Monday 16 July 2018

'We will never live in a perfect world' - Dragon Den's investor Alison Cowzer inspired by 'brave' entrepreneurs tackling Ireland's social issues

Alison Cowzer
Alison Cowzer
Louise Kelly

Louise Kelly

Entrepreneurs with a vision for change and an ambition to succeed are tackling social issues in Ireland, and their efforts are not going unnoticed - nor unsupported.

Social Entrepreneurs Ireland (SEI) are providing much-needed funding and a wealth of networking and mentoring support to these startups allowing them realise their problem-solving concept or scale up their solution.

'Don't let a good idea go to waste!' has been the beckoning cry from the privately-funded group which invites high-potential startups to take part in an annual awards programme.

Dragon's Den investor Alison Cowzer told Independent.ie she was "inspired" after attending an SEI ceremony a number of years ago.

Darren Ryan, CEO of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland at the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Bootcamp in 2017 with bootcamp judges Alison Cowzer, Norah Casey and Eamonn Quinn.
Darren Ryan, CEO of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland at the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Bootcamp in 2017 with bootcamp judges Alison Cowzer, Norah Casey and Eamonn Quinn.

"It was an amazing event; to see the winners and to see how much that meant to them, to be able to scale their idea," she said.

"It's a real shot in the arm for them, not just the cash rewards but also the mentoring and guidance that will really drive them forward."

Following in the footsteps of success stories such as FoodCloud's Iseult Ward and Aoibheann O’Brien, John Evoy of Irish Men's Sheds and Michael Kelly's Grow It Yourself (GIT), passionate entrepreneurs are looking to change Ireland for the better.

Of 50 finalists pitching for a place on the SEI Awards Programme, some 16 successful projects go through to the final stages of the selection process every year.

The top eight entrepreneurs now receive a prize valued at €25,000, with €10,000 in direct funding, and potential for further funding and investment following the programme.

Up to 30 people with early-stage ideas will also win a place at the Academy for Social Entrepreneurs where they will receive mentoring and support and the opportunity to pitch for seed funding.

Paul Rellis
Paul Rellis

Successful applicants to the academy programme now also have the chance to pitch for part of a €20,000 funding pot.

Ms Cowzer has become involved herself with some of the groups that have come through the SEI door, not least 'Women for Election', which she currently sits on the board of.

Read more: 'These people have innovative solutions to Ireland’s social problems' - winners of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland awards revealed

As a bootcamp judge for SEI, she said that while some groups may have the right idea and the passion for solving an issue, "at a judging level, it's about choosing the ones that are able to really scale, that is going to develop and really influence at a national level".

"What's wonderful about social entrepreneurship, however, is that even if the entrepreneur doesn't win, they're learning every day, sometimes transforming their model in line with the sector that they're working in," she said. 

"After becoming involved with SEI, they've gotten some encouragement and mentoring, and they have come back in a different shape. That's the whole beauty of the social entrepreneur process."

Ms Cowzer said that she is impressed by how brave some of the entries are. While many of them have really limited resources, they still manage to get people on board.

"Ultimately we will never live in a perfect world; there will always be challenges that can't be solved by Government. And not all at the same time with the same level of energy.

"So for me, it's inspiring to see those who have the guts and the gumption to stand up and say 'I know how to solve this'.

"There's huge lessons for all for us in that."

SEI was founded in a booming 2004 Irish economy in an attempt to combat social issues that weren't being adequately addressed, despite the country's prosperity.

Over the last 14 years, as Ireland travelled a financial U-bend, the not-for-profit group has supported over 200 social entrepreneurs, who in turn are providing services which reach over 1.7 million people across the country.

The group has attracted the support from a number of well-known and leading industry figures who believe in what the initiative can achieve.

The former MD of Microsoft Paul Rellis, also former head of IBEC, who now sits on the SEI board, said he was "blown away" when he was invited to an SEI event two years ago. 

"The fabulous thing about these entrepreneurs is that they're applying their great minds to social issues. And these are real businesses solving real social issues," he said.

"The fact that it is all privately funded and doesn't have Government support is amazing; I love it from both a social and a business side of things."

"More and more people are increasingly interested in solving societal problems; we have a thriving sector who wish to help solve these problems and that's really good for business, and really good for the country."

Mr Rellis is currently assisting the SEI to help raise awareness of what social entrepreneurship can achieve, while helping the team set the right path for the business.

He advised those applying to this year's SEI programme to 'think big'. "This isn't just solving the problem in your town or village. It's about the big impact, in Ireland and beyond."

"With SEI, you get the funding, the mentoring and the support to do that, access to a network of people to help you set up properly," he said.

Mr Rellis said that he would like to see startups addressing some of the big pressing social issues that Ireland is facing today like housing, food, and education.

"Obviously these issues are especially hard to solve but they are still really basic things that people here need. I'd be interested in seeing ideas that help people approach those issues in a different and potentially new ways that could be extremely effective."

The deadline to apply for the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Awards 2018 has been extended to March 23rd at 5pm.

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