A better view of women in business through Rose-coloured glasses

24 Aug 2016

Joan Mulvihill, CEO of the Irish Internet Association, pictured at the launch of the Net Visionary Awards 2016. Photo via Chris Bellew/Fennell Photography

From the Rose of Tralee Festival to the International Business Women’s Conference, Joan Mulvihill finds the common ground.

Following a week in ‘Cyberia’ – my new term for time spent offline – I drove to Tralee to host a panel discussion at the International Business Women’s Conference on Monday.

Feeling like I’d been totally disconnected from the world for seven days, it was truly the perfect way to ease my way back into the world.

Inspirefest 2017

Other than the wonder that is Inspirefest, my working life rarely presents opportunities to discuss business in a predominantly female environment.

As the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald, TD, said in her opening address: women leaders make a difference in politics, as in business, and role models and trailblazers matter.

Rose of Tralee by another name

With The Rose of Tralee Festival as the backdrop to the conference, you can’t help but make comparisons – comparisons, not contrasts.

I’d never been to either before and I can attest fairly to the supportive and collegiate atmosphere amongst the women attending both. I particularly choose the term collegiate as someone who has attended tech conferences that have felt more like frat parties.

Everyone attending the IBW Conference was a delegate. By that I mean speakers, organisers, panellists and ministers all sat in rapt attention for the entire conference.

Let’s be honest, it doesn’t happen often and it marked the tone from the start that everyone in the room had something to learn and something to contribute.

But you’ve got to give special kudos to a Minister for being there for the entire day and even putting her hand up for the audience Q&A after one of the panel sessions.

IBW Conf launch with Rose of Tralee

From left: Enterprise Ireland CEO Julie Sinnamon, 2015 Rose of Tralee Elysha Brennan, Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, TD, and AIB’s head of business banking Catherine Moroney. Photo via Gary O’Neill Photography

Four one-hour panel discussions, interspersed with cameo 10-minute talks is a super format when you’ve got panellists who are ‘present’ – and these panellists were definitely present. No one had shown up for a ‘fireside chat’ to indulge their own stories. They were present and prepared to share their knowledge and experiences in the sincere hope that they could be of use to someone else.

Crossing the divide and opening doors

The first panel was on crossing the digital divide. If I was a judge on MasterChef, I’d say the flavours blended perfectly together. Two tech social entrepreneurs in Iseult Ward and Pamela Newenham, two business leaders in Deirdre Waldron and Rebecca Kemp, and one innovation champion in Mark Brennan from AIB. Yes, there were men there too!

We crossed the digital divide so effortlessly that we kept going right on into the future of the sharing economy and its likely legislative impact. When you’ve got the ear of the Minister listening in the room, you’ve got to take your chances and make the most of it.

The great thing about having chaired the first panel is that I didn’t have to follow the irrepressible Eleanor McEvoy who led the discussion on opening doors and empowerment.

You can tell that Julie Sinnamon (Enterprise Ireland CEO) is sincere in her commitment to ensuring we have the right supports in place for female entrepreneurs. But Julie is no pushover. Her rally call in the panel discussion was to encourage entrepreneurial women to be that bit more demanding and ambitious for themselves. She has a point and she has all the stats to back it up.

Another woman on the panel who knows all about having to open doors is head of business banking at AIB, Catherine Moroney. I had been chatting to Catherine the evening before and, again, you could tell that she is invested in female entrepreneurship. Her contributions, and those of Camila Beglan and Caroline McEnery, also on the panel, epitomised the openness and supportive atmosphere of the entire event.

Matters of the self

Powering through, the afternoon panels were expertly led by Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin and Paula Fitzsimons. The first of these, ‘Optimised for Success – Physical and Physiological Tips’ is what I dubbed the personal power panel.

Each of these women knew exactly who they were and what they were about. The discussion made a slick skirt past (pun completely intended!) the issue of physical appearance, with no better woman than Sonya Lennon leading that charge. Sonya may be our style maven but, make no mistake, she is first and foremost a serious business role model and was keen to get down to business.

When you have Arlene O’Neill, assistant professor in physics and director of the Trinity Walton Club; Dr Clare Kambamettu, clinical psychologist; Dr Helena Moore, neurologist, and Anna Geary, with 20 All-Ireland camogie medals on her wall, you know that things are going to get interesting.

It was all about providing tips on being your best self. This panel had them in abundance. Some were advocates of ‘Fake it till you make it’, others advocates of an always-authentic self. Some have found that ‘third space’ and others were all-in.

If you were in the audience, you would have discovered – as I did – that there is no single perfect route to success. You’ve got to find the one that works for you.

Coming up Roses

Now, I did say there were no fireside chats, but I said nothing about not trading stories around the campfire.

Cool food company founder, Russian language app entrepreneur, Universal Music VP, Rose of Tralee 2015, international social entrepreneur – everyone has their story, everyone has faced their own unique challenges and overcome them. These are just the ones who shared from the stage. There were countless more stories exchanged over coffee and lunch. I’m not going to choose but, suffice to say, you should be feeling some FOMO right now.

And, if that was not enough, I mentioned cameo 10-minute presentations. Dr Mary McAuliffe narrated a video on the women of the 1916 Rising. It was a profound piece that reminded me to recognise and celebrate the phenomenal ongoing contribution of women to the State. And in case you ever forget, then keep a little Madi Sharma bead to hand to remind you. (#YouHadToBeThere.)

Finally, as a significant footnote, it’s worth mentioning that five of those speakers that I have mentioned above are former Roses. Underestimate these women at your peril.

Tralee on Monday 22 August in the Dome or at the International Business Women’s Conference was full of strong, smart, generous, listening and supportive people who made my arrival back from Cyberia a warm one. Thank you to everyone I met down there over the past 36 hours, especially Sarita Johnston, head of female entrepreneurship at Enterprise Ireland, who brought me on board.

By Joan Mulvihill

Joan Mulvihill was appointed CEO of the Irish Internet Association (IIA) in November 2009 and is privileged to work with the best and brightest of technology start-ups as well as supporting more traditional businesses in the adoption of web-based technologies. Over the past five years, the IIA has led initiatives to bridge the digital divide, as well developing policy and driving business growth.