There are 6,500 people currently receiving support through two schemes set up to help unemployed people to start small businesses. At the ILDN National Enterprise Awards, Ray Lucey caught up with a few of them.

On 16 May, Tullamore in Co Offaly became a temporary home to 17 of the country’s best small businesses. They were finalists at the ILDN National Enterprise Awards, celebrating entrepreneurs who were supported by the Back to Work Enterprise Allowance (BTWEA) and Short-Term Enterprise Allowance (STEA).

Margaret O’Connor, the owner of Clare-based millinery Notions, took top prize.

Growing company for growing kids

The founder of Ky Ky Kids, Sharon McDermott, from Cork, set up her business in 2016 after living in Turkey for more than two decades. Its name, Ky Ky Kids, originated from mispronunciation of her son Kaya’s name.

Sharon began with bedding for children and has grown her business to include the design and manufacture of baby clothing and gifts.

Returning to Ireland, she found officialdom difficult, judgemental and frequently insensitive. She had run shops in Turkey, so she had business experience, but it was not until she met Tony O’Regan, enterprise officer with Cork City Partnership, that she felt truly supported.

“I went to his office and I actually felt human,” she told us. She said that the BTWEA provided “a little support that meant so much”, and it went towards paying “part of the mortgage or the petrol” while she set up her business. Today, her product line is available from retailers in Ireland, Britain and mainland Europe.

Sharon said: “As a finalist, it’s lovely to be recognised and honoured by your peers. Everyone has a story, and life isn’t wonderful for everybody all the time. We all need community and now I appreciate that so much.”

“It’s lovely to meet like-minded people who have gone along the same journey because it’s not easy,” she said.

Tony, who accompanied Sharon to Tullamore, said: “These awards recognise the efforts and the input from people who have started a business. They recognise their endeavours and achievements.”

Baby steals the show

Rachael McCabe with her newborn baby Phoebe

Rachael McCabe with her newborn baby, Phoebe. Photo: Ray Lucey.

One of the Border Region finalists, Rachael McCabe, stole the show by bringing along the event’s youngest attendee. Her third daughter, Phoebe, had been born just two days before the awards.

Rachael was determined not to miss the event, though, and her passion and drive for her Sound in Motion music school was clearly evident.

Rachael was a lone parent and part-time music teacher, but she always had an ambition to become self-employed. When she approached Breffni Integrated Development, they helped her draw up a business plan.

She converted her garage into a purpose-built studio and, by the third year, all was going well for her. Today, she and a team of five tutors teach music and mindfulness from the studio.

Rachel agreed with Sharon McDermott that the BTWEA provided a “really good security blanket”.

Couple see clear to success for glasses company

Sacha Cahill, who is in the eyewear business with her partner, Daniel Nugent, said that “starting a business with a young baby is really risky, but the BTWEA gave us the reassurance that we could actually do it”.

Their company, Ambr Eyewear, is serving a new market in Ireland from their base in Dún Laoghaire.

“Our computer glasses block the blue light from digital devices – any laptop, phone or television screen. The blue light is bad for your eyes. It gives you headaches, sore eyes [and] blurred vision, and stops your body producing [sleep inducing hormone] melatonin, so you can’t get to sleep as easy. When you wear the glasses, you’re protected from all those side-effects.

“The lenses are baked with a pigment that block the blue light.

“There’s a big company doing this in America, there are two in Europe and two in Australia. It’s very new in Ireland, but it’s going to be huge,” she said.

If interested in protecting your eyesight, Ambr Eyewear can supply to anywhere in Ireland.

The ILDN National Enterprise Awards were organised by the Irish Local Development Network (ILDN), the umbrella organisation for the local development companies that support businesses to start up. The Tullamore event celebrated the finalists from regional rounds.