Thursday 26 April 2018

Irish tech girls rule, ok?

When three Irish school girls won a prestigious Google Science prize last week, it showed the changing face of the Irish tech and science sector. More and more women are joining industries once dominated by men with beards

Cathy Kearney of Apple
Cathy Kearney of Apple
Foodcloud’s Iseult Ward
Rhona Togher of Restored Hearing,
Dr Ann Shortt
Pharmapod’s Leonora O’Brien
Cathriona Hallahan of Microsoft
Dorothy Creaven of Element Wave
Prowlster’s Jennie McGinn

Paul O’Donoghue

WE have all heard, time and again, of a shortage of women in senior tech positions, with many complaining of a dearth of girls in both secondary school and college taking up STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.

On the face of it, they have good reason to. With almost 120,000 people being employed in Irish jobs that utilise STEM subjects, the proportion of women in these roles is hovering at roughly 25pc. However, in the past year or so, in Ireland and overseas, women have been breaking through the glass ceiling in the tech sector.

Abroad, Marjorie Scardino, the former CEO of publishing company Pearson, was appointed last year to the board of Twitter, Marissa Mayer is at the helm of Yahoo! and Sheryl Sandberg is never far away from headlines as Facebook's COO.

Closer to home, earlier this week, Cork secondary school students Ciara Judge, Emer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow wowed judges in the prestigious Google Science Fair, securing $75,000 in sponsorships and scholarships for their innovative methods of increasing crop outputs.

The three girls are indicative of a wider trend in Ireland that is seeing women, both young and old, breaking into the technology sector more and more. From established managing directors helping to head-up massive multinationals, to budding entrepreneurs looking to change the industry, here is our list of some of the most prominent Irish women leading the way in the tech sector.

Cathy Kearney, head of Apple's European operations

The boss of the European division of one of the largest and wealthiest multinationals in the world, Cathy Kearney is also notoriously media-shy, not giving interviews or posing for photos. The accountant, who oversees the company's headquarters in Cork, is thought to be responsible for much of Apple's phenomenal global success.

Roughly two-thirds of the tech giant's profits in 2011, $22 billion, came from their Cork operations. Kearney gave a rare interview to none other than the US Senate last year after it emerged that the company had been, completely legally, routing its profits away from the US through Ireland to take advantage of the low corporation tax rate.

She has also overseen a remarkable turnaround in Apple's fortunes closer to home. Although the company employed 1,500 people within a decade of arriving in Ireland in 1981, 450 people were made redundant when its iMac production was moved from Cork to Wales. After switching its focus to sales, there are now roughly 4,000 Apple staff in Ireland working under Kearney.

Iseult Ward, Foodcloud co-founder

This 23-year-old Trinity graduate has already caught the eye on an international stage after co-founding the non-profit food company Foodcloud. Through its easy-to-use app, the company matches up shops and restaurants that have extra food with charity organisations, who then give out meals to the community.

Since being set up last year, the charity has helped give out over five tonnes of food and has partnered with Tesco. Ward even spoke in front of the former UN general secretary, Kofi Annan, last year at the One Young World summit in Johannesburg about her plans to eradicate food waste.

She credits that the company's partnership with Tesco as giving it its initial break, saying: "Tesco took a bit of a leap of faith and did a trial, which went very well. We got told in July that we were getting taken on in all 146 stores nationwide for a trial, which gives us a great platform to work on a national level."

Rhona Togher, chief executive at Restored Hearing

Restored Hearing, a company that is pioneering therapeutic treatments for people who suffer from tinnitus, began life as a Young Scientist project, when two students developed a way to 'massage' the inside of the ear to treat hairs that pick up sound. CEO Rhona Togher came second in the 2009 competition with co-founder Eimear O'Carroll, and the pair set up the company that summer.

Both Togher and O'Carroll have gone on to study physics at UCD and the University of Edinburgh respectively, while still developing the fledgling Sligo-based company. The firm recently secured €50,000 in funding and nine months mentoring from start-up accelerator Wyra, and will also get the opportunity to pitch to hundreds of senior investors at the Web Summit in November and to win both cash and advice from Coca Cola. One to watch for the future.

Leonora O'Brien, Pharmapod CEO and founder

Having worked in the pharmaceutical industry for 16 years, Leonora O'Brien saw an opportunity to pool the knowledge of individual pharmacies to prevent handling and prescribing errors, which cause thousands of deaths in Europe every year. The result was Pharmapod, a cloud-based software that enables pharmacists to record, report and analyse all incidents that should be flagged up, and allows them to share their experiences in a single database.

Since launching in November 2012, the company now employs 10 people and is planning on expanding into the UK after landing a major contract with the NHS to supply its services to roughly 7,500 British pharmacies.

O'Brien received a Cartier Award last year after becoming the first ever Irish women to be nominated, which saw her win $20,000 in funding, as well as a year's worth of mentoring. She said that every day in business is "a challenge, but it is very enjoyable". "I have always loved a challenge, but it is round the clock, I would say that you have to be 110pc dedicated".

Ann Shortt, Full Health Medical co-founder

As well as working in an A&E for 10 years, Ann Shortt is also the creator of Full Health Medical, a software system that renders medical reports understandable to patients and medical practitioners, providing a personalised report that also identifies early health risks.

Since launching its first product two years ago, the firm has provided health checks for multiple Irish companies, including Bord Na Mona and the Revenue Commissioners. Set up in 2010 with her husband, Paul McCarthy, the Galway-based company is currently eyeing a potential expansion in the UK.

Her advice for people looking to get involved in tech or medicine is: "If you're thinking of it, do it. A lot of people are thinking on Monday that Friday will come. All I can think of is, 'What an awful way to live'. As scary as medicine can be, I think something scarier would be waking up at 70 and realising that's what you were doing for your whole life."

Cathriona Hallahan, managing director of Microsoft Ireland

Cathriona Hallahan joined Microsoft just as it opened the doors of its Irish operations in 1985 with a small manufacturing facility that employed 100 people. Hallahan went straight from school to work and joined the company as an accounts clerk, steadily rising through the ranks.

Now, almost 30 years at the firm, she was appointed its managing director in February of last year and heads up four operations in Dublin, which have 1,200 full-time employees.

She has also previously served as the managing director of the company's EMEA Operations Centre, holds an ACCA qualification from the Dublin Business School and was recognised as Business Woman of the Year in the 2009 Women Mean Business awards.

Dorothy Creaven, Element Wave CEO

While everyone has dozens of apps on their smartphones, Dorothy Creaven realised that most of them are very rarely used. "Say you have about 50 apps on your phone," she said. "Chances are you're probably only using about four or five of them." In 2011, this prompted her to design and launch Element Wave, a software analytics company that allows businesses to track user engagement and behaviour when using their apps.

The business now employs five people, and has won the Irish Seedcorn Intertrade Ireland 2013 award in the New Start category while securing Competitive Start Fund investment from Enterprise Ireland.

Creaven, who has a degree in electronic engineering and has previously worked for Google, says: "I live and breath it. If you are only half involved, it is much tougher. You have to put all your time and thoughts into the company."

Jennie McGinn, founder of Prowlster and OPSH

After spending four years running the fashion blog What Will I Wear Today, Jennie McGinn and her sisters, Sarah and Grace, made the bold move of attempting to monetise their website by co-founding Prowlster in 2012.

The idea of the site was that it was akin to a shoppable magazine, where users could simply press a button to buy the content that they were reading about.

The website was acquired last year by Sweatshop and Le Cool Dublin, and Jennie is now focusing on another venture with her two sisters, OPSH. The new site builds on what the sisters learnt working on Prowlster by aggregating fashion retailers on one site and allowing customers to shop and buy goods from several different chains in one place.

Jennie McGinn has also worked previously as a journalist and has degrees in communications and cultural policy.

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