Why EY's Entrepreneur of the Year award teaches the entrants so much about life and business
Aoife Lawler remembers thinking that they would be ushered out of the room at any moment, that it was all a big mistake.
Aoife and her business partner, Niamh Sherwin Barry, were remembering the dinner at the InterContinental Hotel in Dublin. It marked the beginning of a process which culminated on Thursday with the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Awards ceremony at the CityWest Hotel. Aoife, who is Chief Magic Maker for the Irish Fairy Door Company, laughs now at how she couldn’t have been more wrong.
The journey has been rewarding and enriching, but in ways that many of the entrants had not expected. Everyone who talked on Thursday afternoon spontaneously brought up the network they had tapped into when they were nominated for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year.
They had all found a well of wisdom that they would return to. As entrepreneurs, they all had different stories, different setbacks and different hopes. But when they came together, they found that the ideas that drive entrepreneurs are the things that sustain them.
“If you think it’s about making money, forget it,” said Ramona Nicholas from Cara Pharmacy. “People buy people. They don’t necessarily buy the brand. They buy the people behind the brand. It’s not about the money. It’s never about the money. If you’re in it for the money, get out of it.”
For Nicholas, the time at the EY Awards confirmed those feelings about entrepreneurship in general.
“Being part of this process has been an amazing journey. I’ve met so many people who are so inspirational and I’ve made friends. It’s a very open process. Entrepreneurship is usually a very lonely environment, but everyone has been really open about their business.”
This aspect of the award process is the aspect that all the entrants returned to. “Being an entrepreneur can be a really lonely road,” says Ciara Donlon from THEYA Healthcare.
“If you go home and you’ve had a really difficult day and you explain it to your partner or your family and tell them you’ve had a bad day, they can get quite worried and stressed about it,” says Kevin O’Loughlin, from Nostra. “So you end up not speaking to the people closest to you. You can’t speak to customers and you can’t speak to staff so this really allows you access to a board of people who you can bounce a problem off.”
The finalists all travelled to San Francisco for a week in May, a trip which for many of them was the defining part of the process - seven days when they learned more about themselves, their business and entrepreneurial culture. The hours they spent sitting on the bus travelling around California, talking to other entrepreneurs, will shape them for years to come.
“It’s almost like counselling for entrepreneurs,” says Sam Dennigan of Strong Roots. “There’s a certain part of the process that disarms people.”
The friendships formed were evident on Thursday ahead of the awards, where the overall winner was Harry Hughes of Portwest. Beforehand, Sam Dennigan and Kevin O’Loughlin were interviewed together and all felt that they now had a resource which would serve them well.
Business, after all, is about making good decisions and this process had helped them.
“If I was to speak to anyone starting out in business, I would say 'Always trust your gut.' I made a decision once not based on that and I learned from that,” says Ramona Nicholas.
Evelyn O'Toole from CLS says the process has made her reflect on her career.
"Entrepreneurs are all about the future. When we're on this plan, we're planning our next plan. It's not all in the moment. For me, reflecting on what I've done was the biggest thing."
O'Toole understands that creativity is at the heart of entrepreneurship and the EY Awards have allowed that to flourish. "Creativity is hugely important. Creativity is the layer you need when something doesn't work, it's the game changer."
For Niamh Sherwin Barry, it allowed her to assess the quality of advice she had received before.
“The difference between an eager amateur and an expert really became very apparent. We’ve had so many people approach us over the last four years who really liked our business but who presented themselves as experts in their field, but that was rarely the case. But when we met these guys, that was the case. They were the real deal.”
Sherwin Barry's business partner Aoife Lawler reflected on that early experience in the InterContinental hotel and how much had changed.
"The first time we met everyone was a fancy dinner and people are saying it's going to be the most amazing 11 months of your life. And all I could think of for the entire time was 'There's been a big mistake made'. I thought any second now the bouncer is going to go, 'Girls, wrong room'. But there is a culture, they have fostered an ethos and it's about giving and not about taking."
They are all wiser now. “This shows you what’s possible,” says Ciara Donlon. “It gave me more motivation to think bigger.”
Like Donlon, Jack Teeling of Teeling Whiskey was impressed by the network that became available to entrants. “I didn’t know how vibrant the alumni community was and how supportive they were for, let’s say, new entrants into the club.”
Before they left for the ceremony, we asked the entrants what advice they would offer their 20-year-old selves. Their answers may have been informed by the wisdom picked up during the EY Entrepreneur of the Year process.
“Take your time and learn from your mistakes,’ said Sam Dennigan. “You always have another chance to start again. Keep doing it until you get it right.”
“Take things less seriously,” says Cara Nicholas. “When you’re in business, you miss out on things.”
"Believe in yourself," says Jack Teeling. "You're never too young or too old."
"I wouldn't change anything, because I needed everything that happened to me to get me here," Ciara Donlon says, with one exception. "The one thing I would change is that when I was looking for funding, I wouldn't have believed the first person who said they were going to invest in me."
Niamh Sherwin Barry says she would complete her marketing degree. "I tried a lot of things that I didn't really love. Marketing is where I'm happy and the road would have been a little less windy."
Aoife Lawler would tell her 20-year-old self not to be so scared. "I'm a bit of an overthinker. Some things I sit on far too long. Our recessions were bad and we had kids so we were nervous of taking any big leaps. So I would just say to her, when it feels right, it's right."
Evelyn O'Toole speaks kindly to her 20-year-old self. "I think things are going to be really good. You're an average student but don't be intimidated by that. You're going to be incredibly lucky. You're going to meet amazing people. Keep going as you are. I'm not that far removed from you. We're all just bigger versions of the people we were when we were small."
The EY Awards are now part of that life experience.
The friendships and the humour were obvious. Kevin O’Loughlin began to share his words.
“The advice I’d give my 20-year-old self would be…” He was interrupted by Sam Dennigan, “Don’t buy the Ferrari!”
That wasn’t the advice O’Loughlin wanted to give - don’t diversify too soon was his message - but the joke might have told its own message about the spirit and camaraderie at the heart of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards.