensity of the corporate world with the stress and guilt of leaving her small children for so long with a childminder.

“When I was pregnant with Aine, my youngest daughter, I was on a coaching course. The trainer asked us to create a vision board. And mine was a picture of myself and my husband Charlie with two little girls and a boy. There was a calendar behind us with days marked off for family time.

“I suppose, looking back on it, that was an epiphany moment,” she recalls. “I knew I wanted to work for myself and from then on, this was the dream.”

The real challenge for Michelle was the ‘when’. However, the defining ‘when’ moment came about rather effortlessly.

“We had a room in the attic and Cha and I had a conversation about whether it was going to be the au-pair’s room or my office,” Michelle adds.“I said, I’d like to try it.” And that was it.

She took a leap into the unknown as a self-employed trainer, designing and delivering training courses for companies, and has never looked back. She now has over 30 clients in the Pharma, MedTech, Food/Beverage, Aviation sectors and Skillnets.

Michelle facilitates learning in Emotional Intelligence, Team Development, Presentation Skills, Conflict Resolution, Resilience, Coaching, Influencing, Communication and Compliance. She holds a MSc in HR Leadership, is a qualified Master Trainer, EQ practitioner and Business and Executive Coach.

“I never believed I would be as busy as I am or that I would ever have to turn away clients,” she insists.

“But, when Covid-19 hit, I genuinely thought my business would be wiped out. I had never trained virtually so had to upskill,” she adds.

“In March, I didn’t know how to do it, and by June I was running courses on how to deliver training in a virtual classroom.

“My fear with the virtual world was that you would fail to get that connection and engagement with your audience.

“But I had clients singing and playing musical instruments online!” she adds with a giggle.

Covid-19 was also the trigger for Michelle to join Network Cork.

“I was afraid that without the face-to-face engagement, that I would get lost. So, I joined as much for the social connection as for the network.”

As regional winner in the Solo Businesswoman category, she will go on to compete in the Network National Finals in the WIT arena on October 8.

Originally from Bellewstown in Co. Meath, Michelle lives in Dunderrow with her husband Charlie Dinneen, Sales Manager with Kevin O’Leary in Bandon. They have three children, Callum, Caoimhe and Aine. All are passionate Valley Rovers fans!

Miriam Bourke from Invesco Limited who won the Power Within Champion category at Network Cork's Businesswoman of the Year Awards 2021.Picture: Darragh Kane
Miriam Bourke from Invesco Limited who won the Power Within Champion category at Network Cork's Businesswoman of the Year Awards 2021.Picture: Darragh Kane

Power Within Champion

Miriam Bourke, Invesco Limited

NOMINATED in the ‘Power Within’ category, Miriam Bourke says her role model for such a title is her own mother, writes Emma Connolly.

Miriam’s husband passed away a decade ago and she was faced with the prospect of raising her two young daughters, aged just two and nine, alone.

“But my mum had shown me what the ‘Power from Within’ is - she was my first role model and I couldn’t have asked for a better one. Without her love and support over the last 10 years, me and my two girls would not be where we are today, that is why I dedicated my award in June to her, Bonnie Cullinane, when I won the Network Cork Branch,” said Miriam.

It’s her resilience, in both her work and personal life, that sets the Rochestown woman apart.

“In my personal life, things haven’t always gone to plan. When my husband passed away it was a time of great change. I was dealing not only with my own grief but that of our two young daughters. I was determined to create a happier future for the three of us – I also wanted to show them that I could look after them, care for them and provide for them,” she said.

“I have been blessed with the best cheerleaders any woman could wish for in my amazing family and friends. They support me in every aspect of my life, and I truly am so grateful.”

That’s why Miriam strongly believes in mentoring – especially for women.

“We need to be there for each other in the good times and the bad times and I have benefited from this especially over the last 10 years

“We need to be on the side-lines shouting each other on and willing each other to do well.”

She’s a relatively new member of Network Cork, having joined in January, 2021, after attending several events as a non-member.

“Being part of this network, it’s so easy to see the benefits of women supporting women, and I look forward to being part of this network of amazing women for many years to come. In my short time I have gained and learnt so much from them.”

Miriam is a Client Manager with Invesco Ltd, Cork.

“I work closely with our experienced teams in the areas of Administration, Legal, Actuarial, Investment, Fund Accounts, Wealth Management, and IT. Our combined role involves working closely with our clients to develop bespoke solutions tailored to their needs and their employee’s needs.

“My day-to-day role is varied which I love. Pre-Covid, I was 60% in the office and 40% out at meetings with clients and scheme trustees and pension clinics for members of our pension schemes.

“What sets Invesco apart from others is our holistic approach to helping our clients and our slogan says it all, ‘One Advisor for Life’.

“Pensions may seem boring to many, but no two days are ever the same and legislation can change overnight, so you are constantly upskilling and learning, ‘every day is a school day.’”

The nomination for the national award means an awful lot to her.

“In a way, after the last 10 years, it’s a validation that I have done OK and I survived!”

Her daughter Rebecca, aged 19, is set to begin third level in UCC and Charlotte, aged 12, has just started secondary school in St Angela’s College, where Miriam attended herself.

“But as a single mother it certainly hasn’t been easy and there have been lots of tears and tantrums (home schooling a 12-year-old during Covid was, I have to say, one of my biggest challenges and also supporting my oldest daughter through her Leaving Cert during a world pandemic!) along the way. It is so nice to be recognised, but like all women out there we all use our ‘Power from Within’ every day.”

She’s also a great believer in bringing people along with her.

“I hope that if someone is going through a hard time this might give them a little strength. I will always remember reading a text from my sister Paula, while sitting in the car park nine weeks after my husband died before I returned to work. It said: ‘Mir, I promise you, you will smile again for real’. And do you know what? I did, it took a while, but I did.”

Elena Canty who won Rising Star Employee in the Network Cork awards and goes forward to the national finals this week. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Elena Canty who won Rising Star Employee in the Network Cork awards and goes forward to the national finals this week. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

Rising Star Employee

Elena Canty, Event Plan

FEW things annoy Elena Canty more than being told she’s inspirational for going to college, having a job and a living her life, writes Emma Connolly.

“It’s like when they see my wheelchair, they think ‘sure God love her, isn’t she great.’ It’s so patronising. I mean if someone had a job or went to college I wouldn’t call them inspirational,” she said.

That’s ‘ableism,’ she says – discrimination against people with disabilities based on the assumption that typical abilities are superior. And she says she experiences plenty of it in Cork, as well as poorly accessible streets and buildings.

But Elena has overcome greater challenges than those in her 31 years and come out the other side still smiling, showing a remarkable resilience despite the odds stacked against her.

She was born in Minsk, Belaus, in 1990 with a rare bone disease which causes her bones to fracture easily, she has scoliosis and needs a wheelchair to get around.

The first five years of her life were spent in an orphanage before she was adopted by Noreen and Tomas Canty from Ballyvolane. That’s been her home since, and she’s a proud north-side woman.

Elena doesn’t mind talking about her past because things “have turned out so fabulous for me”.

“I do remember some things from the orphanage, like red lamp shades in the ceiling, and how we had teddies donated to us. I took a rubber mouse with me when I moved to Ireland and called it Mischka!”

She got to meet her birth parents, and two siblings, in 2002 in what was a bitter sweet experience.

“I keep touch with my siblings. But I would still completely regard myself as a Cork woman.”

It had been suggested she should attend a non-mainstream school, but she attended mainstream and “overcame many challenges along the way with the courage to never stop believing in achieving my goals”.

She graduated from Munster Technology University with an MA in PR with New Media and a Business Administration Degree and now works as a Communications Executive with Event Plan and VE Studio Cork with responsibility for social media management, digital marketing, and communications activities. It’s a job she loves.

Fractured bones and bouts of ill health, particularly with lung related ailments, challenged Elena up to her 20s, but her health is now much improved.

But naturally, as someone with an underlying condition, she cocooned at home with her parents when the pandemic hit and admits it was challenging.

“I found lockdowns very tough, I struggled with it and still feel a sense of trauma to be honest. I mean, so much has happened, I think it’s going to take time for that healing to take place,” she said.

Not always feeling her best, and having some mental health challenges, is something she honestly says she lived with on a daily basis, because of her physical disability.

“But with every challenge I faced in my life, my mom would always say ‘look in the mirror and repeat after me, I’m beautiful, I’m confident and I know it.’ This gave me a sense of empowerment and carried me through as I overcame a challenge.

“Even though they can be tough to deal with at the time, challenges are never negative, because I always learn something new. Knowledge and education is power!”

Joining Network Cork in July, 2019, was a turning point in her life as she found her ‘tribe’ of women.

“It was a whole new lease of life for me and I’ve never looked back,” she said.

It’s also how she got her job at Event Plan, having met co-owner Margaret O’Regan at a networking event. She was offered a three-month internship and is still there!

Future plans for Elena include writing a book to share her unique story: “It’s been such an epic journey for me so far in my 31 short years, and I would love to say that I left behind a legacy of endurance and resilience despite all the odds stacked against me.”

Fiona Kennedy from Fiona Kennedy Music who won the Creative Professional category at Network Cork's Businesswoman of the Year Awards 2021. Picture: Darragh Kane
Fiona Kennedy from Fiona Kennedy Music who won the Creative Professional category at Network Cork's Businesswoman of the Year Awards 2021. Picture: Darragh Kane

Creative Professional— Fiona Kennedy, Fiona Kennedy Music

THE pandemic gave Fiona Kennedy no other option but to step away from the unrelenting gigging circuit to focus on her songwriting and she’s now looking forward to launching her new album next year, writes Emma Connolly.

The well known musician from Bishopstown said that initially, when lockdown hit, it was almost like a mini-holiday. She got evenings off and was able to watch TV for the first time in years!

“Then the horrifying reality kicked in, all revenue streams were gone. But like so many others I had no other option but to adapt to the changes and make the best of it,” she said with her usual pragmatism.

And she did more than just adapt, she flourished. Fiona helped raise €4,000 for Penny Dinners with her weekly live-streams, of new songs, and old favourites.

The fourth of a succession of new singles has just been released. Called Where Else Would You Get It, the song went straight into the number one spot in the ITunes Chart on September 8.

Resilience and survival are words that sum Fiona up well, and after a career and personal life with its fair share of challenges, she’s always bounced back, brighter than ever.

She was thrust into the spotlight when she won RTÉ’s ‘ Screen Test’ in the 1980s. She went on to perform in front of 50,000 people at Siamsa Cois Laoi, and a televised concert in Pairc Ui Caoimh starring Kris Kristofferson, led to her own one-hour TV special on RTÉ, The Fiona Kennedy Show.

The ’80s recession saw her take the plunge and move to New York where she performed for the Kennedy family at their home.

Returning to Ireland in the ’90s, she got married, lived in Cavan and started all over again. She recorded her album Crazy Love, which was nominated for an IRMA, and lots of success followed. Unfortunately, her marriage ended which saw her move back to Cork as a mum of two young girls (now aged 20 and 24). In financial difficulty, and with travel and night time work no longer viable, she moved into the wedding industry as a ceremony singer.

“It was a really difficult time,” she remembers.

Joining Network Cork marked a turning point for her though.

“It really helped me to focus on what I wanted and to realise that I wasn’t finished with my career, far from it,” she said.

In 2016, through a crowd funding campaign she raised €10,000 in just six weeks which allowed her to record her album The Beach.

“That allowed me to establish myself in the recording industry again and I’ve never looked back since.”

As well as her upcoming album, she’ll be performing in festivals around the country including the upcoming Cork Folk Festival and Jazz Festival and is looking forward to playing for live audiences again, especially in intimate theatre settings.

To read more about the other Network Cork and Network West Cork finalists, see EchoLive.ie

More in this section

Sponsored Content

summersoaplogosml

Called Droid, our next story is about a boy who designs a robot at UCC and chaos ensues. It was written by Margaret Gillies, from the MA in Creative Writing Programme at UCC.

Add Echolive.ie to your home screen - easy access to Cork news, views, sport and more