Sunday 17 November 2019

'If you don't build your own dream, someone will hire you to build theirs...'

More than 2,000 entrepreneurs start up their own business every month, many of them 20-something undergraduates

Dubliner Marie Claire Foley: 'I'm also thinking of opening my own pre-school'
Dubliner Marie Claire Foley: 'I'm also thinking of opening my own pre-school'
Colman Munnelly.

Tanya Sweeney

Time once was that college students had one simple job spec: do well in exams and enjoy the glorious taste of newfound freedom.

Job done on getting college out of the way, the onus was then on graduates to find a dependable job and stick at it until a retirement watch materialised.

More recently, multinational giants could recruit Ireland's brightest and seduce them with talk of opportunity, stock options and paleo-friendly cafeterias. As career ideals go, it still holds firm, but changes are afoot.

Mindful of a cut-throat jobs market, some students are alleviating the anxiety of life after college with a pre-emptive strike. Others simply want to be in the driving seat of their own destiny.

"Around 2,200 people a month are setting up their own businesses in Ireland these days according to the most recent GEM report," observes economist Susan Hayes-Culleton. "There's more of a social status attached (to being an entrepreneur) than in the past."

"Graduates still want security, and I don't think that will ever change," asserts Louise Hodgson, director of the Undergraduate Awards.

"But I think it's safe to say they also want something more exciting than a 9-to-5. The thrill of the start-up is very alluring to someone coming out of college: you can go to work in jeans and a hoodie, you're actually friends with your colleagues, and there's a real sense of team spirit."

Dubliner Marie-Claire Foley (23) is juggling studies in childhood education with the running of her own health business, Aloe Glowing as part of the Forever Business chain in the US.

The company has more than 160 personal care, skincare, sports and weight management products, made primarily from aloe vera.

"One of my favourite quotes is by Tony Gaskin; 'If you don't build your own dreams, someone will hire you to build theirs'," she says.

"I've seen people finish college with degrees but end up working in retail or on minimum wage. I didn't want to be handing out CVs."

Now on the cusp of graduating, Foley is adamant that she will continue to build her business: "I'm also thinking of opening up my own pre-school soon," she explains.

Foley's youthful drive and enthusiasm is certainly an asset when it comes to business, but according to Mayo native Colmán Munnelly (22), his tender years can sometimes be less help than hindrance in business. Munnelly, who studies technology at UL, founded Colmac Robotics, an Irish education start-up with fellow student Niall McCormick (also 22).

"It works both ways," he reflects. "Some people think, 'great, two young guys doing something different', but then you get the impression that some people think we're chancing our arm, and we might not be taken as seriously as we might like.

"If you're trying to convince a bank about a high-risk venture, they don't want to give you a lot, mainly because you've nothing to pay it back with."

Regardless, Munnelly has made Colmac Robotics financially viable.

"During the summer holidays, we definitely made money and managed to employ four lads and pay ourselves last year," he reveals.

Naturally, these young entrepreneurs are mindful of the possibility, however remote, of a large multinational buyout.

"It's certainly a pipe dream," says Munnelly. "Someone might buy it, but for now it's our baby and I'd like to keep working at it."

Adds Hodgson: "I think graduates are way more confident these days, which is a really good thing. They've grown up around lots of examples of people creating incredibly successful businesses while in college, like Facebook. So the idea that they could also create something huge isn't completely alien to them."

According to Hayes-Culleton, the traditional education system has yet to catch up with this groundswell of entrepreneurial vim.

"Typical commerce degrees don't really help students set up their own business," she says. "I only got the business bug when I was exposed to role models through my business society in college."

Edel Browne (18) is head of innovation at the 1000-strong Entrepreneurship Society in NUI Galway, and is the founder of the Free Feet project; a device that reduces the freezing of gait in Parkinson's disease.

Sounds like a lot for an undergraduate student to take on. "It will look great on my CV, though," concedes Browne. "It's hard to tell where it all might lead at the moment."

There's little doubting that big things are ahead for her, but one question needs to be asked. With world domination just around the corner, is she at least managing to enjoy some of the fringe benefits of student life?

"Of course, I definitely get to have fun too," she notes with a smile. "It can be a challenge to balance it all. But the beauty about this is that I don't ever see it as a job."

College and career: when it doesn't add up

* The average cost of going to college in Ireland now stands at just under €10,000 a year.

* Nine out of 10 parents support their child through third-level education, contributing on average €421 a month (Irish League of Credit Unions).

* As of September 2013, there were 86,000 people - mainly graduates - were in publicly-funded 'labour activation schemes'. This number has nearly doubled in four years - up from 45,000 in 2009.

* According to US research, only 27pc of college graduates end up in a job that's related to their degree.

Indo Review

Editors Choice

Also in Life