She bangs the drums

Editor's Choice, Employment, Interviews | Mon 26 Sep | Author – Colin White start-ups entrepreneur

Joanne Hession speaks with Colin White about helping to provide new enterprises with the training to do better, smarter and more successful business.

Made up of serial entrepreneurs, first-time entrepreneurial teams, investors, agencies and institutions, Ireland’s dynamic start-up scene is flourishing.

Over $300m in funding was secured by Dublin-based start-ups in 2015, and exciting regional multi-sector developments have also taken place in recent times.

However, Ireland wasn’t always a force in the start-up space, as an early morning discussion with portfolio entrepreneur and education enthusiast Joanne Hession reveals at the Entrepreneurs Academy in Smithfield, Dublin.

Hession, a recognised leader in training and business development, was destined for a life in business from a young age. “I always wanted to start my own business. I was the one doing the jumble sales out the front garden. I loved the idea of business,” she says.

After obtaining a BComm and MBS at UCD, opportunities were not plentiful in an early-nineties Dublin far from awash with jobs. An accountancy role with Ernst & Young, followed by a role managing UCD’s MBS programme, kept Hession active for a time – but the young go-getter from Dublin craved a new challenge.

“I was a bit disillusioned by the scene in Dublin at the time. Everybody was working in the corporate world, and everything was about how much money was being made, which didn’t sit very well with me,” says Hession.

The 25-year-old applied to the Concern charity and soon found herself at the Rwandan-Tanzanian border after the Rwandan civil war, positioned in the post-emergency field in Concern-managed refugee camps.

“We were allowed to set up primary schools for the kids. The situation was really dire. We were meeting families at the border of Tanzania who had nothing. You were meeting kids who had lost their whole family,” she adds. “But in the Concern-built schools we set up, there was a sense of hope and I fell in love with education there and then.”

We’d love to see 10,000 new businesses started by 2025, and that internally is what our goal is here

MODEST BEGINNINGS

Hession’s newfound passion for education, together with a strong desire to set up a business, cumulated in the foundation of the Entrepreneurs Academy upon her return to Ireland.

“At the time, there weren’t a lot of courses teaching people how to start their own business, and I found the ones already in existence very theoretical and – in my opinion – didn’t offer the practical tools necessary.

“I worked out of my parents’ TV room at the beginning,” Hession laughs upon recalling the early stage of the business. “After we moved into an office space, we quickly began training nationwide. Wherever we could win contracts, we were delivering them throughout the country.”

THE CREATIVE CORRIDOR

Since its inception, the Entrepreneurs Academy has trained thousands of entrepreneurs and for nearly two decades has supported the growth of small businesses.

The academy’s core values are around maximising people’s potential and continuous learning. Last year, Hession and the Entrepreneurs Academy used the office space in Smithfield to bring 300 long-term unemployed individuals through a practical entrepreneurship programme. The continued expansion of the organisation’s training programmes has led to the venue becoming a permanent one for Hession and her ever-growing team.

Hession notes: “We’ve got nine people that are employed by the academy and we have a panel of 30 contract trainers on the various programmes. We also have a separate business that does consultancy with universities overseas across 12 countries.

“We’re all about learning. We run everything from one-day boot camps to six-month full-time training programmes. The academy is more than a training company; we are a nationwide movement on track to change the face of small business in Ireland.”

But it’s not just The Pale that benefits from her organisation’s strategy, as education is also delivered nationwide – with plans afoot to expand internationally.

“We operate all over the country, from Dublin to Cork to Donegal. We’ve just taken on a big creative corridor programme, which is going to run all down the south-east with the LEOs in five counties,” Hession enthuses. “We’ve started to get enquiries from two countries about sending students to the academy. We plan to teach practical entrepreneurship to the first set of students over the next semester.”

joanne hession

Joanne Hession, managing director, Entrepreneurs Academy. Photo: Colin White

PRACTICAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP

Although tech has been the buzzword in the start-up scene over recent times, Hession identifies a deeper pool of talent in Ireland at present. “When people think ‘start-ups’, they tend to think tech. The tech start-up community has become really vibrant these last few years, which is great. But I’m also banging the drum for all those other start-ups. For instance, self-employed freelance journalists or photographers who have a tech underbelly, but who also need to build their business.”

When asked about obtaining funding and the common stumbling blocks that many Irish entrepreneurs face, Hession points to fine-tuning the concept before bringing to market.

The tech start-up community has become really vibrant these last few years … but I’m also banging the drum for all those other start-ups

“It’s actually very easy to start a business in Ireland; there’s not a lot of red tape. The truth of it is that if you’ve got a really good business idea, you’ll get the finance,” she says.

“A common problem is a lack of the right business idea. What we do is help individuals in this regard so they have a better case to obtain finance. You might think you’ve got a great idea, but is it going to bring in sales? Many start-ups don’t pay enough attention to sales growth. I’d also advise conducting as much market research as possible; getting out there and finding out what’s required is really vital.”

LONGING FOR SPRING

Another of Hession’s roles is to advise the Government on SME policy, and she and her team consults with corporations and a host of agencies to help them to better connect with small business customers. Furthermore, as part of a new partnership with Springboard+, the Entrepreneurs Academy has offered 100 places on two of its 12-week courses, the first of which commenced in September, with the second taking place in January 2017. Both courses will be fully funded through the Springboard+ Initiative, supported by the Higher Education Authority, and are free of charge and eligible to those who are unemployed.

FUTURE REFLECTIONS

Looking to the future, Hession is visibly optimistic about the academy’s prospects to nurture an ever-growing number of entrepreneurs and she is proud of the academy’s work to date.

“It’s been a real privilege to watch participants on the programmes develop. It’s amazing to see people go from a stage of unemployment to a stage where they have their own business. It’s such a sea-change for them and their families. We’d love to see 10,000 new businesses started by 2025, and that internally is what our goal is here.”

Before I bid farewell to the co-author of Don’t Get A Job, Build A Business, I ponder her thoughts on the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

“Small businesses will immediately have to look at how can they increase their margin in the UK. Can they move some things to the UK so that they pay sterling for what they’re doing? What else can they do to add value? It’s the ones that react smartest which will thrive.

“Of course, there are also opportunities, as Ireland is now the only English-speaking country in the EU, but we’re in a precarious situation. What usually happens is that each small business will just put their thinking caps on and put their heads down and just work it out for themselves.

“Because that’s what we all do all the time. If you sit back waiting for somebody else to do something, it’s just not going to happen. You’ve just got to do it yourself, and that’s exactly what they’re doing at the moment. They are twisting their businesses, moving their business models and seeing what they can do. And with that, opportunity always comes.”