Belfast Telegraph

'There's still work to do, but of all the entrepreneurs we supported last year, 53% were female'

Lynsey Cunningham speaks to Ryan McAleer about how Ulster Bank's accelerator programme is helping entrepreneurs throw off the fear of failure mindset

Lynsey Cunningham, Ulster Bank’s regional director of entrepreneurship, who oversees the lender’s accelerator programme from its Belfast headquarters
Lynsey Cunningham, Ulster Bank’s regional director of entrepreneurship, who oversees the lender’s accelerator programme from its Belfast headquarters
With the bank’s in-house entrepreneurship team
Lynsey with the head of Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland, Richard Donnan
Lynsey Cunningham

Northern Ireland has the best rate in the UK for new business start-ups achieving £1m in turnover, but it slips down the table when it comes to reaching the £10m mark.

Closing that gap is the task of Lynsey Cunningham. Ulster Bank's regional director of entrepreneurship, she oversees the lender's accelerator programme.

One of 12 such programmes rolled out by RBS across the UK, the scheme is effectively a crash course for new businesses, offering up to 80 people an 18-month programme of mentoring and access to the bank's extensive networks.

Ulster Bank has also introduced a pre-accelerator programme, a shorter eight-week largely online course, that's geared at allowing people with an idea to dip their toe into the business world, without much risk.

As the world acknowledged the contribution of pioneering women via Friday's International Women's Day, Bangor-born Lynsey reveals that she has played her own part within Ulster Bank.

Starting with the lender in 2008, she has worked her way through the institution, dealing with corporate clients and major business customers.

When it happened that RBS may be extending the model of its successful Scottish entrepreneurship programme out across the UK, she saw the potential.

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"The role I'm in now and the previous role, no one in Ulster Bank had held them before."

Female entrepreneurship, she admits, remains a strong personal interest. Across the UK, women typically only make up around one-third of all entrepreneurs. But she reveals that the Ulster Bank accelerator has been punching above its weight.

"You'll typically find the accelerator is more male-dominated, and pre-accelerator more female. But actually last year, of all the entrepreneurs we supported in 2018, 53% were female. That's way above the industry average.

"We know there's more work to do," she added.

The accelerator is all about encouragement and support: "A rising tide floats all boats, and it's working with the right people who can help businesses succeed."

The support for women too is improving, with groups now set up specially for female founders in Belfast.

"One of the challenges has been around confidence and role models. We've looked at confidence and brand building, and brought in female entrepreneurs who've been there and done it."

Timely then was the release of Lynsey's RBS colleague Alison Rose's report, The chief executive of RBS Commercial and Private Banking.

She led a government review into female entrepreneurship in the hope of identifying the extent of barriers and what can be done to overcome them.

Next week on March 20 Lynsey will host a dinner on behalf of Ulster Bank to promote the issue and explore the review.

"One of the things I'm really interested in is how we can attract people who wouldn't traditionally apply for our programmes."

Recalling what sparked her own interest in business, she notes the role of her parents Mark and Mary Kernohan. Dad Mark spent a career in the Civil Service and now is on the management team of Asda. While her brother Dale (31) went down the Civil Service route as a private secretary with the MoD in London, Lynsey recalled the impact of an influential business studies teacher at Glenola Collegiate, the late Richard Lowry.

"I had the best business studies teacher ever," she enthused.

By coincidence, Mr Lowry played an influential role in the career of the head of Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland Richard Donnan: "We were talking about people who had inspired our interest in business and it was the same person," said Lynsey.

A degree in international management and Spanish at Heriot-Watt University followed, meeting her husband Greg at the Edinburgh university. A year in Bilbao during her third year also expanded her horizons.

But a self-confessed home bird at heart, she snapped up the chance at graduate career with Ulster Bank. Her relationship with the bank actually began with a summer temping post as a student.

But a year later, in September 2008, it was an altogether different atmosphere for banking during the financial crisis.

Nevertheless, her engagement with the corporate side of banking put her in touch with entrepreneurs and eventually on a course with the RBS accelerator programme.

The success of three entrepreneurship hubs in Scotland prompted RBS to roll it out across the UK, eventually reaching Belfast in February 2016.

Initially based in Lombard Street, Ulster Bank brought the programme into a new £400,000 centre within its Donegall Square headquarters last November.

"When you look at the global entrepreneurship monitor, fear of failure and start-up rates, Northern Ireland really needed this," said Lynsey.

"We're on our 10th intake here in Belfast, there's still a really healthy pipeline, but there's a lot more support than there's ever been for someone looking to start a business. It's exciting and constantly changes."

She said the types of new businesses here have evolved. Three years ago the programme had a strong intake of food and drink firms. But there's an increasing emergence of new tech start-ups.

"The hub is not sector-specific, but is reflective of the different types of businesses in Northern Ireland. So we're seeing growth in the number of new med-tech and cyber security firms."

The attraction for start-ups and smaller businesses lies in the fact the programme is fully funded by the bank, covering workspace, wi-fi, coaching and advice.

"The expectation back is your engagement and commitment," said the director.

"We are looking for entrepreneurs who are ambitious and want to grow their business. Northern Ireland gets to £1m turnover the quickest of anywhere in the UK, but slower to £10m. The question is how do we plug that gap?

"One of the biggest challenges is putting the infrastructure in place to enable your business to grow. If you're a one or two person band, you're pretty much in control of everything. But we've been able to bring in some HR experts and we have our partner network, with legal firms like Pinset Masons, talking to them about recruitment, putting HR policies in place, how you motivate staff, because people are the greatest asset."

Tackling the 'fear of failure' culture and changing mindsets is a major focus of the programme.

"As more and more people are starting to explore entrepreneurship as a career, how do we take away the fear of failure and how do we demonstrate the people who've been there and done that? It's about learning from a setback, do you know your numbers, what are the obstacles from growing your business even further?"

Celebrating success is another important component. This year Ulster Bank will mark its third year sponsoring the Belfast Telegraph business awards with a new prize recognising entrepreneurship.

For the first time, the annual awards night, at the Crowne Plaza on May 2, will feature a live pitching event, with those in attendance charged with voting for the winner on the night.

"These awards and the new entrepreneurship award in particular will celebrate those people who are the risk takers, the dreamers, the idea makers and show other people that they can do it too," said Lynsey.

"In business, sometimes you hear about failures. They're essential from a learning point of view, but we need to take stock every now and then and recognise success. When you're working in a business, it can be hard sometimes to look up. Celebrating the wins is very important."

Keen to highlight success, she offers a taste of what the accelerator programme does.

Take pharmacist Johnny Clarke's Locate a Locum start-up, a platform which connects pharmacies with pharmacists.

"He came in here, really tested it, got some investment and was able to create a digital solution. He now has a team of 10 over at Ormeau Enterprise Agency."

Gary Robinson's cyber-security firm Uleska is another stand-out, which claims to be the world's first product to automatically secure software as it is developed. Still based in the accelerator with a team of six, in December the tech firm announced that it had secured £500,000 in investment and sales orders.

Newcastle ice-cream business Nugelato was another company interested in expanding its offering. Using the networking offered by the accelerator, Michael and Catriona Nugent were able to avail of expertise from senior industry figures from firms like McDonald's. With stores in Newcastle, Newry and Bangor, Nugelato recently opened its fourth outlet in the Stranmillis area of Belfast.

She said: "One of the best things about in here is the like-minded people. Those businesses are in different sectors, but they're really ambitious and it makes for great conversation."

Belfast Telegraph