Fiona Descoteaux and Annabelle Conway stand in stadium stalls holding a banner that says Business All-Stars.
From left: Fiona Descoteaux and Annabelle Conway, Innovate Communities. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

‘Supporting people in difficult circumstances really struck a chord with me’

29 Jul 2020303 Views

Innovate Communities CEO Fiona Descoteaux discusses the importance of mentorship in disadvantaged communities.

It’s important to nurture and include people from all walks of life to ensure that businesses, governments and other organisations have diversity of thought. When discussing diversity, inclusion and mentorship initiatives, we often think of gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

However, one area that can sometimes be overlooked is supporting those who may be from disadvantaged communities, and this is where the importance of mentorship really comes into play.

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Fiona Descoteaux is the CEO of Innovate Communities, a social enterprise that works to address specific needs in Ballymun, Finglas and the Liberties in Dublin.

“We look at community challenges and work with people at the centre of the community, so residents, the businesses and non-profits, to alleviate those challenges and create new products, new services or businesses that add value to the existing community,” she told Siliconrepublic.com.

Originally from Scotland, Descoteaux’s first job was as a business support officer in a local development company in a disadvantaged community in Glasgow. The team she worked with supported non-profit organisations, which in turn supported vulnerable people. This is what drew her into this area of work. “I realised that my values were more aligned with supporting people in difficult circumstances and that really struck a chord with me.”

‘I felt there was a lot more that we could do in terms of looking at community services that could be essentially designed’
– FIONA DESCOTEAUX

Descoteaux moved to Dublin in 2007 to start work as an enterprise officer in a local development company. “I knew absolutely no one, I turned up with two suitcases and left my lovely home, friends and family in Scotland for a new challenge and a new opportunity,” she said.

“I threw myself into looking at enterprise support services in disadvantaged communities and … I worked my way up the company from 2007 to 2012 to economic development manager and acting CEO.”

At 29 years of age, Descoteaux was running a small company with 25 staff. However, it was around this time that the procurement process changed for local development companies and Descoteaux’s team lost out on funding by a very narrow margin of 4pc.

“It was very hard to take, but I wasn’t going to take it lying down,” she said. “I felt there was a lot more that we could do in terms of looking at community services, particularly in disadvantaged communities, that could be essentially designed.”

So, Descoteaux went about trying to unravel the challenges facing communities and design new solutions to combat those challenges. This project became Innovate Ballymun, which then became Innovate Dublin and, finally, Innovate Communities.

The value of mentorship

Descoteaux discussed the enterprise’s latest project, a mentorship programme in partnership with LinkedIn, in which young people between 18 and 25 from its target communities are paired with a mentor from the same community who has excelled in their career.

“The point of matching a mentee and mentor from the same community is that it allows the individual to have a common ground and to build a relationship, because if you can’t build a relationship with someone that you’re supporting or mentoring, then it’s very difficult to start actually supporting the growth of the mentee,” she said.

Mentees do not have to be in college or unemployed to participate in the programme. “The only restriction we have is that they’re from one of the communities that we’re targeting at the moment, which is Finglas, Ballymun and Liberties, and they’re between 18 and 25 years old.”

For mentors, they don’t have to be working in a particular industry, they just have to be a professional who is either from the community or living in the community. The mentor goes through a seven-step training programme, educated about how mentoring works and given tools to develop goal setting for the mentee involved. The commitment for mentors is 12 months.

“We did a lot of research to understand how long a mentor programme should be to give benefit to the mentee but also the mentor, and between nine and 12 months was the optimum time from the research,” said Descoteaux.

Over the 12-month mentorship, the mentor is asked to set aside an hour a week for engagement with the mentee, and help them achieve their goals with the guidance of the training programme.

“LinkedIn has provided us with funding to hire a programme manager and are supporting this programme for a period of two years,” Descoteaux added. “What we see is that we will start with three communities in Dublin and then towards the end of the year we’re going to target Dublin as a whole, and then move to other counties in Ireland and then hopefully move to Europe towards the middle to the end of 2021.”

Luckily, the mentorship programme was only at the development phase in February and March of this year, meaning that when Covid-19 hit, Innovate Communities was able to build and develop the programme in line with Covid-19 guidelines, as opposed to completely overhauling the plans. Descoteaux said in-person meetings between mentees and mentors would add a lot of value and is confident that this will develop organically once it’s safe to do so.

‘Everyone plays a part in how we add value to communities’
– FIONA DESCOTEAUX

“The beauty of this programme is that it’s really straightforward. It can be put online quite easily, but the fact that it’s online means it can be scaled to other communities very easily, especially when we have the corporate partnership because LinkedIn has those connections in the communities outside of Ireland that we don’t.”

As part of the pilot programme, Descoteaux said the team is looking at having 40 mentors and 40 mentees, but she’s hoping to have 250 of each by the end of the year. She added that mentorship programmes such as these are important for building confidence, as well as self-efficacy, personal development and motivation.

“We feel that an online mentoring programme would add significant value across these four areas of development, now more than ever.” Those interested in becoming mentors or mentees can find more information on the Innovate Communities website.

Adding value back into communities

Outside of the mentorship programme, Innovate Communities is also continuing its work with social innovation hubs, the first of which was set up in Ballymun. “It’s essentially a co-working space, but with added value,” Descoteaux said. “From the money that we get from the co-working space, we utilise that to develop community projects based on the challenges that that community are facing.”

Following the success of the hub in Ballymun, Descoteaux said the team now has a space in the Liberties provided by Dublin City Council, with funding from Enterprise Ireland to fit it out and provide a social innovation manager. This space will support start-ups in the community and will enable them to use the income to support the Liberties without displacing other services. She added that the space is not just for businesses but also for community organisations, and this diversity of thought within the space can lead to added value.

“We couldn’t do what we do without the team that we have and a very supportive board and community network. Everyone plays a part in how we add value to communities.”

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny was the Careers Editor at Siliconrepublic.com up to June 2019 and was later appointed Deputy Editor in 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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