A Guide to Supports for Women in Business in Ireland


In 2017, an estimated 9,800 women became new business owners in Ireland (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, Entrepreneurship in Ireland 2017). That might sound like a healthy number, but there is still some way to go before women can achieve entrepreneurial parity with men. According to the Mastercard Index of Women Entrepreneurs (MIWE) 2018, just one in five of all entrepreneurs in the country are female, and only 10% of women say they would like to start and run a business in the next three years. Here's a guide to the supports that are available for women in business in Ireland:

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Some key facts about women in business in Ireland:

  • Motivation among Irish women to start and run businesses is low, with only 10% saying they would like to do so in the next three years
  • The government has a €1 million Competitive Start Fund as part of its female entrepreneurship strategy, while the National Strategy for Women and Girls includes a series of actions to support female entrepreneurs
  • Numerous resources, accelerator programmes and initiatives are available for would-be entrepreneurs, with many targeted specifically at women (see list below)
  • For female entrepreneurs in Ireland, there’s a range of advice and support available that can help turn a good idea into a successful business.

Paula Fitzsimons, founder and managing director of Fitzsimons Consulting – a company that specialises in entrepreneurship and growth – wants things to change. A passionate champion of women in business and the national coordinator for the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) Ireland, Fitzsimons stresses that various packages of support are available to help ambitious female entrepreneurs achieve their aims.

“We need to maximise the potential of all our entrepreneurs – men and women, regardless of age – whether they were born in Ireland or not, and wherever they live, be it in rural or urban areas,” she says.

The government is fully on board with this sentiment. In 2012, Enterprise Ireland introduced a €1 million Competitive Start Fund as part of its female entrepreneurship strategy; while the Department of Justice and Equality's National Strategy for Women and Girls 2017-2020 includes a series of actions to support urban and rural female entrepreneurs, including the delivery of National Women’s Enterprise Day on a regional basis. 

Guidance and signposting

The first port of call for anyone wanting information about starting or growing a business should be their Local Enterprise Office (LEO), notes Sheelagh Daly, entrepreneurship manager at Enterprise Ireland. “There are 31 Local Enterprise Offices across the country in each local authority area, and they are the first-stop shop for enterprise,” she says. “They provide guidance and signposting to the best, most appropriate support, depending on the type of business and the stage of its lifecycle.” LEOs can also offer capability training courses, networking and financial support.

This is the route that Karen O’Reilly took in order to kick-start her award-winning flexible recruitment agency, Employmum, in 2016. O’Reilly, a qualified accountant, had lived abroad for 20 years. When she returned to Ireland in 2013, she was pleased to find a variety of support options available to her.

“Because I’d been out of Ireland for so long, I wasn’t sure how things worked,” she says. “My LEO suggested I take one of their Start Your Own Business courses, which included training in finance, marketing and putting a business plan together, etc. After that I joined the Exxcel female entrepreneurship programme at the Cork Institute of Technology – a six-month incubation programme for women with a background in STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] – with mentors giving advice in areas such as personal branding, strategy and funding.”

Solving problems

O’Reilly also took part in the Going for Growth programme, an initiative for female entrepreneurs designed and developed by Paula Fitzsimons, and funded by Enterprise Ireland and KPMG.

Going for Growth, now in its 11th year, is a round-table initiative where businesswomen can talk openly about the challenges they face in a safe, confidential space. Peer-to-peer discussion of this kind can help individual entrepreneurs feel less psychologically isolated, says Fitzsimons. “By sitting around a table in a collaborative environment, businesswomen realise they are all experiencing similar difficulties,” she says. “They can then help each other solve the problems they face.”

“By sitting around a table in a collaborative environment, businesswomen realise they are all experiencing similar difficulties. They can then help each other solve the problems they face”

Paula Fitzsimons, founder and managing director, Fitzsimons Consulting

Participants receive help and support from an inspirational lead entrepreneur, such as Susan Spence, co-founder and president of software company SoftCo. “The lead entrepreneur is a successful woman who can offer practical, experience-based insight into what it takes to grow a business,” notes Daly.

There are many other initiatives available to female entrepreneurs, including ACORNS – also developed and designed by Fitzsimons, specifically for early-stage female entrepreneurs living in rural Ireland; the Female High Fliers accelerator programme at the DCU Ryan Academy; and the Innovate Programme at Dublin BIC (Business Innovation Centre), which aims to get its all-female participants investor-ready within 12 weeks. 

Learning new skills

Sonia Neary is CEO and founder of Dublin-based Wellola, which has developed a video consultation and secure messaging portal primarily aimed at the mental health sector. The company, which has been in development since 2014 and was incorporated in 2016, is now looking for venture capital funding and hopes to launch in the UK in this year.

“I took advantage of every single piece of support available,” says Neary. “At a community base level, that meant taking business courses at Local Enterprise Offices, which was great for me because my background is in healthcare and I found it useful to learn brand new skills.”

Neary also participated in the Innovate Programme at Dublin BIC. “I found Innovate particularly insightful,” she says. “I had taken part in a number of programmes with entrepreneurs of different ages, gender and company growth levels. But the women on Innovate were beyond MVP [minimal viable product] stage; they were looking for investment and had done a huge amount of work to get where they were. A lot of issues arose that really resonated with me.”

Neary’s advice to female entrepreneurs is to research and then harness any support available, including financial help. “Going from nine-to-five employment to setting up your own business is a huge ask, particularly if you have a household to manage,” she says. “So financial support gives you the freedom to try out a concept before you take the leap.”

Overall, this is an exciting time to be a female entrepreneur in Ireland, believes Daly. “There’s a lot happening in this space right now, and for good reason,” she says. “We’re trying to accelerate the pace of gender equality in enterprise, because more women starting up businesses means more job creation and that has a higher economic impact.” 

Recommended Reading: IntertradeIreland - Cross Border Trade Increases Exporting Further Afield

Useful resources for women in business in Ireland:

Find your Local Enterprise Office

Competitive Start Fund (Enterprise Ireland) 

Going for Growth 

National Women’s Enterprise Day (Local Enterprise Office) 

Start Your Own Business Programme (Local Enterprise Office) 

Cork Institute of Technology Entrepreneur Development Programmes 

ACORNS (Accelerating the Creation Of Rural Nascent Start-ups) 

Female High Fliers accelerator programme (DCU Ryan Academy) 

Innovate Programme (Dublin BIC)

By Tony Greenway

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