'I get it now – being an entrepreneur is about hard decisions'
After starting off with 13 students in a small room above a butcher's, Vaeni MacDonnell now runs a college with a roll of 2,500 people
'We are helping to change people's lives by giving them new directions, new possibilities and new opportunities for their careers'
According to Nelson Mandela, "education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world".
Last week I travelled to Clane, in Co Kildare, to meet a woman whose business is in education and through which she is helping to change people's lives for the better. What started out as an idea to offer a local part-time course has now mushroomed into a thriving private college and vocational training business.
Originally from Malaysia, Vaeni MacDonnell set up Clane College in 2001. Her idea was to offer evening courses in accounting. She placed an advert in the local newspaper and was delighted when 13 students turned up to take her class.
"My first course took place in a single rented room over the local butcher's in Clane," remembers Vaeni. By the second year, the number of students had more than doubled and so she rented a second room. From there the business took off.
Still headquartered in Clane, the college now offers courses in a variety of locations around the country, including: Newbridge, Carlow, Waterford, Cork, Athlone, Cavan, Tullamore, Mullingar, and Dublin (Tallaght, Rathfarnham and city centre).
The range of courses has grown to include qualifications from Accounting Technicians Ireland (ATI) and Certified Public Accountants (CPA). In addition, she has introduced myriad computer courses, including Microsoft Office Specialist (MOS), Java and C++ software programming and, for those who prefer a more hands-on approach, there are courses in computer hardware, networking and maintenance.
Recognising the growing interest in gaming, Vaeni set up a one year full-time Gaming Design Course in 2011. The course attracted such interest that it did not take long for the 20 places to be filled, with students relocating to Clane from as far away as Kerry, Limerick, Cork, Cavan and Carlow.
Similarly, Vaeni spotted a growing demand for healthcare staff and began offering courses for those wishing to pursue a career as a healthcare assistant. Almost 100 students attend such full-time courses each year and, impressively, 96 per cent of students get placed in jobs.
When the economy began to take a downturn, Vaeni recognised the need to extend her training to include day courses as well as evening. She won a number of tenders to offer FAS courses throughout the country and, before long, had established herself as one of the largest and most successful contract training companies in the country.
In association with FAS, she has been providing an increasing number of online or e-learning courses, including the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) with more than 1,600 students taking these courses each year.
"FAS has received a lot of negative criticism recently but there are many good people in FAS who work incredibly hard to provide training to those who need it," says Vaeni.
She understands that it can be hard for some students to find jobs and, as a result, the college is now rolling out a new model called Focus Career Path, which incorporates career planning, CV preparation and interview skills as part of each course.
This will help give students the confidence to be able to best present themselves for their ideal job.
"We are helping to change people's lives by giving them new directions, new possibilities and new opportunities for their careers.
"We can actually see students grow and become more confident before our very eyes," says Vaeni.
She tells me the story of Deirdre Tully, who was a part-time student in her 40s. Even though she had no qualifications, she had managed to get a job as a book-keeper but desperately wanted to improve her career prospects. She enrolled on the accounting technician's course but wasn't sure she would be able to keep up with other students. With the support of both her tutors and class colleagues, Deirdre scored over 70 per cent in all her subjects.
"She came into our office and cried with delight. And so did we," says Vaeni. Deirdre now visits the college regularly to share her experience in an effort to encourage others to pursue further education.
Vaeni grew up in Malaysia and studied law in Wales. On a holiday to Ireland, she met her husband Tom and decided to stay. They have two children; Yazmeen is 17 and William is 12. "They are my greatest achievements," she says proudly.
"I was lecturing in business and company law with the Accounting Technicians of Ireland (ATI) and students kept suggesting that, if I opened my own college, they would come and study with me. That's how it started," says Vaeni.
The business now employs 67 staff – 14 work in administration, while the remainder are mostly full-time tutors. The number of students has risen to almost 2,500 per year.
In 2005, she even went back to complete a master's in management in education at Trinity College Dublin. I ask if she finds it hard to manage everything.
"When I am in the business I feel guilty that I am not at home, and when I am at home I feel guilty that I am not working at the business. It's the challenge of being a mother, a wife and an entrepreneur," she tells me.
"But I have an excellent team who support me wonderfully," says Vaeni.
As I walk around the company's impressive training facility in Clane, I get a sense of how well she is respected by her staff. Dermot Slattery knew her before she started the college.
When he had a very bad car accident and was at a low point in his life, Vaeni encouraged him to come to the college every day where he used his skills to develop a database of students and their attendance.
In time, he recovered and went on to qualify as an accountant and is now a director in the business. I ask him how he would describe Veani.
"She is unique," he says. "She is passionate about teaching and about making a difference. She makes magic happen because she believes it's possible."
I meet Suzanne, who works in HR. "Good tutors are a vital part of what we do here and Suzanne is astute at finding the right staff," says Vaeni proudly. It's easy to see why she inspires loyalty among her staff.
I also meet Karen who works as the exams officer and Valerie who works as the office manager. They both travel a round-trip of more than three hours from Roscommon and Cavan every day. Both have been working there for years and love what they do.
I ask what have been her toughest challenges? She tells me that last summer she was forced to lay off four staff. She felt terrible about it.
"I had to look at the bigger picture and protect the existing business and the other jobs," says Vaeni poignantly. "It might sound cheesy," she says, "but I get it now, that being an entrepreneur is sometimes about making the tough decisions."
With the first 10 years done, how does she see the next 10 unfolding?
She recently acquired the franchise for Pitman training for the Kildare South region and wants to roll out these courses. She believes that there is also a huge gap in the availability of IT specialist staff and sees opportunities for the business in this space.
She thinks, too, that there will be a strong emphasis on technology in how courses will be delivered. "Learning will be blended between a mix of online and classroom-based teaching," she says. "Good quality education can travel oversees," Vaeni tells me.
Her vision is to see Clane College grow nationally and even internationally. And why not? Everything is possible when you believe.
Sunday Indo Business