There's a photograph in entrepreneur Noelle McCarthy's living room, taken when she was a teenager, which uncannily predicts her future - it's a picture of Noelle with a horse.
The picture can be summed up in two words: horses and hair, both of which feature large in present-day Noelle's life.
The most striking thing about the young Noelle is the big mop of curls she's sporting, a stark contrast to Noelle as she is today - a sleekly coiffed blonde. The hairstyle in the photo is very much of a time when there weren't that many hairdressers around. Back then, a hair business was the last thing on her mind, but these days, hair is very important to her indeed.
Noelle is the owner of three successful salons in Dublin, all called Blow - at 144 Upper Leeson Street; in the InterContinental hotel in Ballsbridge and in Dunnes Stores, on Henry Street.
Back when she was a teenager, horses were more her thing. She even contemplated becoming a jockey for a while, and these days, as well as running the salons, she dabbles in breeding show jumpers.
The love of horses came well before the hair, she explains with a laugh, adding that she grew up on a farm in Cork, the youngest of six. "My father was a sort of gentleman farmer. He did insurance and he had a dairy herd and 8,000 battery hens," she recalls. "He wasn't very successful. He bought me a pony when I was 10. He had the money for the pony but not for a saddle, so I rode bareback. I'm not the most elegant rider, but I rarely fall off."
When Noelle finished school, she opted to study science at UCC; it wasn't as big a jump as it might sound. "My mother was a chemist, my brothers did science, it's almost what you did in my family," she says. "And it wasn't that I didn't want to do something with my science degree, it's just I went on a J-1 to the States, and I got to work with horses. I decided I wanted to become a jockey."
However, it was not to be; she came home for a family wedding and while back here she was diagnosed with lupus, which put her out of action for six months and she never went back. Instead, she got married. "I had been going out with a guy, he was perfectly lovely but we were too young and it didn't last," she explains.
After the break-up, she went to London for a few years and got interesting work, but didn't love the city. "I found it hot and steamy and realised I needed the sea. I think Irish people need to be near water."
So in 1993, she decided to come back and live in Dublin, working first in a car company, then in a call centre. "Out of that I was head-hunted to work for British Telecom. I couldn't understand why they wanted me, but their strategy was clever. I said I didn't know anything about phones and they said, 'We know all about phones but you know all about call centres'. They wanted people who could understand the business they were going to sell into and they wanted me to sell into call centres."
She worked there for two years and learned a huge amount but realised that she wasn't suited to corporate life. She decided instead to start her own company in 1997. "I had an idea, borne out of the BT strategy, of selling into the market you understand. I decided I'd start a recruitment company called 1800people and I sold into the call centre market. I was selling people. I was an early adapter of the internet, I had my website, and I did really well. I had a lot of foreigners coming in to get the jobs," Noelle says.
Then, in 2002, she got the idea for Blow and it all started with her own hair. "I've awful hair," she says. "I used to get my hair blow-dried and I didn't feel I got good service or they'd charge me something different every time. And I thought there must be a lot of women like me who want to look respectable, who want to get their hair done before they go to work, so I decided I'd start a salon. It may seem like a jump from recruiting people but there is a common thread - it's all about people."
She started as a blow-dry bar, opening at 7.30am. "Everyone said I was crazy opening at that hour. But from day one, it was packed," Noelle says. "I was right - they were all people like me with no time who wanted to look well going into work. It was very busy from the get-go."
However, she realised just blow-drying wasn't enough for a successful business - it was very labour intensive - and she added cutting and colouring within the year and later added full beauty services - leg waxing, manicures, pedicures, brows, etc. "It's still designed for women who are time-poor. Coming to Blow is not an experience, there's no whale music in the background, no candles and soft lighting; it's for people who need an essential service. It's efficient, it's quality and we open at 6.30am."
Clients are mainly professional women - executives, bankers, lawyers - and Noelle has done so well that she was able to sell her recruitment company in 2005 to concentrate on Blow. Again, she brings her technical know-how to the management of the business in which she employs 65 staff.
"I'm very tech savvy. I can look at my phone and see all the bookings and sales. I spend most of my time in Leeson Street, but I'm very connected to the other salons," Noelle says, adding she loves her work. "Retail is stressful but I'm a bit of a stress junkie, I like a lot happening. I'm quite competitive against myself. When Dunnes say, 'Would you like to put a Blow in Dunnes?', I say, 'Yes, when do you want it? Now?' I always see the end and not the problems getting there. It's not about making loads of money, I like it getting better - it's that natural entrepreneurial thing."
She expanded Leeson Street just before Christmas and says it's been invaluable since Covid-19 has necessitated social distancing in salons. Covid-19 has affected expansion in other ways; there were plans to put Blow into more branches of Dunnes, but these plans have altered.
Obviously lockdown was scary for her, as it was for everyone. But there were upsides - Noelle walked up to 20 miles every day and it gave her cherished time with her daughters, Aifric (27) and Zoe (23) both Trinity graduates. "Of course there were dark days in the lockdown, but it was lovely to have the two girls here working from home," she says.
Along the way, Noelle had relationships and a second marriage. Home is a gorgeous red-brick period house in Dublin 6, which she had bought in 2001. "I had just separated from my second husband. And I wanted a family home for me and the girls and I wanted to be near town," she says, adding that she wasn't daunted by its size. "I had grown up in a big house in Cork," she says, adding, "Actually, Henry Ford had owned it - he bought it for his manager and kept a suite for himself in case he ever visited."
Noelle's house - two storeys over basement with four double bedrooms - was in very good order when she moved in and all she had to do was paintwork, carpets, curtains and other furnishings. It has lovely features - high ceilings, period mouldings and marble mantlepieces - and she's furnished it with a mix of classic furniture and pieces from her family home in Cork.
She loves art and there are many interesting paintings. There are lots of photos, many of the girls but also photos of several horses. Noelle breeds show jumpers and a foal is currently being looked after in Wicklow. They're an investment, but you can sense a real affection for them too as she describes how she snuck down to see them during lockdown.
Closer to home, the three women share the house with Angie, a pugalier, and Charlie, a cat - "the only man in the house," she says with a laugh.
The salons are open again and she's full of energy despite the early starts. "Why do I get up at 5.30am to be at work at 6.30am? It's ego," Noelle says. "It's not for money, though you have to make it; it has to be ego."
Whatever it is, there are a lot of grateful career women out there.
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Steve Humphreys