How businesswomen are propelled towards even greater success
As Invest NI marks the highest-ever female participation in its Propel programme, Margaret Canning speaks to some of the women whose firms have been chosen for the scheme
While Northern Ireland is one of the poorest performers of the UK nations when it comes to levels of female entrepreneurship, innovative businesswomen on the Invest NI Propel Programme are determined to buck the trend.
The Total Entrepreneurial Index (TEA) measures the proportion of women in the female adult population who are either in the process of starting a business or are the owner-manager of a new business. Most recent statistics from the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (2015) show that the TEA rate among the female population in Northern Ireland is 3.4% - compared to 5.8% in Scotland and 4.6% in both England and Wales.
Despite this gap, the spirit of entrepreneurship is alive and growing among the female population here, with Propel now celebrating its highest ever level of female participation, at 45%.
Leeann Monk, Ana McColgan and Cheryl McWilliams are more than halfway through the latest intensive start-up programme, which is designed to fast-track high potential new businesses towards export growth.
Last year, Leeann and business partner Jennifer Neff gave up their full-time jobs to focus on developing a digital solution to the Social Prescription model of health care delivery. After an intensive period of research and development, Elemental Software is ready for market and the final results will be revealed at NHS Expo Manchester on September 7.
Leeann said: "'Elemental Software is a digital platform which facilitates social prescribing - a 'more than medicine' healthcare model which sees health professionals direct patients towards community interventions in exercise, nutrition and mental health. Our software generates these social prescriptions, which enable patients with chronic health risks to take control of their own healthcare, signposting them towards community based activities which can reduce their level of risk.
"The potential cost savings for health trusts are enormous, as the use of social prescriptions not only reduces the risk of patients developing chronic health problems; our software has also been designed to measure outcomes on commissioned services to prove value for money.
"We have already recently secured contacts in the UK and Ireland which will be worth in excess of £250,000. We are also in advanced talks about bringing our technology to Dubai, where Elemental Software has the potential to intervene and dramatically reduce a chronic obesity and diabetes risk there."
Cheryl McWilliams is founder of Mother Bee Skincare - handmade, natural skincare products for animals and their owners.
Cheryl and her team produce the range, based on an old beeswax recipe passed down from her mother.
It's a technique the family had used for four generations, before a local vet encouraged Cheryl to bring it to market. Since then, Mother Bee has gone on to become a trusted supplier to some of the largest thoroughbred studs in the world and its products are exported to countries including New Zealand, France and Sweden.
Cheryl said: "Our range has been doing amazing things, helping just about every animal you can think of - from cats and dogs, to horses and even lizards.
"The products have been embraced by some of the largest stud farms in the world, where Mother Bee is improving a long list of skin problems which studs were previously struggling to control.
"We've sent repeat shipments to royal palaces, world leaders and animal lovers across the globe. Our customer base is continuing to grow and with new products due to launch next year, it's a very exciting time for the business."
Ana McColgan, founder of EV-U Solutions, is also primed for increasing export wins. Her Vault Proof software provides a method for businesses and the public sector to collect and verify information on professional qualifications.
"Collecting and validating professional information for tenders, submissions and record keeping is an expensive and time intensive task," she said.
"Our software dramatically reduces the work time involved, helping organisations to save money and reduce risks by having easy access to secure, pre-validated and complaint information."
The system was launched in June and now has contracts worth over £120,000. Ana said: "Without the guidance of the Propel Programme Mentors, I doubt we would have made some of the bold decisions we have. Propel gave us confidence to acquire high spec digital encryption software from Ulster University, a decision which will be central in helping us to target international markets and we're already making significant inroads in the USA."
Niall Casey, Invest NI's director of skills and strategy, said: "Increasing the level of entrepreneurial activity among women will make a huge contribution to the future success of the Northern Ireland economy.
"Over the past three years, over 50 female entrepreneurs have benefited from participation on the Propel Programme, which overall, has so far helped attract over £18m of investment.
"It is clear from these tremendous success stories that the Propel Programme helps break down many of the barriers to entrepreneurship, which are experienced by both females and males.
"As these start-up businesses continue to grow, we look forward to celebrating their continued success and contribution to the local economy."