One of the most challenging economic climates in our living history, the pandemic, has played havoc with how businesses operate. But it hasn’t stunted the entrepreneurial drive of some female business leaders, from the new to the experienced. Emma Deighan chats with four female bosses who are thriving against the odds
Jennifer Neff, Elemental
Elemental, an award-winning software firm that enables individuals, families, and their carers to better connect with community-based programmes, services and interventions that make a positive impact on their lives was set up by Jennifer Neff and Leeann Monk Ozgul.
The business idea came about in 2013, hitting the market in 2016 and has now removed the paper intensive prescription and organisation of social links and health services.
In 2021, the Derry-based business signed its biggest contract to date with the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, which looks over 2.8 million patients.
“We went into a tender process for that and won. It’s a massive contract that has enabled us to grow,” Jennifer says.
The team has grown from five to 30 in the past year while revenue, since its inception, has risen by 500%. Talking about her journey to success, Jennifer says: “We are a team of passionate community impact individuals.
“The first time we pitched the company was in a competition at a Derry’s City of Culture competition and while we didn’t win, it was an opportunity that allowed us to present our vision and solution.”
She says the winner of that competition, Maurice Mulvenna from Ulster University, gave her his £500 winnings which was instrumental in helping the duo take their next step.
“We spent years testing and refining the software and then we launched at the NHS Expo 2016. We showed the platform for the first time and did around 80 demos over two days. That got us five clients including Mersey Care Foundation Trust.” Today, Elemental provides a host of trusts with access to community referrals. It also allows them to gather data.
“We are real advocates of females in business, and we look back on our story and while there have been some difficult days, we’ve learned a lot and we want to be mentors to those who are following the same path.
“I think that’s one piece of advice I would give to anyone starting out on their own, find a co-founder. Leeann and I gel together. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and while there are tough days, it helps having a co-founder. It keeps you focused and resilient.”
Suzie McAneney, Lemonade
Suzie McAneney’s employment status has changed three times over the past year. In 2020, she was a contracted employee at a PR firm, she was then furloughed and today is self-employed running her own marketing agency and collaborating with other marketing professionals.
“Self-employment certainly has its peaks and troughs and navigating that with the right mindset is a huge challenge,” she says.
She says business at her agency is “booming” even though many firms have cut marketing spend. “Since the pandemic began, organisations have realised they have to position themselves in a more thoughtful and considered way to gain cut-through – and PR and marketing is the ideal means to do that. Lemonade is working with some great clients including Xero UK, Cloud 360 Accounting, Fathom and Squarebox HR and Training Consultancy.”
The plan now is to grow the agency into a “leading marketing and PR agency”, taking on staff and continuing to work with her current suppliers from the worlds of design, UX and web development. The pandemic has allowed Suzie to relocate to the north west, where her husband also works in marketing.
Discussing the move to go it alone, she says: “I was left in a position where I had nothing to lose, so I decided to go back to my agency roots and start my own consultancy. I had belief and faith in myself that I could achieve this if I set my mind to it, it wasn’t as daunting as one might think.”
Looking at the female-led business community here and its future potential, Suzie credits many of the start-up support groups that open doors for like-minded individuals.
“However, I do believe there is work to be done regarding female representation at board level and the gender pay gap.”
Suzie’s plans are to build on her client base as marketing resumes its role of being an essential element of operations post-pandemic.
She says: “The pandemic forced businesses into a survive rather than thrive mode which drove cuts, a lot of companies chose to focus on other areas of the business to deliver short-term sales.”
Aimear Lynch, My Pet Lamb
“Starting a business is an eye-opening experience and the initial challenge was having the nerve to take the plunge and launch,” Aimear Lynch of My Pet Lamb clothing company says.
“It can also be lonely when trying to run every aspect of the business. However, the highs far outweigh the lows. I had a busy first Christmas of sales and diversified into an adult range having started with children’s wear only.
“The best feeling is to have realised a dream that I had for 10 years in the making.”
After 10 years working for a large UK retailer, Aimear decided to pack up her life and move back to Donegal to make My Pet Lamb happen.
As buyer and merchandiser, she said she recognised that the fast fashion model “was broken”. With a masters in sustainable design, she knew the fast fashion model could no longer slide. Instead of approaching retail irresponsibly, My Pet Lamb aims to showcase the very best of natural Irish heritage knitwear and classic cotton staples. Today the company is benefitting from a growth in online retail sales.
“However, I must admit we are a slave to social algorithms which is a challenge when trying to promote digitally. My first year is going as planned, and we are focused on a growth strategy.”
The company works with a network of women in rural communities ranging from 60-80 years old and the aim is to grow this network across NI.
“The leap has been big, leaving the security of a job is daunting but I also had to consider my own sustainability and quality of life,” Aimear says about going alone. “Pursuing something I’m passionate about, using my skills and making my dream a reality far outweighs any of the negatives.
“From my own experience I feel there has been a real awakening over the past few years for female founders, particularly since the pandemic – Enterprise North West has never been busier.” Aimear says the pandemic has limited networking opportunities for new start-ups like hers and looks forward to fewer restrictions.
Becca Hume, TapSOS
Developed to provide an inclusive solution to allows everyone to contact emergency services, without barriers, TapSoS was set up by ex-silversmith and jewellery maker Becca Hume, in 2016.
Today the service is growing its user base, which can contact 999 without the need to vocalise the emergency. This includes those who are deaf, hard of hearing and many of the 800,000 people living in the UK who don’t have English as a first language.
“People automatically think it is just for deaf people, but there are many others who benefit. For example, a person who is choking, having an asthma attack or an allergic reaction also benefits. This is for everyone,” Becca (pictured on the front cover of this feature) says, who was recently the only NI businessperson to win a £50,000 Innovation Award.
The new funding is part of the Government’s flagship Women in Innovation Awards, delivered by Innovate UK, part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), which seeks to boost the number of UK female entrepreneurs, which could deliver £180bn to the economy.
“We’re looking at eye-gazing technology and a number of other innovations that will challenge what we’re already doing,” she says.
The company currently employs three staff members but also works collaboratively with several other contractors. As a woman in business, Becca says she has received a lot of support over the years but believes there still remain funding gaps for females.
“I have received a lot of support. Ulster Bank’s Accelerator programme has been very beneficial as too has being part of Women in Business and the Institute of Directors. We have a lot of strong business networks and as a female I do feel really supported. On the funding front, it’s clear that women receive less backing. I’ve had a lot of conversations about this, and I would like to see more commitment to female-led businesses.
“There are so many female founders here and their businesses are fantastic, but they may not be getting the finance they deserve.”
Looking to the future of the business, Becca has plans to expand beyond the UK, the Republic, and internationally.