IN 2015, Maria Desmond was driving on the South Link Road when a car came towards her on the wrong side of the dual carriageway at high speed. It ended in a five car collision but, luckily for her, Maria’s car wasn’t one of them.
“I was in the fast lane, the left lane had a string of cars and there was nowhere for me to go. It was such a close call, there was literally an inch between me and the oncoming car. All I remember is a flash of blue coming straight towards me, I thought I was a goner,” she said.
At the time she was running her own market research business but that near death experience, combined with the death of her father, Denis, from cancer at the age of just 60 in 2002, made her reassess her life.
“Both experiences made me realise that life is precious, it’s not infinite, that I need to make the most of it,” Maria remembers.
“Thereafter I had two goals, to work at something that makes me happy (combining creativity with figures) and to work at something meaningful.”
At this stage Maria, who has just been appointed president of Network Cork, had already launched and run two successful businesses.
The day after she graduated with an honours degree in Commerce from UCC, herself and a friend, Brian Moore, set up their own hand-tied fishing fly business based in the Shandon Craft Centre.
“We commissioned people to tie the flies in traditional Irish patterns. It might sound niche but at the time there were more anglers coming to Ireland than golfers, I just loved the buzz of sales!” she said.
The business was a huge hit – they could scarcely keep up with demand – and soon they had a U.S agent and were exporting there, Canada and Europe. They went on to produce a Scottish range also.
Along the way, Maria completed a Masters in UCC. Her thesis title was ‘Corporate Identity after Takeovers & Mergers’. Whilst completing this, she was asked to undertake a market research survey for a local businessman. The research bug was caught and led Maria to launch her own consultancy in 2000, which grew to have Irish and international clients.
The same year she married a Tipperary man, accountant Dave Butler, and moved from her native Bishopstown to Douglas. Aside from working in San Francisco on a J1 visa, she’s been based in Ireland and happy to be so.
A CHANGE IN CAREER
Upon reassessing her goals to make the most of life, Maria saw an ad for a fundraising role in Enable Ireland, interviewed successfully, and joined the team at the Lavanagh Centre in January, 2016.
“Having been self-employed for nearly 25 years, I turned my career on its head and joined Enable Ireland because I want to make a difference to people, many of whom have significant challenges in their lives,” she said.
It was an exciting time for the organisation, which provides services to children and adults with disabilities and their families, as they were just launching a €7.5m fundraising appeal to develop a new children’s services centre and hydrotherapy pool in Curraheen.
“The fact that there is currently a shortfall of just €300,000 is testament to the generosity of the people of Cork and the hard work of supporters and volunteers such as stalwart Anne Hegarty, who is amazing,” Maria says, and they are hoping people continue to rally round.
“The pandemic was absolutely brutal to the events industry. When it hit in March, 2020, I had to cancel three events all within weeks of each other that month alone,” she said.
But with necessity being the mother of all invention, like countless others, Maria and her team pivoted online and launched the hugely successful ‘Win a House Cork’ fundraiser, which made a net profit of €610,000, and ‘Wheel100’ which won the organisation a Digital Marketing Award from Cork Chamber.
“For me, lockdown was probably the busiest time of my life,” she recalls.
Maria mentions two other very important women in her life.
“My mother Betty and my mother-in-law Peg. There’s no way I could have gone out to work five days a week without the help of my mother, who right now is busy sewing Christmas crafts for us to sell for Enable Ireland. And Peg was my chief ticket seller in Tipperary for the house draw. They’re both incredible women,” she said.
Maria joined Network Cork in 2017 and, after winning a Businesswoman of the Year Award in the employee category the following year, joined the committee, and was Vice President and Awards Coordinator for the past year.
She finds the organisation great for both personal and professional development.
“It’s an investment in yourself and will help make you a better leader, and a better manager by giving you time to focus on yourself and your career,” she said.
“I’ve learned a lot from Network Cork, both from fellow members and the speakers we invite in.”
Interestingly, Maria said she’d like more men to attend their meetings to see what they’re all about.
She’s the eldest of three boys and grew up in a family business, The Outpost Bar in Bishopstown.
“My parents never treated me any differently from my brothers. We were all taught that if we worked hard, we’d get results regardless if we were male or female.”
And as a mum to two girls and a boy (an 18-year-old in 1st Year in MTU; a 17-year-old in 5th Year in Regina Mundi and a 13-year-old in 1st Year in CBC) she’s also instilled in them the idea that their gender doesn’t define what they can, or cannot do and is grateful for their help behind the scenes.
“I’m very proud and grateful for the support my family give me in allowing me the time to become more expert at what I do, and for their support for Enable Ireland.”
LOOKING FORWARD TO THE YEAR AHEAD
With the combination of experience in teamwork and 25 years of self-employment under her belt, Maria is now very much looking forward to her year at the helm of Network Cork.
“We have an amazing, hard-working committee made up of people from very diverse backgrounds, all who give of their time in a voluntary capacity to create a stand-out calendar of events for our much valued members.
“We also have a mentorship programme and a recently launched podcast series.
“I want women in business, no matter how busy, to allow themselves the time to join the organisation.
“I am a better leader as a direct result of the people I have met through Network Cork. I am more skilled at work because of what I have learned through my committee involvement, and speakers’ presentations have helped my career development.
“Networking is part of what we do, but it’s interwoven with learning, leading, inspiring and collaborating, making membership of Network Ireland as an organisation a valuable asset.
“Supporting women in business is at the core of what Network Ireland does and this will be reflected in my planned events for 2022.”