There's friendship, support and encouragement at Network Ireland Cork

EMMA CONNOLLY profiles more of the winners of the Network Ireland Cork Business woman of the Year awards
There's friendship, support and encouragement at Network Ireland Cork

Award Winner Sandra Looney - To Have and To Hold pictured at the Network Cork Businesswoman of the Year Awards 2022 at Fota Island Resort. Picture: Gerard McCarthy


Sandra Looney

SANDRA Looney admits she took a big risk launching her own wedding and event management and styling business nine years ago.

Her background was HR, but having seen similar style businesses in the U.S, where she lived for many years, and Europe, she felt there was a gap in the market just begging to be filled in Munster.

She took the plunge and launched ‘To Have and to Hold,’ with a showroom on the Kinsale Road roundabout, and focused on steadily growing the business.

Cue the pandemic, and everything was ‘decimated’, almost overnight.

Closed for a full 14 months, Sandra dug in and pivoted with an online wedding accessories and gift shop.

She also used the time wisely – and bravely – to plan a flower shop, to complement her existing business, which she opened last June on MacCurtain Street.

That’s impressive. And despite all the challenges and emotional upheaval, Sandra says she never once felt like giving up.

“I felt I had a duty of care to my customers and to my team as well,” she said.

Running your own business can be hard, she admits: “You have to be everything to everybody and it can be difficult to carve out space for yourself and to look forward, to build the brand and to stay relevant.”

Also, given the industry she’s in, she can never afford to be on less than her ‘A’ game.

“This business is all about referrals so you have to deliver every single time,” she said.

But Sandra is clearly doing everything right as she’s busier than ever, and has expanded her team from five to eight since the pandemic.

Sandra, who lives in the city centre, joined Network Cork around four years ago and feels it’s the ‘best of all the networking organisations around.’

“There’s a real sense of support and camaraderie among members. 

"Someone always has an ear or concrete advice, you just feel as if you’re talking to like-minded people. It’s a brilliant sounding board.”

Winning the award for well-established business was, she said, great validation.

“To be recognised in a city that I love was just fantastic,” she said.

Award Winner Diane Higgins of Diane Higgins Design
Award Winner Diane Higgins of Diane Higgins Design


Diane Higgins

DIANE Higgins has struggled with the idea of calling herself a business woman in the past.

That’s despite the fact that she runs her own graphic and web design business, and despite the fact that this September she’ll complete her masters in Digital Marketing; and that she studied graphic design by day, and PR by night, graduating top of her class.

Throw in the fact that she’s a mum-of-three, and you might wonder where the confidence issue comes from?

Diane explains how it’s a legacy of her being a college ‘drop out’.

“I started out studying architecture in Dublin but it just wasn’t for me, and I suppose that made me feel like I always had something to prove,” she admits.

Going on to set up her own business was partly motivated by her passion for self-employment, but also by the birth of her third child Sara, who has a rare genetic disorder. It’s called Muenke Syndrome, whereby the plates of a child’s skull close early, which means the skull can’t grow in a regular way.

Diana and her firefighter husband Kevin only found this out when their daughter was born.

Describing herself and Kevin as ‘very strong together’ she said there is a lot of uncertainty, but part of their coping strategy is to focus on what they can do: that’s building awareness of the condition and meeting parents in similar situations.

The couple also do plenty of practical things like fund-raising for Temple Street Hospital where Sara, who will turn four this July, has had surgery.

“We’ve seen so much good in the community since Sara was born. We saw how much others do for people and we wanted to be part of that,” she said.

Diane has gone on to become the chair of the parents’ association of her nearly eight-year-old daughter Hellie’s school, while Kevin is an ambassador for the blood transfusion service.

“When Sara was born, we were up and down to Temple Street almost every other week, but now it’s more like every six months or so. She is due more surgeries and it will be a long road, a lifetime of this, and being self-employed will give me the flexibility I need,” said Diane.

Sara’s challenges also saw Diana defer her Masters.

“I actually started it when I was on maternity leave with my son Marty, who will turn six this year! Then I deferred it until after Sara’s surgery, but I was always determined to go back, and to do that for myself.” She only joined Network Cork during the pandemic.

“I thought it would be all big business people passing business cards across the table to each other. 

"But what I found was friendship, encouragement and support, and it has also positively impacted the business.

“Winning the award means so much to me. Often times I haven’t even wanted to say I was in business, but this shows how far I’ve come.”

Right now it’s full steam ahead to complete her thesis by the end of the summer.

“And once I get to September, I’ll be able to rest,” she said.

Famous last words!

Award Winner Gillian Roche -GE healthcare
Award Winner Gillian Roche -GE healthcare


Gillian Roche

GILLIAN Roche hopes her ‘meandering’ career path will inspire others who might doubt their own ability.

She left secondary school without sufficient points to go to college and, in her own words, “meandered and manoeuvred with a number of careers”.

“My first step into full time employment was teaching sailing and windsurfing, working in remote areas of Ireland’s beautiful coastline, which gave me the unique insight into the importance of trust. From there I moved into sales roles.

“I spent a few years selling GPS guidance systems to farming contractors and after that I was fortunate enough to work with Pat Falvey, where I supported the Irish Everest 2003 expedition which successfully saw the first two Irish females reach the summit.”

Next, she worked in supply chain and logistics and after a few years of focusing on numbers and missing the people element she joined GE Healthcare (the company manufactures and distributes X-ray and MRI Contrast Media for internal and external customers worldwide) as a production supervisor.

“That was six years ago, and the six years have been an extraordinary experience for me,” she said.

She completed an MSc in Project Management in 2020 and was recently promoted to Operations Director Packaging in GE Healthcare – the first female to hold the position on the Cork campus.

As well as formal education, she regularly looks to add new skills to her arsenal.

“From open water swimming to surfing and baking. I’m not someone to shy away from a challenge!” Gillian is mum to a 13-year-old son, and is married to Dave from Dublin, a specialist gardener. They live in Dungourney with their two rescue dogs, four chickens and “about 100,000 wild rabbits who gorge themselves on our veg patch, much to my amusement and my husband’s annoyance!”

She only joined Network Cork earlier this year, and said winning the award was a great opportunity to reflect on what she has done.

“It has been an honour to be placed with such inspiring talent in Cork and to be amongst brave women who are forging different paths to make way for those coming behind us.

“I am extremely proud to be the Shining Star winner, which has given me this wonderful opportunity to share my story with my home town, and hopefully I can inspire others to follow their dreams, follow what makes them happy.”

Award Winner Sinead O'Flynn - Health 4 U 
Award Winner Sinead O'Flynn - Health 4 U 


Sinead O’Flynn

FRUSTRATION at not being able to support people from a more holistic angle saw Sinead O’Flynn leave nursing last summer, after a successful career of over 20 years in Ireland, the UK and Australia.

It was her passion for health promotion, prevention and nutrition that motivated her to study Naturopathic Nutrition and go on to set up her own business.

That’s Health4U, which is based in Glanmire Therapy Centre, and which is the only diagnostic service of its kind in Munster.

As well as diagnostic health screening (for things like cardiovascular and kidney disease, diabetes, anaemia and inflammatory markers), she provides nutritional therapy and functional tests (including food intolerance) and sees everyone from babies, to menopausal and perimenopausal women, to more senior clients..

Sinead points out that a GP appointment is usually 10-15 minutes, or 20 minutes with a consultant.

But her assessments last for an hour and a half where she takes a detailed snapshot of that client’s health.

Acknowledging the need and importance of Western medicine, she feels that treating symptoms mightn’t always necessarily be the best pathway.

“By looking at diet and lifestyle, we can treat an awful lot; by going back to more natural ways, by educating and understanding. My approach is health promotion and health prevention.”

Originally from Kildare, she met her husband in Australia and they live in Whites Cross with their two kids (aged seven and five).

“It’s important the business works around family life too,” she said.

She’s clearly hugely passionate about what she does – infectiously so – and winning the award showed that all her hard work had paid off.

“But it’s not just great for me, it gives recognition to the different professional pathways to STEM.

“People might not necessarily make that link from nursing, but this shows the different career options it offers,” she said.

Sinead also writes for nursing journals and is a big believer in people educating themselves about their own health. In fact, that’s her top tip: “Read up on the research that’s out there, inform yourself and educate yourself about your own body.”

The full role call of winners at the awards was:

Solo Businesswoman: Cathy Fitzgibbon, The Culinary Celt

Emerging New Businesswoman: Noella Carroll, Pinnaklo

Established Businesswoman: Sandra Looney, To Have and To Hold

Rising Star Employee: Aoife Behan, The Montenotte Hotel

Shining Star Employee: Gillian Roche, GE Healthcare

Creative Professional: Orla McAndrew, Orla McAndrew Food

STEM sponsored by DePuy J&J: Sinead O’Flynn, Health 4 U

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