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Empowering Women In Business Requires A Mix Of Strategy Adaptation And Leadership -New Frontiers

Sinead Lonergan has been the Women in Business Manager at Enterprise Ireland since early 2023. Her job is to guide the state agency’s five-year strategy to increase the number of women who opt for entrepreneurship and the participation of women in leadership. We spoke to Sinead about her work so far and the journey ahead.

The Enterprise Ireland action plan was published just before the pandemic in 2020. It recognised that diversity in leadership is vital in reflecting the modern and globalised society of today as well as in delivering a more sustainable and inclusive economy. More specifically, it anticipated that increasing gender diversity during the stages of founding, leading, and growing enterprises will result in stronger businesses and faster economic growth.

Sinead Lonergan Women in Business Manager at Enterprise Ireland

Sinead Lonergan, Women in Business Manager at Enterprise Ireland

Through a number of programmes, initiatives, and collaborations, Enterprise Ireland has set the following goals:

  • Increase the number of women-led companies growing internationally.
  • Increase the number of women in middle and senior management as well as leadership roles in Irish companies.
  • Increase the number of women becoming entrepreneurs.
  • Increase the number of women-led high growth potential startups.

“Although a strategy had been created, that didn’t mean the work was fixed. During my first few months in the role, I met with lots of the people in the business ecosystem and listened to what challenges and opportunities they were dealing with. The plan was always to adapt our approach as things changed and to focus wherever the need was strongest.”

One of the activities Sinead mentioned was a workshop held on International IP Day that aimed to equip female entrepreneurs with the knowledge and tools to safeguard their intellectual property rights – a key component of fundraising and growth. This is a vital step for people navigating the competitive landscape of innovation, yet women only represent around 16% of IP applications worldwide.

“Local Enterprise Offices, Network Ireland, Business Innovation Centres, Scale Ireland, and the NDRC are some of our partners in this strategy, and they have fantastic initiatives aimed at women. Stakeholder engagement is the cornerstone of the endeavour towards gender equality, and that includes advocating for equity and decision-making through a gender lens. It takes concerted effort to address systemic barriers and foster an environment of inclusivity across industries.”

An innovative initiative resulting from these efforts was taking a group of women from the construction industry to the Toyota facility in Wales. Toyota has a world-class lean management course, so this trip aimed to raise the group’s capability in this area plus hone their leadership skills. It was also a chance to profile these women, who hold leadership roles in an industry that is overwhelmingly male.

“Enterprise Ireland has certain objectives around the number of female founders we support. So, towards the end of 2023, I focused a lot on female founders and how we can help them keep up the momentum of starting a business and develop their capabilities in areas such as raising capital.”

Through partnerships with organisations like the Irish Venture Capital Association (IVCA), Sinead and her colleagues have facilitated webinars, masterclasses, and coaching sessions aimed at demystifying the venture capital landscape. These initiatives have equipped female founders with the knowledge and resources needed to navigate the complexities of fundraising and take their ventures to new heights.

“We’re also looking at what larger companies can do to achieve gender balance. As reporting on the gender pay gap is brought in for smaller businesses, the hope is that they will be able to learn from the changes and programmes that were successful in enterprise. We want to understand the best ways to engage with client companies so that their talent pipelines are diverse. We’re always looking at how to help bring forward a diverse group of talent to support the emmergence of scalable startups and the international growth of our client base.

Sinead receives guidance from a steering group within Enterprise Ireland, composed of colleagues from across the organisation who meet on a regular basis to inform the strategy with insights from their day-to-day contact with industry. They help to pinpoint which sectors or issues to focus on. Enterprise Ireland’s annual survey of client businesses also provides valuable data around topics such as leadership representation, sales growth, export growth, etc.

“Change starts at first- and second-level education. These are fundamental issues, but we need to show young girls that there are exciting and viable alternative career paths and then back this up by embedding entrepreneurship into third-level education. There is much more still to do, but I am optimistic.”

The issue of gender equality in Ireland extends far beyond the business. It permeates across society, including education, politics, healthcare, and family. Fostering a culture of inclusivity and respect, promoting work-life balance, and providing support for caregiving responsibilities will contribute to a more equitable society. As Sinead points out, the importance of male allies in promoting gender equality both at home and in the workplace cannot be overemphasised.

“Always at the back of my mind is working towards better representation of women-led companies trading internationally. That is my bellwether. That is how we’ll know we are having significant impact. Through our international office network, we continue to help female founders and leaders develop their global networks and build their profile.

“A big piece of this puzzle is funding. In Europe, only 2% of venture capital funding currently goes to women, and that is unacceptable on so many levels. We need more women taking up senior positions in the VC industry, as well as the broader investment sector. It’s important for women founders to be financially fluent and equip themselves with this knowledge. If I could wave a magic wand, this the first thing I would change.”

To learn more about Women in Business, visit the Enterprise Ireland website. If you are just starting out in entrepreneurship, the New Frontiers programme offers a highly supportive environment for early-stage female founders. We are very proud of our track record supporting women as well as our gender-balanced Programme Manager team. In 2023, 39% of Phase 2 participants and 37% of Phase 3 participants across the country were women. In addition, five of the seven New Frontiers alumni to be awarded HPSU between 2021 and 2023 were female.

Read about four of our recent alumnae and the women-focused businesses they run in our blog Four Female Founders With Game-Changing Startups Targeting The Female Market.

About the author

scarlet-merrillScarlet Bierman

Scarlet Bierman is a content consultant, commissioned by Enterprise Ireland to fulfil the role of Editor of the New Frontiers website. She is an expert in designing and executing ethical marketing strategies and passionate about helping businesses to develop a quality online presence.