Donegal-based Mary McKenna empowering female founders

Born in County Tyrone, Mary McKenna, MBE, has always been drawn to the North West of Ireland. Mary was just an infant when her family emigrated to Yorkshire and she grew up there. Many ‘happy school holidays’ were spent with their grandmother in Inishowen and a strong connection to Donegal was built. Mary speaks about her career, AwakenHub and the potential being realised by enterprise within the North West.

Now residing in the fishing village of Greencastle in Inishowen, Mary calls the North West her base: “After years of city life in London, it really does feel like heaven.”

Starting her professional career as a corporate accountant, Mary left her role to start Derry-based Learning Pool, with her business partner back in 2006. The Learning Pool platform brings online learning to organisations in a collaborative way, with 5.1 million active learners worldwide.

“The North West is a great place to start and grow your business,” comments Mary. “The talent coming from our universities (ATU Donegal and Ulster University, Magee) on both sides of the border, the proximity to the EU and UK market, the start-up supports available from both governments, the excellent real estate and the high quality of life that we all enjoy, are the region’s key selling points and why I loved scaling my business from here.”

The AwakenHub team at Huckletree in Dublin. (Conor Heaney / Picture It Photography)

Setting up a tech business in the North West is actually very easy according to Mary. “The FDIs are still present but they’re less dominant today. Now, the local tech scene is younger, more female, less formal, more global, well-educated, informed and definitely ambitious. A lot of newer founders have lived away from Ireland for a while but are electing to return home, settle down and build a business here.”

Since selling her Learning Pool stake in 2014, Mary has focused her career as an angel investor and innovation expert.”

In 2020, Mary co-founded AwakenHub, along with four other women, Clare McGee, Mary Carty, Sinead Crowley and Denise McQuaid. AwakenHub is a community for Irish female founders and it provides a learning and mentoring environment for women who are starting businesses that they intend to scale from day one.

The motivation to create the social enterprise came from the goal of “making strong and successful female role models much more visible to younger females.”

Mary McKenna.

Mary said: “Since we started almost two years ago, 2,000 women have engaged with us and attended our online monthly events. We’re currently running Ireland’s only cross-border accelerator, SheGenerate, for a cohort of 56 women. We’re also about to launch our AwakenAngels investment community for angel investors interested in backing Irish female founders.” These programmes help the All-Ireland network to nurture and develop female founders to help accelerate their business to the next level.

The group has recently appointed Mary Ann Pierce as their new Global Diaspora Ambassador, helping to strengthen ties between the social enterprise and diaspora, as well as attracting inward investment into the female founders.

Scanning through Mary’s LinkedIn, one can see she juggles her work at AwakenHub with many other roles. In 2018, she became an Expert Advisor to the EU Commission on MedTech, EdTech, Pharma, ICT and Advanced Computing. She also enjoys her role as mentor with the University of Oxford, entrepreneur in residence with Catalyst and non-executive directorship with the Millennium Forum and Mind of My Own, to mention a few!

“Only about half of what I do is listed on LinkedIn. I love everything that I’m involved in these days and that makes it less like work and more like fun. Keeping a lot of plates spinning is certainly a challenge but I’m a people person and I love the variety that my wide range of business interests brings me.”

Mary McKenna at Croke Park.

Joking about her busy lifestyle, Mary says: “Years ago when people asked me where my office was, I used to point at my handbag and that hasn’t changed!”

The hectic lifestyle and wealth of experience makes her the perfect ambassador for entrepreneurs.

Getting started is the key when starting up your business, according to Mary. “A lot of people wait until something is perfect and you know what they say … perfect is the enemy of good. There’s so much uncertainty with a new start-up and there’ll be so many pivots and tweaks that you end up making, that it’s better not to delay and waste time. Just get started and you’ll figure it out as you go along. My favourite saying about entrepreneurship is “leap and a net will form”.

When asked what advice she would give to upcoming entrepreneurs, Mary’s favourite is a Steve Jobs quote stating: “I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the unsuccessful ones is pure perseverance.”

In Mary’s view “persistence and resilience are great qualities in an entrepreneur”. Given her experience and success, these are qualities worth noting for any entrepreneur.