Social Enterprise is Alive in the West of Ireland

I’ve been speaking a lot with social entrepreneurs these past few weeks – and a question I’ve been asking them all is ‘how do you define social enterprise?’ Each person I’ve asked has had their own unique answer.

Delivering impact in local communities, creating positive change, fostering grassroots empowerment, and solving problems that no-one else had solved were just some of the responses people passionately gave.

The reasons behind people’s motivations to create positive social impact vary across the board.

It’s been fantastic to hear the variety of perspectives on what social enterprise is because it highlights just how open to interpretation it is – and this can only be a good thing because it means that the breadth of problems being solved is more inclusive across the board, which means more people’s lives being positively impacted.

At the recent Western Development Commission’s ARISE Social Enterprise event at the Building Block in Sligo, Nora Fahy of Cycleup/Roscommon Women’s Network and Helen Nolan of Spraoi Agus Spórt opened up about the work they do.

Social Enterprise at Portershed a Dó

Nora explained that she “literally fell into social enterprise”, while Helen said that she became a social entrepreneur by accident. Of course, Spraoi and CycleUp are not accidentally brilliant – it all comes down to hard work from the likes of Nora and Helen.

Indeed, in the case of CycleUp, as Nora passionately explained, it’s all about the women driving their own empowerement. “They came to me – they badgered me, and it worked,” she said. What started as a 10-women project has grow into something special, a way for women to skillfully reimagine old textiles while reimagining their own lives.

In Spraoi’s case, there are helping parents and children live more fulfilled lives. CEO and co-founder Helen talked about how their services have drastically impacted people’s lives in an enormously positive way – by giving them the same opportunities as anyone should have, like access to accessible summer camps for children with disabilities and piano lessons for two Ukrainian refugee children.

Galway hosted the second ARISE Social Enterprise panel discussion on November 29th – chaired by business trainer Declan Droney – and it was fascinating to hear the various perspectives.

The panelists included Martin Ward (BounceBack Recycling, a social enterprise that repurposes old mattresses and improves the employment rate among the Traveller community), Iseult Mangan (Teen Turn, an organization that makes it easier and more appealing for young girls to begin interacting with STEM subjects), and Ronah Corcoran (Carers Network Ireland, focused on offering vital support to care workers who need it most).

They each agreed that social enterprise involves setting out to solve one or more social problems, but there was refreshing diversity in the challenges they’ve each faced over the years. For BounceBack Recycling, they’ve grown from 3 employees to 16 while increasing year-on-year the number of mattresses they’ve recycled. Carers Network Ireland managed to successfully pivot to an online delivery of their services, while Teen Turn have been eroding the barriers that stop young girls from taking on STEM roles as well as implementing true ‘if you can see it, you can be it’ approaches.

The events in Sligo and Galway highlighted many of the positives that social enterprise has going for it – the people driving each solution, the willingness to create positive change, and the determination to go above and beyond. But they also highlighted the challenges: sourcing funding, the fight to become sustainably powered, the obstacles to overcoming prejudice and stereotypes, as well as how to maintain the course while also generating revenue.

The next event in Donegal’s the BASE Enterprise Centre in January 2023 will certainly spotlight even more interesting perspectives on the ups and downs of social entrepreneurship, and it will no doubt once again highlight that social enterprise is alive in the West of Ireland, thanks to innovative people who want to be forces for good.

By Trevor Murray