I wrote the cover story in today’s Agenda Magazine with the Sunday Business Post. If you’re interested in taking a look, it’s been posted online at the paper’s website and of course, you could still pick up a copy at a newsagent today. Enjoy!
The Enriched list
Sunday, April 04, 2010 – By Alex Meehan
In many ways,1996 was a defining year for Irish society. Economic growth was strong at over 7 per cent, the first tremors of an unprecedented property boom were being felt in the leafy suburbs of south Dublin and, in London, the business activities of Ireland’s elite prompted Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times to produce its first ever Irish rich list.
Fourteen years on, our love affair with material excess has soured in the face of the worst recession in living memory, and many of us feel acutely embarrassed by just how obsessed with wealth we became during the boom years. But for others, the crash has provided an opportunity to step back and ask if there are other ways to measure wealth.
From a clothing company with a conscience, to a City high-flyer with a sideline in advocacy for African children, and a psychologist providing free counselling services to the unemployed, all have found ways to enrich their own lives, and the lives of those around them. So now, in 2010,with no apologies to Murdoch, we present The Sunday Business Post’s Enriched List.
Fundraising director with the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
‘Going cap in hand, speaking quietly and being apologetic for your own existence – if you’re doing that, the reality is that you just don’t think your cause is important.” For Lori Davis, fundraising director with the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (DSPCA), adopting the traditional approach to fundraising is not an option.
‘‘There’s an expression I always come back to which was first used by fundraising guru Tom Suddes: ‘You’re in sales, get over it.’ Fundraising is the job of every person in every role in every charitable organisation.”
Davis comes from Indiana in the US, and has worked with the DSPCA since a chance encounter brought her into contact with the society’s general manager, Jimmy Cahill, around five years ago.
‘‘I worked in the arts for around 11 years in the US and here, and while I was good at it, it wasn’t my life’s calling. I was wondering what I could do to be more fulfilled when I met Jimmy, and realised I could help him out. Some friends and I started a project and raised about €30,000; afterwards, I told Jimmy he should hire me full time, and he did,” she says. ‘‘My job is this crazy amalgamation of passion, life’s purpose, challenge and mission – it’s bizarre, but I love it.”
Davis believes that Ireland has ‘‘a mixed up attitude’’ to the morality of fundraising. ‘‘Charities often demonise commercialism; there’s an idea that you must live humbly and dedicate yourself to your cause. Thankfully, the tide is turning against this way of thinking,” she says.
‘‘I want the capitalist fire to ignite the social sector, and I want us to think of ways we can make ourselves compelling – how we can brand and position ourselves to best support our goals.”
Davis describes Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the micro credit movement, as her idol. He founded Grameen Bank specifically to lend money to the poor in Bangladesh.
‘‘He decided to give small business loans of $15 or $20 to the poorest of the poor, people that nobody else would loan to. To date, he’s loaned out something like $8 billion and has a repayment rate of 97 per cent.
This is a guy who’s not afraid to use capitalism to help end poverty and to lift women, in particular, out of poverty – over 85 per cent of those who receive loans are female.”
‘‘Paul Newman is another example – he raised over €250million for charity through enterprise, much more than he could ever have just given away from his own pocket.
The DSCPA is 170 years old this year and, in all that time, we haven’t really ever been financially stable; we’re funded from year to year, but we’re now trying to change that.
‘‘We’re trying to build our endowment programme and encourage more people to support us each month, as well as creating new businesses which contribute back into the charity and support the work we do. If you’re shaking a tin cup and are embarrassed to ask people for money, then you don’t really believe in your cause, and you’re in the wrong job.”
Founder, Acts of Random Kindness (ARK) clothing company
The clothes we wear make a statement about the way we view the world, but Cameron Stewart, founder of the Acts of Random Kindness (ARK) clothing company, believes in taking that idea literally.
‘‘Most people starting a clothing company do so to make money – they create a brand, associate it with a lifestyle and then use that brand to sell their clothes. We’re doing it the other way around. We feel we have a lifestyle and mindset that’s really appropriate for the times, one that taps into the whole idea of selflessness, and we’ve built a company around it,” says Stewart.
The idea behind ARK, which primarily sells through its website at http://www.arkhq.com, is simple – every time someone wears an item of ARK clothing, they affirm the company’s mindset and perform an act of kindness.
That can be anything from buying a stranger a coffee, donating to a charity or even just making a point of being nice to someone.
‘‘The clothing is a reminder to the person wearing it to be kind, because sometimes we all forget to do that and could do with being reminded. It’s also a symbol for the people around you who see you wearing it of this new mindset and new way of life,” says Stewart.
ARK is a not-for-profit company with directors and staff receiving a basic salary, but no equity.
All profits are ploughed back into improving the product line and investing in larger-scale ARKs.
‘‘Any extra money the company might make down the line will go into a charitable fund so that the company can make a bigger social impact funding charitable activities and social entrepreneurship,” says Stewart.
The company recently partnered with Tesco Ireland to give away Christmas hampers to families affected by the flooding in Bandon, and also beat 250 other start-ups to win €50,000 worth of goods and services in aTV3-sponsored business competition. It used €10,000 of its winnings to launch a donation campaign for the victims of the Haiti earthquake.
‘‘The market is rewarding companies which are authentically and legitimately good – sales are going really well here in Ireland and we’ve also sold into 25 other countries. In the next month or two, we’re hoping to expand into university campuses in the US. We’re also launching a new range in the next week, which will include ARK underwear, for undercover kindness,” says Stewart.
The company currently employs three people full time, with two or three interns coming and going as project needs dictate.
‘‘When I started the company, I could see that socially-conscious brands were becoming popular, and that this could make me a lot of money. Who knows, if I played my cards right, I could become a young millionaire on the back of it, but that wouldn’t be in keeping with the message of ARK,” says Stewart.
‘‘Because we’re a start-up, all the money we make has to be reinvested to help the company grow – the bigger we are, the bigger the impact we can have on the world around us, but we would still try to organise special projects, as well as the day-to-day stuff.”
In 2006, Polish psychologist Krystian Fikert set up the Psychological Centre in Dublin to address the mental health needs of Polish immigrants in Ireland. Four years on, he offers a range of services to people of all nationalities, and also provides free sessions to the unemployed.
‘‘In Poland, even people in small towns have easy access to psychological teams without the need for a professional referral or long waiting times. But in Ireland, unless you can afford to see someone privately, it can take up to 18 months to see someone in the public health system,” Fikert says.
As Ireland’s Polish population expanded, the lack of easily accessible counselling services had became increasingly evident to Fikert, whose aim with the Psychological Centre was to provide a community-based, client-led service.
In 2008, he expanded the service to address the needs of other immigrant communities, as well as the Irish population.
‘‘Immigrants often develop emotional issues that they wouldn’t have at home, and it was my idea at the beginning to offer quick and efficient psychological support.
‘‘Initially we concentrated on the Polish community, but then we decided to expand the service to work with all communities, as it became obvious that psychological support for everyone just wasn’t there,” he says.
According to Fikert, it is common for immigrants of all backgrounds to develop symptoms of depression after spending time away from home.
‘‘At home, they would normally have access to friends and family to talk to and receive support from, but in a new country they can be completely on their own. That makes them more vulnerable to problems,” he says.
As well as providing free sessions to the unemployed, Fikert offers significantly reduced rates to clients on low and normal income levels. For more information, visit http://www.theppd.eu.
Businessman and campaigner for Africa
Shane O’Neill has combined a hugely successful business career with political activism and campaigning for children’s rights in Africa. But he admits to being a little uncomfortable at the notion of being labelled a do-gooder.
‘‘I’m no saint – I did nothing for anyone else all through of my 20s and 30s. But you get to an age and stage of life where playing a positive role in society becomes more important,” he says. ‘‘In my mid-40s, I had a bit more time on my hands, and that’s when I got started. It’s like surfing – you can sit in the car park and look at the waves, or you can get out and into the water and catch a wave.”
Despite being probably the most senior Irish business executive in the City of London, Cork-born O’Neill is best known here for his work with the We Belong campaign during the second Lisbon referendum.
‘‘I was staggered at the extent of the No vote the first time around – it took me and others by surprise,” he says. ‘‘When the second vote came up, I thought that I could do nothing and hope for the best, or I could try to do something.”
O’Neill organised the We Belong campaign with friends to lobby for a Yes vote.
‘‘The first time round, people voted No to Lisbon for very good reasons, because there was no real political debate about the issues or attempt by the government to educate people. ‘If you don’t know, vote No’ was a powerful slogan.”
We Belong raised around €300,000 in three months, and ran ads featuring sports stars and celebrities encouraging a Yes vote.
‘‘We’ll never know for sure the extent to which our efforts contributed to the Yes vote, but everyone involved felt good about what we had done. At least we didn’t sit back and do nothing,” says O’Neill.
In addition to his personal political activism, O’Neill was also instrumental in the creation of the Chello Foundation, a charitable foundation that gives educational scholarships to children orphaned by Aids in sub-Saharan Africa. O’Neill is chief strategy officer for the foundation’s controlling company, telecommunications giant Liberty Global.
‘‘In Harvard, they define corporate social responsibility [CSR] as something which is good for a company, and good for the community in which that company operates. But that’s not how individuals operate. Most of us think globally and act both locally and globally – we give money to our local church, or dogs’ or cats’ home, or whatever,” he says.
‘‘We fund scholarships in sub-Saharan Africa, and that’s all we do – we don’t dig wells, train teachers, build schools, purify water or anything else. There can be lots of reasons why kids don’t go to school, but where the issue is money, we’ll step in and act in loco parentis and pay school fees.
‘‘A lot of other companies support similar foundations and do good work, but what we’ve tried to do is make our foundation a living, breathing part of the company.
Rather than have it be a dusty trust that only really exists on paper and gets pulled out for the annual report, we’ve staffed it with the best people in the company.”
Businesswoman and triathlete
For most people, holding down a job is enough of a challenge. But for Anne O’Leary, a demanding career in sport is an asset and not a liability when it comes to dealing with corporate life.
O’Leary is director of business and enterprise for Vodafone and is also national champion in the 40-plus age category for triathlon, a sport that requires intensive training and dedication.
‘‘I work better when I’m fit and feel good about myself. I also sleep better, and regular exercise burns off the negative effects of stress and working long hours. If I have a problem or a dilemma to deal with at work, I find that, after 100 lengths in the pool, my head is very clear – I come out with a solution and am calmer and fresher for the working day,” she says.
O’Leary began competing in triathlons four years ago, but has been an active swimmer and sports fan all her life.
‘‘I train five days a week – on Saturday and Sunday I do a three or four-hour cycle, and I get to the pool three times during the week as well. My husband is into it as well, so we head off on a Saturday and Sunday morning for a cycle together, and maybe do a run in the afternoon as well. A couple of times a week, I’ll also try to fit in a spinning session at the gym,” she says.
‘‘I’m in the pool by 7am most mornings, and in the office by 8.30am. I try to schedule my meetings for 9am. Sometimes, the routine has to suffer because I have early starts in the office, but that’s the ideal.”
According to O’Leary, balancing the responsibilities of work and sport is difficult, but the key lies in organisation. ‘‘I work long hours and I find that if I don’t exercise in the morning, it won’t happen. With technology and my BlackBerry, it’s easy to work flexibly.
Some people find that stressful, but I don’t. I like being contactable and knowing what’s going on.”
Founder of the Halfaloaf.ie website for the unemployed
Like many thousands of other people in Ireland, Tom O’Mahony found himself unemployed in 2009.When he lost his job in facilities management, the Westmeath man realised that although there were many other people in the same boat, there was no easy way for them to share their experiences.
The solution he came up with was the Halfaloaf.ie website. ‘‘I was at home, and after an initial few weeks the novelty wore off and boredom set in. I wanted to get in touch with other unemployed people in my area, and it dawned on me that there was no way to do that,” he says.
Halfaloaf.ie has three aims – to provide a place for the unemployed to talk to each other, to look for advice, and to network with other people in the same situation.
‘‘Unemployed people have contact with the government through the social welfare system, possibly with the Money Advice and Budgeting Service [Mabs] and maybe with Fás, but not with each other,” says O’Mahony.
‘‘With the exception of the people you see in the dole queue every four weeks, you’ve no idea who’s unemployed in your area. The idea of the website is to get people connecting with each other.”
According to O’Mahony, the site is busiest midweek, when the reality of being unemployed hits the hardest. ‘‘There are lots of other places online that people can go to chat – Facebook and Twitter and so on – but they’re not really suitable for people to talk about things that are really worrying them.
For example, a lot of people are now approaching 12months on the dole and have to reapply for social welfare payments. It’s quite common for people to post on the forum because they are worried about having to do a means test – they don’t know what is involved,” he says.
‘‘We want to get networking groups off the ground around the country, but we need more funds to do that. I’ve put a small amount of money into the site, we got a small grant from the enterprise board and we’ve sold a small amount of advertising on the site. That’s taken us to where we are now.
We’re now looking for social entrepreneur funding, and trying to tap into people with a social conscience who might want to support us.
‘‘Unemployment needs to be taken more seriously. The unemployed are out there, but they’re not yet a force to be reckoned with.”
David and Barry McCaul
While the average entrepreneur would shy away from opening a high-end jewellery business in the depths of a recession, Dublin brothers David and Barry McCaul believe that the quality of their work will help them achieve success.
‘‘We put the type of jewellery that we want to make on our shelves – we decided not to sell the type of smaller, cheaper pieces that you typically find and which would have gotten a lot more people in the door,” says David McCaul. ‘‘We wanted to start as we meant to continue – making high-end design-led pieces using precious stones and the types of materials we like.”
The brothers opened their business in Exmouth Market in London last year, and make everything they sell on-site, specialising in one-off pieces. While David was already a trained goldsmith – he studied at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and trained under a master goldsmith in Germany – his brother Barry quit a high paying desk job in IT to re-train in diamond and stone setting in Antwerp.
‘‘It’s a real case of taking a leap into the dark, to do something you believe in. We don’t have a product range of identical pieces and because people can see our workbenches and tools in the shop, they see that we make everything ourselves instead of buying it in,” says David McCaul.
‘‘Between the two of us, we’d won quite a few competitions and scholarships for our work, so we had a fair idea that our product was good. That said, I still thought we’d have to do commercial work to get by, but it’s turned out not to be the case.
‘‘We are very lucky with our location – we’re surrounded by huge numbers of architects, designers and photographers. More than half of our clientele are working in some kind of design-led industry themselves, and they really get what we’re doing.”
Michel Piare is proof that it’s possible to downsize from a high-pressure, high-paying corporate position and not live to regret it. Piare left his job as executive chef with the Wagamama restaurant group in the Netherlands and Belgium in 2006 to move his family to Ireland and open a small sushi delivery business and restaurant in Dublin.
‘‘With Wagamama, my job involved opening restaurants, training local chefs and then moving onto the next opening. We opened restaurants across the Benelux region, and as far away as Australia and Dubai,” he says.
‘‘What I’m doing now is completely different – it’s a small business concentrating on quality and customer satisfaction.”
Piare’s restaurant, Michie Sushi in Ranelagh, serves authentic sushi, sashimi and Japanese cuisine. While customers are welcome to come in off the street to eat, much of his business involves corporate event catering, and he also runs Dublin’s only sushi delivery service.
Originally from Britain, Piare was living in the Netherlands when a visit to Ireland to play golf got him thinking about a change of lifestyle.
‘‘I was looking for quality of life for myself and my family. The Netherlands was very fast-paced and busy, but my brother was living in Ireland and I used to come here to visit him and play golf. I was surprised that I couldn’t find any really good sushi here, so that got me thinking about opening a business.
I thought my children would have a much better life here then they would have had in the Netherlands,” he said.
According to Piare, selling raw fish to the Irish wasn’t easy in the beginning but as word has spread, his business has steadily built up. ‘‘I’ve stuck to my guns, concentrated on a really quality product and today we have quite a successful little business – most of our customers are regulars,” he says.
‘‘The plan isn’t to grow aggressively but, at the same time, I don’t want to be stagnant – goals are important. We’re very much in the delivery business, so I’d like to open another outlet on the northside of the city and maybe also eventually further south as well. But we need our existing business to calm down a bit first.”
James Corbett and Keith Kennedy
Co-founders of Daynuv.com
Using the kind of technology more typically associated with high end computer games and social networking sites, Irish company Daynuv is creating immersive virtual worlds designed to help disadvantaged children.
Set up by James Corbett and Keith Kennedy, the company creates virtual classrooms and playgrounds that intrigue kids and provide a valuable teaching tool. The company has its roots in the IT department of Gaelscoil O’Doghair in Limerick, where Corbett and Kennedy witnessed first-hand the powerful effect that technology can have on learning.
‘‘The use of technology in education is something which as a society we really need to look at more,” says Corbett. ‘‘We’re currently working with different groups of disadvantaged kids – children with physical and intellectual disabilities, and children from troubled backgrounds. Kids like this fall out of the mainstream, and it can be hard to get them back on track.”
Daynuv’s current projects include developing virtual world simulations for the Computer Clubhouse, an after-school multimedia technology centre in the Digital Hub in Dublin which aims to provide a creative and safe learning environment for young people from the south-west inner city.
Daynuv is also working on linking children in the Clubhouse with young people attending the Northside Learning Hub in Limerick, which aims to support learning in a non-formal environment.
‘‘The ‘chalk and talk’ model is becoming increasingly irrelevant to kids growing up in a world which is powered by technology,” says Corbett.
‘‘At home, they have access to all sorts of interactive entertainment technology, not to mention the internet. Expecting kids from troubled backgrounds to come into school, sit quietly and listen for eight hours – when the rest of their life is so radically different – is a tall order.”
Corbett believes that computer-based virtual worlds can be a powerful tool to help children with autism to understand the world around them. ‘‘Kids on the autism spectrum tend to be very spatially aware, and think in pictures rather than words.
They often find it very difficult to express themselves on paper in a two-dimensional way and, while virtual worlds are not a panacea, they can be really helpful,” he says.