Ireland Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance, Welfare and equalities

Donegal Local Enterprise Office’s ambition business accelerator for women

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Picture by Joe Dunne

Despite the challenges of systemic barriers, gender biases and a global pandemic, rates of woman-led entrepreneurship have skyrocketed in Ireland. While there’s a lot left to do in closing the gender gap, Ireland now has one of the highest percentages of early-stage entrepreneurs in Europe.

So, how have we gotten here? In part, through programs like AMBITION, a business accelerator run by Donegal’s Local Enterprise Office (LEO) in partnership with their delivery partner Alinea, that gives women founders the resources, skills, and support they need to succeed.

LEO Donegal is vital in supporting small businesses in County Donegal to promote a sustainable and thriving local economy. In 2020, LEO Donegal partnered with Alinea to develop and deliver AMBITION, a business accelerator program for women entrepreneurs who want to establish and expand high-growth export-oriented businesses in and from the region.

The primary objective of AMBITION is to equip female founders with entrepreneurial tools and techniques to kick-start their start-up ideas. Additionally, the program fosters a collaborative approach towards a commercially focused team, provides exposure to successful entrepreneurial role models, and inspires leadership and confidence among participants. It also expands the women’s networks and encourages engagement with relevant start-up support stakeholders. Through AMBITION, LEO Donegal strives to empower women entrepreneurs to build sustainable businesses and contribute to the region’s economic growth.

An ambitious success story

Between 2020 and 2023, there have been four AMBITION cycles. Forty projects and fifty-seven individuals have participated in the program, undergoing rigorous training through skills-based workshops, individual mentoring, and network-building opportunities.

Over those years, 69% of the program participants have continued to develop their project full-time and have created 73 full- and part-time jobs. Seventy-eight percent of alums have accessed follow-up support through the LEO, Enterprise Ireland, Venture Capital Funding, and other innovation grants totalling more than €800k.

Most importantly, participants have felt motivated, resourced, and inspired: 95% of the women who took part felt AMBITION was a valuable source of concrete skills, meaningful connections, and support and would enthusiastically recommend it to others. One founder described the program as “transformational for my business”, another spoke of it as a brilliant way of “growing with other people and their ideas” and one participant said, “I am confident I wouldn’t be where I am now had I not taken part.”

We’re proud to have built a program that outperformed our high expectations. But with many challenges still facing women entrepreneurs, we can’t stop here – we must keep improving the support we offer ambitious women.

It’s time to celebrate what AMBITION has achieved, share our takeaways from the program with others, and think about the next steps.

Fourteen weeks, twelve workshops, five pillars for success

We created AMBITION to identify high-potential concepts and give women founders everything they need to turn their ideas into globally scalable, investor-ready businesses.

Doing this successfully meant designing a robust program with five pillars at its core:

  1. An integrated approach to skills development and mentorship.
  2. The correct elements—workshops, role modelling, network-building—at the right time.
  3. Individualized support depending on different venture stages and needs.
  4. A focus on cutting-edge techniques and best practices throughout.
  5. Curated networks to build contacts as well as peer support.

Guided by these principles, each 14-week cycle of AMBITION included mentorship, peer support, dozens of guest speakers, and 12 comprehensive workshops for improving problem framing, customer discovery, value propositions, leadership, and investor pitching skills.

Several best practices emerged through the program.

By reflecting on what made AMBITION work, we hope to provide critical insights on how to take women-led entrepreneurship to the next level.

Let’s look at the highlights from our AMBITION three-year review.

Four best practices from AMBITION 2020-2023

1. Flexibility

We designed AMBITION to accommodate women’s work and family responsibilities. By understanding participants’ needs, we tested, validated, and implemented a flexible approach.

Workshops were scheduled to fit around school drop-offs, and we timed break weeks to coincide with school holidays to prevent childcare conflicts. Coaching sessions were offered during evenings, weekends, and outside of regular office hours.

Participants appreciated having mentorship available when they needed it, even if this was at unconventional work times. One said:

“The mentors were so generous with their time, always there for us even late into the night, keeping us on track and pushing us to go that bit further and achieve more.”

Using remote delivery for sessions was another vital aspect of making the program flexible and accessible. Several participants said this was a “crucial” and “essential” factor in allowing them to participate fully. One woman commented, “The time saved on travelling was time I put into work for the program and business.”

2. Mentors and role models

Program participants valued the one-to-one mentorship sessions where they could discuss their specific concerns, challenges, and ideas.

One entrepreneur particularly appreciated the “knowledge, experience, and networks” the mentors shared as “experts in their fields.” Another said: “There were some absolute nuggets of gold from the sessions, and probably those I’m most grateful for.”

Another key best practice was inviting experienced women entrepreneurs to participate as mentors, role models, and guest speakers throughout AMBITION.

Participants benefited from the role models’ first-hand knowledge and inspirational examples of successful entrepreneurship and building their networks. On average, 96% of the women were motivated by the stories of other women entrepreneurs.

3. Building community

The AMBITION program shows female founders that they’re not alone. Peer-to-peer exchange has been a crucial part of the experience, and it works: 96% of participants told us they’d made meaningful connections during the 14 weeks.

We emphasized peer group activities that allowed participants to learn from each other and develop their skills together. Entrepreneurs found that connecting with others who knew exactly what they were experiencing was a source of motivation and confidence; one noted that “knowing we could draw on each other in the cohort for support was a massive help”.

Virtual networking has been vital to the AMBITION program. Participants use various forms of communication to stay in touch; WhatsApp groups have been beneficial channels for connecting between sessions. Launched during the pandemic, initially, there were no face-to-face meetings. However, moving to a hybrid model with in-person and remote elements has increased opportunities to build relationships and develop networks.

4. Iterating and adapting

Both internal and external program partners have taken an open-minded approach that leaves space for innovation. We use a build-measure-learn methodology, which means we focus on improving with every program iteration.

We learned from the pilot program that six intensive, full-day sessions weren’t an effective way of digesting new information, so we delivered more frequent half-day workshops in the second and third cycles, giving the entrepreneurs more scope to apply the learnings. This approach also helped us to quickly adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, using online platforms and communication tools and seeking new forms of training and networking.

Ensuring a bright future for women entrepreneurs

The best practices we’ve identified, have helped to shape AMBITION as a high-value program that gets results.

The four brilliant and dedicated cohorts have been critical to this success. AMBITION is evidence of Irish women entrepreneurs creating innovative, scalable ventures across sectors, including e-commerce, education, food, healthcare, professional services, and sustainable development.

The program also highlighted the significant challenges women still face in business. The biggest obstacle cited by participants was “access to capital and financial resources”. These women entrepreneurs need both resources and resilience to continue making an impact at an international level.

Programs like AMBITION will be essential in supporting women in building their businesses and reaching global markets. The journey continues.

If you would like to find out more about Donegal’s LEO AMBITION programme or register your interest for taking part in future AMBITION programmes, click here.



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