A Playful City’s aim is to put people first and nurture communities, thus making Dublin a better place to live, work and grow a business. 

Ireland scores above the European average for rates of entrepreneurship and the ecosystem is considered healthy, but startup culture brings its own unique set of challenges and solutions. Here, two female entrepreneurs talk about social enterprise, the realities of female entrepreneurship in Ireland and how they have dealt with the rapid growth of their business.

“It has been difficult to define ourselves in terms of a business structure,” says Neasa Ní Bhriain, one of four co-founders of A Playful City, a social enterprise intent on making Dublin the most playful city in the world. “We want to continue growing and become more sustainable, but because we are not a charity, it can be difficult to get traditional sponsorship and grants.”

“With over a million users on Facebook and with an international conference under their belt, all in just over a year, it’s fair to say things have changed a lot for the founders.”

To combat this, A Playful City has restructured its organisation to offer services like A Playful Street, an initiative where communities partially close down their street for a day so all ages and abilities can come out to play together.

“Rather than constantly trying to get funding to put these on, we provide A Playful Street as a service for companies looking to meaningfully connect and engage with their local communities or for councils wanting to introduce more play and bring people in communities together,” continues Neasa.

A Playful City has further adapted by offering consultations on play with the community using their unique, mobile, pop up consultation device. The Pow Wow, designed with Sean Harrington Architects, gathers insights from the community which are then analysed and used to develop and implement a playful intervention with and for the local community.

“The female founders feel Ireland is a positive place to be a woman in business but say affordable, structured mentorship should be more widely available.”

Growing from a team of four to one of seven, garnering well over a million unique users on Facebook and with an international conference under their belt, all in just over a year, it’s fair to say things have changed a lot for this hardworking foursome.

“Our first year was very organic, with us drawing on prior experience and learning and creating as we went,” says Marisa Denker, co-founder of A Playful City.

“Things have been moving so fast, and we are constantly planning bigger and better things. We have had a lot of plates spinning, but one thing we have learnt is that we are an amazing team. It’s been incredibly inspiring to work together on something we are all so passionate about. When things finally slowed down after our first international conference in October, we had time to better structure our activities, which has been very helpful heading into 2018.”

But while this restructuring has proved beneficial, the team has learnt not to be a slave to a structure.

“We realised we need to have a very adaptive and flexible structure,” says Marisa. “Our work is incredibly diverse, so with fast growth, we learnt that we need an ingenious, versatile way of working together. We structured what each of us does best into roles and responsibilities, while also supporting, checking in with each other and working as a team. We were also able to identify gaps and bring on people to help us strengthen our services. We have a new head of research and a lead designer on the team now too.”

“As A Playful City continues to grow we are so lucky to have collaborated with the likes of UCD, The Institute of Designers Ireland, Bank of Ireland and the Science Gallery.”

While there has been an increase in female-led early-stage companies in recent years in Ireland, men are still twice as likely to become entrepreneurs than women. The female founders of A Playful City feel Ireland is a very positive place to be a woman in business but highlight structured mentorship that doesn’t cost the earth as an area that could do with improvement.

a playful city

“Regarding female entrepreneurs, we have had some great friends mentor us and offer us advice,” continues Neasa. “But structured mentorship opportunities seem to be available more on a paid basis, which was hard for us to afford in the beginning stages of our project.”

However, by growing a diverse network of people and organisations across Ireland and internationally A Playful City has overcome this challenge. Gaining valuable sponsorship from the likes of Bank of Ireland and collaborating with some leading businesses and individuals has led to new work for the team.

“The topic of A Playful City stretches across fields and sectors from design to architecture, mental health, social inclusion and sustainability,” says Marisa. “As A Playful City continues to grow we are so lucky to have collaborated with the likes of UCD, The Institute of Designers Ireland and the Science Gallery. This year we are beginning some inspiring collaborations, from internationally-acclaimed OFFSET, Sean Harrington Architects, The Ark, European Travel Commission, and a public arts group in Berlin. We’ve had so much support on our journey so far and look forward to continuing to put people and play at the heart of our cities.”

Pictured (main image) are (l-r) Aaron, Neasa, Naomi and Marisa. 

Article by Olivia McGill.