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Connacht’s female entrepreneurs: ‘Making a living from clothing in Ireland is not easy’

A growing number of female entrepreneurs in the west of Ireland are signing up to support programmes to help them get their businesses off the ground

In 2017, the first EMPOWER programme aimed at female founders living in Galway, Mayo and Roscommon was launched. For its champion, Maria Staunton innovation hub manager at ATU Mayo (Atlantic Technological University), it was an anxious time as she waited to see the response.

She needn’t have worried. Interest was brisk with 170 women applying for the 64 places available.

Siobhán Leigh is the founder of Mayo-based White Rose Creations, a sustainable clothing business that uses natural cottons and jerseys to make clothes that last. “I started out handmaking items for my two young daughters and quickly saw that the demand for these natural fabrics and timeless patterns was very much alive. Even in this time of fast fashion and throwaway culture there are still people who want good quality, pieces that can be passed on,” says Leigh who participated in EMPOWER and also in a sister programme called Comasú.

“Making a living from clothing in Ireland is not easy and Brexit has made it more difficult in terms of getting supplies. I currently source from countries such as Sweden and Germany. I found the course really helpful because it gears you up to become more business-like in your approach.

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“It’s one thing to make clothes for your children but quite another to contemplate moving into volume production. On the course we went through our costs with a fine tooth comb and it was made clear to us how every decision we made had to be linked to the bottom line. You need to stop and ask yourself every time, will this work for me?”

There has since been an Empower II with over 450 applications for 65 places and it has expanded to include Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal. In 2023, Cumasú, a sister programme aimed at aspiring woman entrepreneurs living in the Gaeltachts of Galway-Mayo, was piloted in co-operation with Údarás na Gaeltachta.

Again, there was no shortage of applicants and this year Cumasú has been expanded to include Gaeltacht areas across the country. More than 100 women are expected to take part in this free, part-time course over the next three years.

“There are two strands to EMPOWER, the start programme for those with an idea who want to validate their business concept and the growth programme for those with an established business they want to scale. We have had a diverse range of businesses taking part and it has been fantastic to watch these women grow in confidence and reach their professional milestones,” Staunton says.

“As a result of Empower II, for example, 67 new jobs have been created and €10.4 million raised in funding by the participating businesses. Over 70 new services and almost 150 new products have been launched and 57 students from ATU have completed work placements with EMPOWER businesses. On the growth programme, the participating companies have increased their sales by a significant margin (half of them by over 50 per cent) while over a third have expanded into new export markets so there is no shortage of drive and ambition.”

Margaret Leahy and Niamh Ryle have also been through the west’s female founder programmes. Leahy’s business is a new start while Ryle, who established her business back in 2016, took part in EMPOWER Growth.

Leahy’s business is called Fable Tours and revolves around food. Specifically, farm-to-table tours where Leahy brings her guests to meet farmers and food producers along the western seaboard to sample their produce. Most of her business is B2B from overseas tour operators bringing people to Ireland often for corporate events.

Ideally, Leahy likes groups of 12-15 people to keep things intimate and depending on the chosen route guests can experience shoreline foraging for seaweed and edible plants, visit a microbrewery, try some Atlantic-grown abalone and sample locally produced cheese, yoghurt, ice cream, condiments, sauces and baking. Leahy is an accredited tour guide, so she keeps everyone entertained with a culinary, agricultural and historical commentary throughout.

“In rural areas where farmers and food producers have it really tough just to survive the tours provide additional income and I am very passionate about keeping that income in the community,” says Leahy.

“Secondly, the tours give the farmers and producers the opportunity to educate people about their products and if it’s an Irish group maybe the next time they go to buy a cheese or a yoghurt they will look specifically for these brands.”

Leahy is based in Connemara and started out running all-in food travel packages before pivoting to one-day events in 2023. “The tours were five days long and the logistics were a bit of a nightmare when you’re a one-man band,” she says.

“Bringing people to meet the producers is the bit I really love so it made more sense to make that my main focus while my Comasú Údarás na Gaeltachta mentors also encouraged me to develop a business model that was sustainable in the long term.”

Niamh Ryle is a chartered civil engineer who set up HomeCheck in Galway eight years ago to take some of the hassle out of preparing compliance documentation for those buying and selling residential property.

“For buyers we provide a comprehensive review of the property, including a detailed physical check of the building – akin to an NCT – and our report will satisfy the requirements of the conveyancing solicitor and the mortgage lender and will also enable a buyer to identify any risks and potential costs before purchasing,” Ryle says.

“For sellers we provide the technical documentation that a solicitor will need to get the property to market. In short, each property for sale needs a Ber, planning regulation compliance, building regulation compliance and land registry maps. By using new technologies, we streamline the process and use our own proprietary survey software to provide a quick, cost effective turnaround for our customers.”

When Ryle went on the inaugural EMPOWER Growth programme, she was working on her own in Galway. Today, HomeCheck operates in 23 counties, employs four people directly and works with another eight building surveyors and engineers around the country to provide its service.

“What I needed was more business knowledge and to adjust my thinking to be more commercially aware. The programme certainly helped me to build these capabilities and keep me accountable in terms of meeting my targets,” Ryle says. “We have grown steadily, particularly through word of mouth as well as through our internet presence as buyers and sellers alike really want to avoid the long delays associated with property transactions and our service can help.”