Never before has there been so many state-backed programmes designed to help women to start in business.


There are plenty of reasons why Irish women have traditionally been reluctant to set up their own businesses. Of course, the Irish societal framework until a few decades ago was a huge hindrance, but research shows that more recent reasons include:

  • Lack of role models
  • Low self-confidence
  • Lack of technical expertise
  • Lower levels of risk-taking
  • Limited access to networking opportunities


One of the key reasons the playing field has been levelled between male and female entrepreneurs is because of the number of female-only business funds and programmes that have been established over the last few years. These programmes include:

Going for Growth

This free, female-only programme was started by Paula Fitzsimons, who envisaged it as a support network for female entrepreneurs. Over 350 entrepreneurs have participated in the programme, which is funded by Enterprise Ireland, KPMG and the Equality for Women Measure. The programme has seen excellent results, and offers:

  • Monthly meetings with experienced female ‘lead entrepreneurs’, who offer a round-table mentoring service to small groups of female business owners.
  • A national forum that gives early-stage female entrepreneurs the chance to network with lead entrepreneurs, and build on the work of the round table sessions.
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Female High Fliers

A free programme run by the DCU Ryan Academy, the Female High Fliers is an accelerator programme for female-led startups that are less than five years old, and have growth and export potential. Selection is limited, and the programme offers:

  • Comprehensive workshops, mentoring and networking for 13 weeks (the programme is run one day per week).
  • A Demo Day, at which each business pitches to investors, mentors and other influencers from the corporate world.
  • Prizes that will be disclosed during the programme.

Exxcel STEM programme

This free, female-only part-time programme based in Cork covers businesses in the science, tech, engineering and maths sectors, and runs one day a month for six months. It is part-funded by Enterprise Ireland, is open to businesses that have growth and export potential, and offers:

  • Training modules in business planning and models, marketing, sales and funding.
  • Intensive, one-to-one mentoring, as well as networking opportunities.
  • Access to national and global opportunities, as well as support from the Cork Institute of Technology.


  • The Competitive Female Feasibility Fund is run by Enterprise Ireland, with the objective of helping a female entrepreneur investigate the viability of a business becoming a High Potential Start-Up (HPSU). The maximum grant available is €25,000, and eligibility is based on a female-led business being less than three years old and being in the manufacturing or internationally traded services sectors. Also, the individual or business cannot have been in receipt of more than €10,000 from Enterprise Ireland in the past two years. Full eligibility terms are listed on the website.
  • The Female Competitive Start Fund is also run by Enterprise Ireland, and aims to accelerate the growth of female-led businesses that have the potential to make an impression in global markets. The maximum support available is €50,000 for a 10% ordinary equity stake in the start-up. Businesses that are existing or potential clients of Enterprise Ireland’s High Potential Start-Up department may apply. They must also be operating in the areas of manufacturing or internationally traded services, must be less than five years old and not have annual revenues of over €60,000. Full eligibility terms are listed on the website.

 These funds are available for limited times and the terms of the offerings may change, so check the websites for reference.

Networking associations

Several organisations around the country provide networking and other supports for female entrepreneurs. These include:

  • The Women in Business Network is run by Local Enterprise Offices, and provides structured support networks around the country for an annual fee of €50. It runs a number of events throughout the year, and you can attend your first meeting for free.
  • Network Ireland helps business women to network across the country. You can attend three meetings as a guest before joining, and membership is €125 a year.

The funds and programmes listed have made great strides in rendering traditional obstacles facing women redundant. In particular, the fact that female-only funds and programmes are so popular proves that women need that targeted support network from their peers, and thrive in those environments.

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Case studies

Even though we are only now seeing significant growth in female-led businesses, this country has seen a long line of talented and hugely influential female business owners. Leading names include the late Mary Guiney, who took over the management of the iconic Clery’s department store on Dublin’s O’Connell Street following the death of her husband; Margaret Heffernan, who assumed control of Dunnes Stores at a particularly trying time following the arrest of her brother Ben on drugs charges in the US; and Myrtle Allen, who took her love of food to another level by developing the hugely popular Ballymaloe estate.

Some early-stage female entrepreneurs who have made a mark in more recent times include Dorothy Creaven, whose Element Software business secured €50,000 in funding from Enterprise Ireland’s Competitive Start Fund in 2013; Kim Knowles, whose jewellery eCommerce start-up  also received €50,000 from the same fund a year later, in 2014; and Jane English, who has developed Wineport Lodge into a leading restaurant and boutique hotel.

3 Action Points


Don’t be afraid of taking the plunge. One of the main reasons identified by research of why women were under-represented among entrepreneurs was because they were risk-averse. With a number of female-only programmes and funds available, there’s never been a better time to give entrepreneurship a shot.


Investigate the supports available. Look for national and local support networks, wherever you are. The chances are that you will be able to avail of an opportunity no matter where you are based.


Seek advice. If you are unsure of how to proceed, seek out a female business owner who has taken the plunge and ask for assistance. The many networking events around the country provide the perfect opportunity for this kind of meeting.