Flexibility in the workplace is a lifeline for parents with young children and one way of getting it is to become your own boss.
For the three women featured below who did just that, motherhood was not only the motivation to set up their own business, but also the inspiration. Through having children, they identified a gap in the market.
The other thing they have in common is participation in the Government-funded Acorns, the acronym of which is a lot more attractive than its full title: Accelerating the Creation of Rural Nascent Start-ups. This is a free and unapologetically exclusively female programme to help fledgling businesses thrive beyond the city boundaries of Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford.
Triona Mac Giolla Rí is one of the lead entrepreneurs who act as volunteer mentors, sharing their practical knowledge while supporting round-table meetings of up to eight participants each. Co-founder with her husband Alan of Aró Digital Strategy, she works with independent luxury hotels all over the world from their base in the Connemara Gaeltacht, where they have raised four children, now aged 18-26. “I really like the ethos of Acorns,” she says, praising its open, collaborative nature. A fan of diversity, she admits she “grapples” with the all-female approach but believes in this context it works.
“I am always quite amazed when you put a group of six, seven, eight women in a room, how quickly a bond grows and how open and trusting women are with each other.”
Long after women have finished the six-month scheme, which is funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the networking continues. That aspect has never been more important, say these participants, as they adapt to doing business in this era of Covid-19.
‘I was terrified we would have to bury a child’
When Alma Jordan became a mother, she started to see dangers everywhere for her son Eamon on the family farm in Julianstown, Co Meath.
Then the death of two children in farm accidents during the summer of 2014 “really gave me the drive to sit up and take notice. I just said, ‘this could happen to any of us.’” She started to look at what needed to be done to try to prevent the unthinkable and founded the farm safety educational company AgriKids that same year.
“Eamon was the big reason; I was terrified for him and terrified that we would find ourselves in the situation where we would have to bury a child due to the simple fact that we were doing what we do every day – going out farming.”
The idea of setting up a business had been niggling at Jordan for a while before she and her husband, tillage farmer Mark Delany, had their son. Working in marketing, PR and communications, she had become bored quite easily, moving jobs every two to three years.
Once she began to delve into farm safety, she thought the message was being very poorly communicated within the agricultural community. She believed the topic needed a fresh approach, targeting a new audience.
Having worked with Repak, which sponsors the green schools programme, Jordan had seen how passionate children had become about issues such as recycling, changing not just their own behaviour but also influencing extended family and altering habits in households.
She started with storybooks for children, as storytime was a big thing in their house when Eamon, now aged eight, was being put to bed. Then a librarian approached her about doing workshops for schools and the venture took off, with more than 50,000 children having participated to date. “I don’t engage with farmers at all, I direct everything to children. My ethos is to engage, educate and empower children to be farm safety ambassadors.” Despite huge awareness of the need for farm safety, “it’s not translating into instinctive practice, so I am trying to bridge that learning gap.”
There were 18 fatalities on farms in Ireland last year, up from 15 in 2018, and there have been 16 so far this year to the beginning of September, including three aged under 18, according to figures from the Health and Safety Authority.
Having grown up on a farm, Jordan admits to sometimes feeling a bit of a hypocrite when she recalls her carefree childhood, on the back of trailers and “riding cows into a dairy parlour”. However, she would not regard herself as an over-cautious mother: “I am a big believer of little falls prevent big falls.”
Although she started the business at home, working around Eamon, she was later to find herself in hotels up to three times a week. “A very long and detailed conversation with my husband had to take place. Is this viable and is it doable? It actually was.”
For a start they had an option of after-school care for Eamon. Then, fortuitously Mark’s busiest times on the farm are in the summer months, when the schools are closed and his least busy time is when she is, normally, out visiting schools. “It all slotted into place but it did necessitate that conversation with my husband.”
Responsibility for organising childcare seems to instinctively fall into the lap of women, she remarks. “Have that conversation,” she urges other mothers. “You do matter, your career matters, but your children should never have to be a trade-off.”
She believes some women never have this discussion and then become very resentful at the unequal burden, while their other half continues on in a “naïve bubble”, unaware of domestic realities and brewing discontent.
Jordan has “never been happier and more fulfilled”. It was a huge risk “but when passion lands, you have to follow it”.
As an “accidental entrepreneur”, she jumped at the opportunity when somebody suggested Acorns. She found it a fantastic help and six years later members of the group continue to support each other. “You have no idea how you are going to call on the resources and supports you have obtained by doing such a programme.”
She believes the all-female approach works because women are “wired differently: we tend to share more, talk more, feel more. Sometimes we take a little more persuading to get up there and go out there.”
Reaching out to other people have never been more important than during this pandemic, which has had a “horrendous” impact on her business because 80 per cent of her revenue was from workshops. “We can get very stuck in our own bubbles and thought processes. A lot of people were finding new ways of getting their service out there.”
In April, she was approached by Monaghan County Council to do some webinars and, although doubtful, she gave it a try. They went well and led to her reaching more than 4,000 children. “I did it all from my house. It put me into a position where I believe I can deliver more impact and more value.”
She is quite grateful for being dragged out of her comfort zone. “It has worked out far better and, for childcare, it has been a dream too. It is possible to have it all . . . ish,” she adds, after a slight pause.
Despite having a nice office at the far end of the house, Jordan’s ideal would be an external work space to save her from domestic distractions. “We have a dog here – he’s in and he’s out and he’s out and he’s in.”
Then there is the drier – if it is not emptied promptly, the clothes will need ironing. “There would be other people who would love the set-up I have here and could ignore the drier and tell the dog to go to hell.”
‘Good for children to see money is hard earned’
The Covid-19 pandemic has been “extremely good” for the hand-made hair accessories business that Samantha Stuart set up at home in Co Tipperary three years ago to work around family life.
During lockdown, her Pretty Bowtique sales exceeded even the Christmas highs of past years as “everybody was buying online and they were sending gifts”, she says. It was hectic because, with three children aged six, 10 and 13, and her husband Alan working as an electrical engineer on-site with a pharmaceutical company, she had sole responsibility for home-schooling.
It was hard, but they managed, with her “amazing” husband taking over care of the children when he got home from work so she could head to her home studio for “the night shift”. She employs somebody part time to do administration so she can concentrate on the creative side.
The arrival of a third child is often the tipping point for couples who both have full-time jobs outside the home and depend on paid childcare. So it proved for Stuart who worked in insurance and started to rethink family life after the birth of their youngest daughter six years ago. “I went back for a little while but it just wasn’t possible.”
The mixture of commuting to Cashel, nearly an hour away from their house in Carrick-on-Suir, and having three children, one of whom is asthmatic, made her decide she needed to be at home. However, she still wanted to contribute to the household income.
At this point, history might have been different if their eldest child, Abigail, now aged 13, had been a boy. But Stuart, having been very creative with painting and sewing from a young age, used to make hair accessories for her small daughter, which attracted the interest of other mothers who asked her to make them for their girls.
Having made the decision to be at home, she saw this as a business opportunity and set up Pretty Bowtique in February 2017. In October of that year she joined Acorns and “it transformed my business. I went from a kitchen table business to owning my own website and stocking many different shops around Ireland.”
She likens the monthly group meetings to board meetings, where you can receive feedback and advice from people not afraid to speak their mind. “My husband can only listen to me for so long and he always agrees with me anyway,” laughs Stuart, who believes the all-female nature of Acorns is “very” important. “They understand you if you have kids, and family life and the juggling act.”
Being her own boss, she can do the schools runs for her children every day and can drop everything if somebody needs her. While she probably works more than ever, “I wouldn’t change it for the world – I am doing something I absolutely love.”
She also thinks it’s good that her children see that money is hard earned. “My son said to me recently ‘Mam, you work so hard’. It was nice to see that he could see that I do work hard to try and give them everything they need and supply a nice and safe home for everybody.”
‘I focus on cooking not baking – your child is not going to live on chocolate-chip cookies’
A third child was the catalyst for Deirdre Doyle to leave her job managing a charity shop, with the notion that “I would set up a little business that I would run while my kids were in school and I would be home every afternoon”.
A little naïve, she admits in hindsight. Instead, she has discovered that The Cool Food School she established in January 2018 “can be all-consuming because I am very passionate about what I do.”
Her life is divided between work and her three children aged 13, 11 and nine. One bonus is she doesn’t have to use childcare and now the children are getting older, they don’t need as much care, “but it is hard – nothing is easy”.
The arrival of the coronavirus made it a lot harder for a business that was mainly running workshops in pre-schools and at events around the country.
Doyle recalls having coffee with her husband Mark, after doing a pre-school workshop on Thursday, March 12th last, when they heard all schools were being closed. “It was, ‘Oh my God’. I was supposed to be in a pre-school that Friday and I haven’t been back since.”
After the shock, she decided to do free workshops online every day to help out parents who had been thrown into home-schooling. She did that for 14 weeks and it made her realise the potential for cooking coaching through Zoom.
“I had the summer staring ahead of me; I thought I was going to be massively busy going to events all over the country and then I had nothing. I decided to do cooking summer camps and make it as practical as possible for people – start at 11am and finish at 1pm and then they would have a meal ready for lunch.”
Since running the camps for three weeks in July, she has started one-off classes and six-week terms for cooking family dinners and snacks. They’re live and interactive: “It works really, really well; I was surprised.”
She is also being booked for children’s “cook along” sessions through libraries, under the auspices of Healthy Ireland. “My focus is on cooking not baking,” she says. “Baking is great but it’s not going to sustain your child when they go to college – they are not going to live on chocolate chip cookies.”
After giving up her job, she studied to be a health coach and was reading about childhood obesity. She also wondered why when they went out to eat as a family, there was often little more than pizza or chicken nuggets on the menu for under 12s. “That’s when I decided I wanted to work with kids and teach them about food.”
She chose that target audience “because I thought there is lots of information out there for parents but very little positive food education for children”. She has focused on starting young with pre-school children.
There have been a few State initiatives to tackle the “obesogenic environment” but she believes it needs a much more concerted national approach, yet she can’t see that being a Government priority in the current crisis.
She despairs when she hears about incidents such as a friend’s child being told by a junior infants teacher that they’d have a race to see who could eat their lunch quickest so they could get out into the yard. “We are not giving our children the skills to eat, let alone cook. They are not getting the basics of how we should all sit at the table and eat and chat at the table.”
Doyle knows she won’t be going into preschools any time soon, so she is recording workshops for them, which they can do at their own pace.
She also has a small shop online selling safe knives and peelers, which she initially got to use in her workshops but have proved very popular. They enable children as young as two and three years old to peel and chop vegetables themselves, which means they are much more likely to taste them.
Having participated in Acorns for 2018-19, she found the network aspect “really powerful”. Her mentor was Mary B Walsh, founder and managing director of Ire Wel Pallets in Co Wexford.
“She gave us one piece of advice that I think we will all remember, which was ‘chase the money’.”
For all the ideas about fanciful projects, the bottom line is, “you can’t be in business if you’re not making money.”