Meet the entrepreneurs who are the winners of this year’s Visa Ireland She’s Next Programme
Now in its second year, the fund and mentorship award offers women business owners a €10,000 grant along with a year of business coaching
In May of this year, Visa announced the return of its She’s Next Programme in Ireland, an initiative designed to support women entrepreneurs to run, fund and grow their businesses. Irish Tatler partnered with Visa to spread the news of this special fund and mentorship award which promised a €10,000 grant plus a year of invaluable coaching by iFundWomen to each of five eventual winners.
“We had such a fantastic response in 2021 that we decided to double our investment to €50,000 in grant funding this year,” Mandy Lamb, managing director UK and Ireland, Visa explains. “The applications were a little slow to come through in the initial stages, but as we neared the deadline we saw a massive ramp up, and recorded a 60 per cent in growth in entries this year in comparison to last. It was a fantastic response.”
Applications came from a diverse range of small to medium, women-led enterprises. “There was such an array of representation across a variety of sectors,” Lamb says, “and you could see the incredible mix of talent and passion that came through.”
In September, the five winners were revealed via a series of video calls. “We set up the meetings under the guise of a ‘further information’ fact find,” says Lamb, “but then we reveal: we’re actually here to let you know that you’re a winner. The reactions are goosebumps material. There’s so much graciousness in the winners, and almost a disbelief that a brand like Visa is willing to invest in their business. Winners like Fiona Fahy of Feed Me Mother told me that winning the She’s Next Grant gave her the boost and the confidence she needed to take the next step in her business. That empowerment is what this is all about.”
She’s Next is designed to address the research-backed confidence gap the women entrepreneurs experience. “That imposter syndrome is something that women do suffer from more so than men; we know that from research. But we have to be careful that we don’t
perpetuate that narrative, either,” Lamb says. “We need to be very careful to support one another as women. Visa is a fantastic organisation in terms of female development, but even in my role I can feel that imposter syndrome, particularly when dealing with new challenges; so you need to find ways of being surrounded by the necessary supports to overcome that feeling, and to bring your full potential to the table.
“We still have a long way to go in terms of having a level playing field, and hopefully big brands like Visa will have a positive effect on making that happen.” Irish Tatler caught up with this year’s She’s Next grant recipients to find out more about their unique businesses and how they feel the She’s Next programme will help them grow and develop in the coming year and beyond.
SUSTAINABILITY: ELLEN RYALL, REFUNK UPCYCLING
ReFunk is a furniture upcycling platform that supports the circular economy and local. creatives by connecting freelance upcyclers with sustainably-minded consumers. “Our ethos is that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice style for sustainability,” co-founder Ellen Ryall explains. “We want to involve consumers and buyers in their furniture making process, that’s the part that’s unique to ReFunk. We facilitate that co-creative manner of doing things.”
Having worked with different grant programmes before, the ReFunk team had decided to focus on other areas over the last nine months. They secured angel investment and launched a new website but the She’s Next programme was too good an opportunity to miss. “What really drew us to She’s Next was that there’s no set time commitment,” Ryall says.
“They offer you two mentorships per month for a year and you can do them whenever you like. They’re targeted mentorships too so you can tailor to your needs - that was very appealing. We have to have two strategies really, one for onboarding upcyclers and the other one consumer-facing, so I think those coaching sessions will be really helpful. And of course the funding was great.”
The ReFunk team is in the middle of opening its pre-seed round but with a cautious investor climate persisting, they have banked the €10,000 from their She’s Next win to, as Ryall puts it, “extend the runway” and avoid added pressure while it’s all being worked out. Once it is, there are big plans for 2023 as Ryall and her co-founders look to grow the ReFunk team and expand the business into the UK. refunkupcycling.com
GENERAL SMALL BUSINESS: JANE CONLON, SODALICIOUS
A soda bread bakery and café located in the heart of Limerick city, Sodalicious has reinvented traditional soda bread. Jane Conlon was inspired to create the business when she returned from working in various restaurants and kitchens abroad. The idea was to champion Irish soda bread and quality Irish ingredients. “I started experimenting with herbs, cheese and nuts and came up with a formula. We’re now producing soda bread from our café in Limerick, which we opened in 2018,” she explains.
The experience Conlon and her husband had getting the business off the ground prompted her to apply for the She’s Next programme. “I encountered a lot of hurdles along the way and I believe that men would not have experienced the same hurdles, especially when it came to funding. I was refused funding from one institution on the basis that I had a large young family at home and I will never forget that day.
When the She’s Next competition came along I thought, this is brilliant, it’s all about celebrating females in business.” It remains a challenging climate for any business and Conlon is looking forward to learning as much as she can from the business coaching. “It will really help us to hone in on the business model and find out what’s working and what’s not. We had actually planned on investing in mentoring, so that is a gift in itself and we have clear ideas where we’d like to invest the capital.”
Conlon is hoping the She’s Next win can help her achieve the next goal: to open another café. “The Sodalicious model is a purely Irish concept: an Irish bread filled with the best premium fillings. I think it’s a great business model and I’d like to be able to roll out more Sodalicious cafés around the country.” sodalicious.ie
EARLY STAGE BUSINESS: FIONA FAHY, FEED ME MOTHER
Empowering breastfeeding mothers to feel confident, comfortable, and stylish. That’s the ambition behind Feed Me Mother, Ireland’s first sustainable breastfeeding clothing brand created by Fiona Fahy last year.
Informed by her personal struggle to find suitable and stylish breastfeeding-friendly t-shirts after the birth of her first child, Fahy kept circling back to the need for an Irish breastfeeding brand that was not only kind to women, but kind to the planet too. In marrying those principles, Fahy now offers a range of high quality Tencel t-shirts – derived from wood sources – and accessories made from organic and recycled materials.
For Fahy, winning the early-stage business category of She’s Next is an honour with “invaluable” benefits: “I’m at home working by myself pretty much all of the time, so I don’t really have a sounding board. While I’m generally comfortable with decision-making, it will be brilliant to have an experienced mentor to help me make informed decisions around manufacturing, cash flow, and organic growth.”
With new designs for Feed Me Mother’s range currently in the works, the funding has alleviated the “creative constraints” Fahy has regularly experienced: “When I’m buying fabric from manufacturers, I usually have to haggle for every kind of bargain, so it can be really tight. The funding has alleviated a lot of those constraints and it has given me more freedom and confidence with my next designs.” feedmemother.ie
MICRO BUSINESS: SIOBHAN McKENNA, MOSS + CABLE
Having grown up in the home of Irish knitwear, Donegal native Siobhan McKenna has woven many threads of experience into Moss + Cable. She launched the luxury knitwear brand in 2021 after completing a Masters degree at the London College of Fashion,
and since then, the brand’s identity has become synonymous with a contemporary take on the native craft. The small-team nature of Moss + Cable means that the She’s Next funding and mentorship were “exactly” what the knitwear brand needed: “From the get-go, it sounded amazing. The funding is such a boost to any business, and to have a mentor guide you on your next steps is so important. When you’re on your own you can feel a bit lost. You have an idea of what you want the brand to be, but you don’t know how to get there. This initiative helped me
realise those goals and work towards achieving them.” One particular goal McKenna references is her marketing strategy, an area she had previously sidelined: “I never allocated money to a marketing budget, it was just what I would do myself on Instagram or Facebook. I now have a marketing budget in place, which is so important for the growth of my business.” McKenna aims to build brand awareness overseas, too, particularly in the European market. Most recently, a Paris store bought a selection of her knitwear, a success she could share with the like-minded entrepreneurs of the programme: “It’s nice to have a community to share experiences and successes with, and I think that’s what She’s Next creates.” mossandcable.com
INNOVATION: MARIA HALL, HUB PLANNING LTD
Founded by Maria Hall, Hub Planning Ltd is a multi-disciplinary strategic planning consultancy. “We have a traditional consultancy service where we do a lot of work with government departments and not-for-profits and charities,” Hall explains. “And then we have Data Hub which streamlines the demographic analysis process. Instead of appointing an external consultant to review public data sets or do it yourself, we can do it quickly and efficiently.”
Hall was inspired to set up Data Hub after working in Australia where a similar product was the industry norm. Now based in Bundoran, she started the business in Sligo and the impact She’s Next had on Sweet Beat, a winner from Sligo last year, caught her attention. “I loved that it was a local business that was receiving this big brand recognition. So when I saw She’s Next advertised this year, I thought I might as well go for it. There are other business grants available but very few focus on publicising and celebrating the individuals and their businesses.”
Gaining access to international mentors is particularly appealing to Hall. “Our plans are to expand into other markets,” she explains. “It’s lovely in Ireland; we’re so close-knit you’re only ever one connection away from somebody whereas it’s completely different with international markets. I know there’s a lot of US mentors and ideally, we’d love to expand into the US so having those initial connections will be massively beneficial.”
As for the injection of capital? “It’s already spent,” she laughs. “We invested in products that we’ve wanted for a while and I took the team out to celebrate. There are hard days in every business so I want us to enjoy the wins.” hubplanning.ie
For more see ifundwomen.com/visaireland
Brought to you in partnership with Visa Ireland