Schooled in the art of entrepreneurship

Help is at hand to enable young people to become the success stories of tomorrow

By the time she left school, Aisling Maher was already a business veteran. As a 14-year-old, she made stained-glass photo frames that she sold through gift shops in her native Limerick.

As a transition year project, she sold handmade jewellery.

Five years ago, when work in her chosen profession of architecture dried up, she returned to her entrepreneurial roots: this time making and selling hats and headpieces.

Maher, 28, is now the owner of Aisling Maher Designs, and a full-time milliner with her own boutique in Adare. Most revenue comes from supplying hats to other boutiques around the country, in the UK and the US. She also sells online. She reckons she now earns “a lot more” than she would have as an architect.

She has found her niche: “Architecture teaches you how to create something different using the same ingredients,” she said. “Hat making allows me to use my creativity, while at the same time using the business experience I loved when I was still at school.

“By marrying the two, I feel I’m doing what I’m meant to do.”

According to the 2012 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) report, entrepreneurial activity is relatively low among Ireland’s young. The rate of early stage entrepreneurship in the 18 to 24 age group, at 4.5%, is lower here than the EU average of 6.6%. This is despite youth unemployment in 2012 standing at just under 30%.

Youth entrepreneurship matters. As the traditional job for life career path has become rarer, youth entrepreneurship will need to be seen as an additional way of allowing the young into the labour market and promoting job creation, the GEM study said.

“Youth enterprise is an aspiration that’s very important for our economy and our society,” said Loman O’Byrne, chief executive of South Dublin County Enterprise Board and chairman of the CEB’s enterprise education committee, which organises the annual Student Enterprise awards.

The secondary school awards scheme has been running for 12 years. This year it had in excess of 17,000 participants, the highest ever. Each of these students, individually or as part of a team, had to identify a business opportunity, create a product or service to meet it, and commercialise the idea.

“In recent years we have come to understand the importance of enterprise, so it’s important we ensure students understand how enterprise works, to experience and explore it, so that they can decide whether or not it’s a career option,” said O’Byrne.

Simply studying subjects such as business organisation, accounting or economics at Leaving Cert level is not enough. “Much of that tends to be about understanding how larger firms work, from the perspective of being an employee,” said O’Byrne.

Ireland’s low level of youth entreprise may be explained by a high third-level student population, that goes into the twenties.

“We’re not saying students should want to become entrepreneurs immediately after leaving school,” said O’Byrne. “It can be wiser to work in a number of areas first, and then, if they want to, come back to it.”

However, if Irish entrepreneurial activity is to reach its full potential, it has to be regarded as a viable career choice. “Sometimes parents don’t encourage their kids to be entrepreneurial but rather to get a ‘good job’,” said O’Byrne.

Even in employment, O’Byrne argues, entrepreneurial skills are hugely important and are also transferable.

The children who participate in the Student Enterprise awards, for example, “understand the importance of profit”, he said.

“You can read a book about those things or you can do it; our participants do it,” he said.

If Ireland is to foster a culture of entrepreneurship, it has to start young, said Andrea Deverell of the Nexus Innovation Centre at the University of Limerick, which runs a business boot camp for young entrepreneurs.

Unfortunately, the secondary school education system teaches business subjects without any reference to enterprise. “It’s not about teaching modules on entrepreneurship, it is about putting entrepreneurship at the core of the way all disciplines are taught,” said Deverell. “It’s about fundamentally changing the way students think.”

An equally big impediment is inherent caution, she said. “Culturally we in Ireland are very risk-averse,” said Deverell. “Among investors, bankers and development agencies, there is a sense that if someone is young, they are too high risk.”

There is a fear of wasting state funding on young people.

“Yet the way to learn about entrepreneurship is to fail,” said Deverell. “We have to allow them to fail.”

Young people may lack experience, yet are dynamic, open-minded and willing to learn, she said. They “have nothing to lose and have very high energy levels”.

Her advice to aspiring young entrepreneurs is simple: “Get out and talk to people, don’t be afraid to approach an expert.”

She recommends keeping a notebook to write down everything you learn. “Get in touch with your nearest entrepreneurial eco- system, whether it’s clubs or societies at school or college, and use your youthful energy to your advantage,” she said. “The sad fact is that, as we get older, we get a lot more fearful.”

Parents need to see enterprise “as something to be proud of”, said Deverell.

“It’s about going beyond getting a ‘good job’ to being the one making jobs for others.”

Richard Treacy, co-head of the Irish Student Entrepreneurship Forum, an organisation which establishes links between student start-ups and the business community, is completing his finals in finance and economics at UCD. He has an internship lined up this summer in the City of London and is itching to start his own business.

“With any start-up, you need marketing, finance and an idea,” he said. “At the moment I don’t have a start-up idea strong enough to stake my career on, but I’m 100% open to finding one in time, and when that happens, the contacts I’ll have made in London will stand to me.”

Ciara Whooley set up Irish Baubles, her business, as a 16-year-old transition year schoolgirl.

Now an 18-year-old Leaving Cert student, her aim is to get a marketing degree from the Dublin Institute of Technology to help her grow a business that is already generating enough revenues to fund her through third level.

While most of her friends were getting back to their studies after the Christmas break, the St David’s, Greystones, Co Wicklow pupil was taking a stand at Showcase, the annual creative industries trade fair held in Dublin’s RDS.

There she won wholesale orders to supply her products, which she designs herself and has manufactured in China, to gift shops around the country.

For Whooley, who got her first taste of enterprise selling goods at car boot sales while still in primary school, running her own business is a natural and lucrative progression. “If I left school now I’d be fine,” she said. “I’ve loads of ideas. I’ve definitely got the enterprise bug.”

A former winner of the Student Enterprise awards, she believes there is enormous untapped potential among her peers.

“We don’t see challenges as problems, we just do it.”