Belfast Telegraph

Succeeding with the odds stacked against you

Small business can

By Lisa Smyth

As a child growing up in Castlederg, only one teacher at Johann Muldoon's primary school believed she would succeed in life.

The only child of a mixed-marriage couple in rural Co Tyrone, her home during the first six months of her life was a tin roof property that had running water but no electricity.

It was a humble beginning for a woman who has gone on to become the first female architect in Northern Ireland to receive an MBE - the latest in a long list of professional accolades - and who frequently works on multimillion-pound development projects.

However, it is most likely the multiple challenges she has faced throughout her life that have given Johann - who became a director of Moneymore-based Manor Architects in 2008 - the determination to excel at everything she does.

"I was always in trouble as a child," she said.

"There wasn't a week where I didn't get slapped for something.

"I think the problem is that children are put in a box and kept in a box, and there was a perception that I would never amount to anything from a very young age.

"I had German measles when I was young, which resulted in hearing loss and that caused me problems.

"There was only one teacher, who I loved, who took time with me - she used to let me get up and sing in class."

Johann moved schools aged nine and later began attending Omagh Academy, where her life started to change for the better.

"I was with an entirely new group of people and I was able to reinvent myself," she said.

By the time she was 16, Johann had been awarded UK Young Entrepreneur of the Year by Sir Richard Branson, and she went on to become the first member of her family to attain a third-level education.

She began a degree in philosophy and psychology at Queen's University in Belfast, but it was a chance visit to the school of architecture's building that prompted her to change direction.

"One night, in a thunderstorm, I took refuge in the architecture building and I saw the models and drawings and I knew it was what I wanted to do," Johann said.

However, getting a place on the degree course was not easy.

"They told me they didn't like people coming in the back door," Johann said.

"I told them they had a 10 or 15% dropout rate and I wanted to do the course, but they were still very hesitant.

"We were two months into term, so I went home and completed the first two projects that weekend.

"When I came back, they let me in and I came top of every year."

Johann graduated with a first-class honours degree and decided to continue her studies at the prestigious Mackintosh School of Architecture in Glasgow.

However, for the first time since primary school, she struggled.

"It was incredibly tough," Johann said. "I was among an international group of people and I wasn't the top student anymore."

At the end of her first year, she travelled to Finland and spent the summer studying there before returning to Glasgow with renewed focus.

But she was then confronted with a series of personal tragedies - her beloved mum was diagnosed with breast cancer and she lost her grandfather and a number of friends as a result of the Omagh Bombing in 1998.

"Some of my love for architecture comes from the fact that I have the ability to step out of what is going on and focus on my work," she said.

"These things have made me realise how short life is and so I want to do the best I can at everything I do."

While Johann is first and foremost an architect, her profession cannot be separated from her business aspirations. She showed real business acumen from a young age.

"I always wanted to own my own business by the time I was 30, I always wanted to be in control of my own destiny and I was making money from about 11," she said.

"I sold my first Holy Communion dress and made a profit. I think mum had it made for about £65 and I sold it for £90 and bought my first dog.

"I was always making money, whether it was selling marbles or making things."

Johann admitted that relationships have suffered in the past because of her steadfast dedication to her career. But she has found a way to blend her passion for architecture with a family life and now lives in Ballymoney with her dairy farmer husband, Gerard McCloskey, and their two children.

"I was never a baby person, I was always focused on my love for architecture and I never really considered letting anything else in, but now I have two babies under three and a third coming in November," she said. "When I was first pregnant, that was the most anxious period in my career as I was concerned about how people and clients would view it, whether they would think I would be off for nine months and whether I would deliver their projects.

"I was concerned about how the business would run because of perception, instead of reality.

"As it turned out I had a Caesarean section with my son.

"I was out of the office for three weeks and then I took him to work with me until he was four-and-a-half months. I didn't know any other way to go about it."

As a result of her experience, Johann - the lead speaker at the Ulster Bank Boost event at the Glenavon Hotel in Cookstown tomorrow - is also an advocate of the contribution made by women to the business world.

"I am very, very stubborn and I love what I do," she said. "I don't think I have accepted 'no' in my life.

"I think you have to be really competitive and dogmatic and never allow yourself to be put down.

"I want to instil in people that confidence has no competition.

If you are confident in yourself, then no one can compete with you.

"If you have confidence and belief and if you keep going and are unrelenting, then you will always win."

Belfast Telegraph

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