Network Cork Businesswoman of the year finalists  celebrate how far they have come...

EMMA CONNOLLY catches up with some of the finalists in the Network Cork Businesswoman of the Year Awards taking place next week
Network Cork Businesswoman of the year finalists  celebrate how far they have come...

Monika Nowakowska, Lady of the Valley.

THE Network Cork Businesswoman of the Year Awards takesplace next week. A total of 31 women have been shortlisted across eight categories. The winners will be announced on May 27 at Fota Island Resort.

Over the next two weeks in WoW!, we chat to some of the finalists. Here, we speak to some of those shortlisted in the Creative Professional, Shining Star Employee, STEM and Solo businesswoman categories.

Monika Nowakowska, Lady of the Valley. Picture: Kate Bean
Monika Nowakowska, Lady of the Valley. Picture: Kate Bean

CREATIVE PROFESSIONAL:

Monika Nowakowska, Lady of the Valley

ACCORDING to her certificates, Monika Nowakowska is a technician, specialising in industrial gas appliances and installations, and is also a trained journalist.

In reality, she is a self-taught dressmaker, designer and textile artist.

“And to pay bills, I’ve worked in a fair share of shops and restaurants, as an interpreter, and enjoyed a 15-year career similar to that of Mrs. Doyle from Fr Ted!” said Monika.

Born in Krakow, Poland, she moved to Ireland in 2004.

“Every male in my immediate family was or is an alcoholic. Households were run and held together by women,” said Monika.

In her early 20s, she availed of counselling for adult children of alcoholics, before deciding to leave her native country and coming to Cork.

“Currently, I live in the Mealagh Valley (outside Bantry) with my 15-year-old son James, a dog, and two cats,” she said.

She launched her business, ‘Lady of the Valley’, in 2021 and creates everyday clothes as well as special occasion wear.

“I believe clothes should make everyone happy and be used as a tool to express individuality. 

"As I make everything myself, size and gender does not matter in my workshop – what matters is comfort, happiness, fun and style for everyone,” she said.

After years of working from home, she is looking forward to opening her sewing workshop in Schull at the end of the month, and the Network Ireland Cork Businesswoman of the Year award nomination is validation of all she’s achieved so far, her determination and perseverance.

“Cork is full of great talent and entrepreneurship, so being considered for a Business Woman of the Year award is a great honour,” said Monika.

“It is also a personal achievement that boosts my confidence greatly. If I win, it means that I will be a big step closer to achieving my dream of growing my business to its full potential.

“Being part of Network Cork is like finding your tribe. I’m only in my second year of membership and yet the support and encouragement I received is incomprehensible. After years of listening to naysayers I know now I can follow my dreams. There are ways to achieve my goals, there are women who stand behind me, sharing their strength, knowledge and expertise to push each other forward to the better and brighter future.”

Also shortlisted in this category are:

  • Izabella Sikora - Funky Cakes by Architect
  • Maura Mackey - Maura Mackey Design
  • Orla McAndrew - Orla McAndrew Food

Helen McGonagle, Cork City Council
Helen McGonagle, Cork City Council

SHINING STAR EMPLOYEE:

Helen McGonagle, Cork City Council

HELEN McGonagle is a firm believer that music, books and culture should be freely available to everyone.

Her goal as a librarian with the city council is to keep libraries at the heart of communities, providing a warm welcome and support and encouragement to everyone, whether you’re borrowing books or music, using a computer, or just relaxing in a safe space.

Originally from Westmeath, Helen’s been living in Cork for the past 23 years, and is married with four grown-up children.

Her journey to becoming a librarian was a slightly meandering one.

“On graduating from UL in 1988 with a BA in European Studies (Law), I began work with a major international law firm in London. In October, 1990, disillusioned with corporate law, I joined classical music magazine, Gramophone. In 1998, we relocated to Cork and, to support the change in our lives, I became as stay-at-home parent.

“I joined the Parents’ Association of my local school and was subsequently elected to the school’s Board of Management.

In 2007, I graduated with an MA in Women’s Studies from UCC. Encouraged by that, I joined the City Library as a library assistant.

“I was granted funding from Cork City Council to study for an MSc in Information Science in 2010, and in 2015, was appointed acting Librarian and my MSc thesis was published as a book.

"In 2017, I was awarded PhD funding to continue my research on gender construction in early 20th century reading material,” said Helen.

She returned to work around the time the last promotion embargo was introduced, so she concentrated on broadening her experience, volunteering on music and cultural projects, improving her Irish language skills, and gaining membership of the Library Association of Ireland.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in November, 2017, Helen continued with her PhD research while having treatment and gained promotion shortly after returning to work.

“I am a Public and Patient Involvement participant with Breakthrough Cancer Research, using my skills and experience to advocate for cancer research,” she said.

“I am so grateful that my work as a public servant has been recognised. It highlights the amazing facilities that public libraries are. It also allows me to acknowledge and thank all those cancer researchers who have so immensely improved the prognosis for people like me, and to highlight the need for more research on the causes and treatment for cancer.”

Helen said being part of Network Cork is like “being wrapped in a warm, comforting embrace of kind and supportive women”.

And winning her category prize would be an acknowledgement of many things.

“It would underline the varied content available through the libraries and their commitment to providing free, rich and exciting cultural programmes. 

"It would show the possibility of being a successful career woman while raising a family and undertaking post-graduate study, and would highlight that career progression following the intrusion of a serious illness is possible.”

Also shortlisted in this category are:

  • Gillian Roche - GE Healthcare
  • Lynda McAuliffe - Quintas Wealth Management
  • Paula Daniela Scopetta - Eli Lilly and Company
  • Jean Cotter - GE Healthcare

Hilary Quinn of Proximo Web Design.
Hilary Quinn of Proximo Web Design.

STEM:

Hilary Quinn, Proximo Web Design

MAGIC plays a big part in Hilary Quinn’s life as she’s married to a magician, but there’s no trickery involved in her own business, which is all about making things visible.

She’s the powerhouse behind Proximo Web Design, which is focused on increasing organic traffic to clients’ websites using search engine optimisation (SEO) techniques.

Having specialised in web design via St John’s Central College in 2005, Hilary was hired as an in-house web designer for a local travel agent.

“I incorporated SEO into these redesigns, and once the work was complete this company became the first client of Proximo Web Design which I established in 2007,” she explained.

And what she quickly realised in her web design career – her lightbulb moment – was that a website is nothing without traffic.

“A website without SEO was invisible. I also noticed that when it came to web development services, businesses often neglected ‘front-end’ aspects like user experience (UX) and had little or no knowledge of SEO. This left many business owners frustrated and under-served, they had invested all this money in a new website, so why wasn’t it generating leads or sales? I knew I had the solution,” she said.

Since that first client, she has been trusted by some of the most respected brands in Ireland to increase organic traffic to their websites using SEO techniques.

Almost 15 years in business, she is proud to have maintained relationships with long-standing clients who have been with her since the very start.

“This alone makes me really proud and happy with what I have built. I have watched small businesses grow as a direct result of our work together on their website. Seeing my clients’ businesses grow and succeed is incredibly gratifying and motivating.”

As well as that, Hilary has had an impact on her industry over the years, taking part in Girls in ICT events, and has been featured by the Women in Tech SEO newsletter. She has also performed SEO workshops for the Bite the Biscuit creative community in Ireland of more than 10,000 members.

“This nomination for STEM Businesswoman of the Year means the world to me. I have worked incredibly hard over the years, not just to survive ‘The Great Recession’, but to build my business back up, to get a reputation for incredible quality and transformative work that actually results in sales, and to elevate all of these incredible businesses I’ve worked with. To get outside recognition of that is really special.

“Having this category as part of the Network Cork awards raises the visibility of women in STEM, and that is so powerful, to inspire the next generation of women to join us in what has, for me, been a lifelong passion and fulfilling career.”

Also shortlisted in this category are:

  • Lena Ni Mhurchu Angland - Wanderful
  • Sinéad O Flynn - Health 4 U Cork

 Solo businesswoman finalist: Melissa Curley, SocialBe Communication
 Solo businesswoman finalist: Melissa Curley, SocialBe Communication

SOLO BUSINESSWOMAN:

Melissa Curley, SocialBe Communication

SECONDARY school teacher turned entrepreneur, Melissa Curley describes herself as a ‘passionate educator,’ but admits she felt confined in the classroom.

The Youghal woman says she has never sought security in a job, but instead chased work that she loved, that continuously challenged and engaged her, and she certainly found that with her business SocialBe Communication.

After spending five years teaching in New Zealand, she returned to Dublin, where she started her first business, a vintage-styled events venture.

She combined that with a postgrad in Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

After six years, she returned to her native Cork and began SocialBe, a professional skills and future of work training company, in 2018.

She was motivated by a desire to “empower people through education and upskilling to have impact in their professional lives.

“Skills that can be developed should never hold us back from achieving all we want to be in life,” said Melissa.

She runs a number of programmes that focus on upskilling in the transversal skills that are essential for today’s world of work, as well as bespoke workshops and programmes designed to meet clients specific training needs.

“What makes the work so interesting to me is that the training needs of my clients change regularly, in line with the changing world of work.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, for example, we mainly delivered resilience training. In 2021, hybrid working workshops were in demand.

“Unconscious bias training is a hot topic, and a complex one to deliver.

“Remote leadership and authentic leadership programmes are also emerging areas.”

As well as delivering resilience training, she’s shown a lot of it herself: leaving one business to start another, moving back to Cork where she had left to travel the world 18 years earlier, and starting all over again.

During the pandemic, she also adapted her business model so that it is hybrid, delivering training as effectively online as well as in person. And she further diversified, training as a pilates instructor in early 2021.

Just three years on, she has a business that is thriving, thanks to her hard work, creativity, and determination.

“Winning the Network Cork award would show me just how far I’ve come, and how much I have achieved.

“I loved teaching, but I felt confined by the classroom. I can honestly say that in my three years of building SocialBe, I have never once woken up not looking forward to work.”

Also shortlisted in this category are:

  • Cathy Fitzgibbon MBus, DipLCM - The Culinary Celt
  • Judie Russell - The Vidacademy
  • Karla Goodman - Made To Measure Films

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