Having qualfied as an engineer, in Janurary 2016 Nicole and her families life was turned upside down when her brother Alex died of an accidental overdose. Nicole created Alex’s Adventure as a Social Enterprise, to give drug information programmes to students, educators and parents, as in her words “in the years I’ve left school the drugs have changed, but the education around drug use in Ireland hasn’t”. Nicole is now an entrepreneur, qualified addiction council, and excellent guest speaker, winning Junior Chamber Ireland (JCI) Young Outstanding Person of the Year in Humanitarian and Voluntary Leadership award in 2018.
- What’s your background, what did you do before you started Alex’s Adventure?
My background is in Engineering – before I stared Alex’s Adventure, I was a Marine & Plant engineer working for Irish Ferries, basically I was a mechanic that worked with diesel engines on ships. It was my whole world as I was the only female in a class full of males – college was a tough time as I always had to prove myself and that then translated into the working world too, but I loved being away from home sailing the seas and working with my hands – I was always a very practical person.
- Can you explain how Alex’s Adventure began?
It’s a really wild story and I am always a sceptical realist, but I guess when Alex died, I started to look back on my life and what my own purpose was. I realsied I worked towards only ever bettering my own circumstances, but I was never going to make a change in the world. I knew that Alex’s death was something that happened to other families and siblings often enough but in my case, it just became an infamous case. At my brother’s funeral I did his eulogy and after people said to me that I was a great speaker, and this came as a surprise to me as I was a very shy girl that kept to herself. When my brother and I were younger and into our older years we had always loved “The Planet of the Apes” – it was our favourite move, and we must have watched it at least 1 million times. At the time of Alex’s death, Coldplay released “Adventure of a Lifetime” which in the video has them all as apes dancing around in the jungle and the lyrics are “I feel my heart beating you make me feel like I’m alive again”. Alex donated his heart as well as other organs after he died and anytime, I felt sad or missed him that song would play. I was in Italy one time in a random supermarket, and I remember just feeling so low and low and behold that song came on. I don’t believe in signs a lot but if that wasn’t a sign for me to start, I don’t know what was.
- What was the moment you knew you had to start this business?
I think for me it was the realisation that change was possible – initially I waited to see if things would change after his death, but I quickly realised that if you want change sometimes you have to be the change and so with that mindset, a bucket load of fear and doubt and a hell of a lot of love for Alex I began. I wanted to show the world that Alex was more that his mistake – he was a person who was able to change the world all I had to do was become his voice.
- Why did you set it up as a Social Enterprise? What benefits does this bring?
For me SE are the future of business and change. It marries both a purpose, a cause, and the practicalities of running a business. The truth is we all want to make change happen, but you cannot make sustainable and lasting change without becoming a sustainable business. I could have become an NGO, but I did not want to rely on others goodwill to help me make the change I wanted. I didn’t want to take from a pool that already is stretched far beyond its means, so I decided if I was going to make it happen, I had to figure out a way to make this work.
- What have been some of the highlights since you launched?
There has been so many! I guess designing a service from nothing is one of my biggest achievements. I don’t come from wealth or privilege, so I did all this from my own resources and the help of many others too. I knew nothing about drugs when I started, and I am still learning something new daily. Going back to college for a second time is another because I never thought I’d be back again but now I am due to graduate as an addiction counsellor, and I work with some of the most vulnerable people in society – it’s hard work but so rewarding also. Winning Humanitarian of the Year in 2018 was pretty cool too!
- What have been some of the main challenges you’ve faced since launching?
I guess like most companies, SE’s and NGO’s funding was always a challenge, but I am the most determined person I know so if there is a will there will always be a way! There is ways around everything even lack of funds you just have to work smart not work hard! Myself was also an obstacle I had to overcome – Sometimes I am both my own best friend and my own worst enemy. The self-doubt and self-criticism was very strong for me at the beginning, and it still creeps in now to this day because there will be a mountain of NO’s before you get a YES sometimes. There are times when you question your self and what it is you are doing but the way I look at it is that if it was that easy wouldn’t everyone be doing it?! If I wanted to make money I would do it a different way – I am not in it for the money or fame – I am in it for the impact.
- How did the pandemic affect your services?
I think an awful lot of people found the pandemic hard – lots of businesses were negatively affected and that’s tough. For me all my in-person workshops were wiped out and that was a little unnerving worrying about paying bills and all that, but that worry is nothing new. I have been remote working since the start, and I had a lot of work to do on the business. I have been through the worst, so the pandemic was another notch onto my belt, so I strapped into my big girl boots and got on with utilising this abundance of time I had and by God was it used well. The pandemic actually helped me accelerate my plans and opened the whole world to me. It’s easy to blame the pandemic for a lot, but its more difficult to actually take accountability for what you can do, and I think I have a knack for turning a negative situation into a positive one!
- What are your plans for the future, where do you see the company in a few years?
I see Alex’s Adventure as the leader in Drug Education – I see a team, programmes that work and expansion into other countries. I have very big ambitions!
- If you had a magic wand, what would be the main changes in the Irish education or justice systems?
In the education system, I would love to see the pressure off of teachers and for the system to bring on board people who know what they are doing and embracing an alternative way of learning and teaching. The current system is not fit for purpose as all we do is fit young people into boxes the way society wants them to be – we don’t create leaders or nurture talents we create robots designed to fit into the working world. We need to change that, for example I had no Sex Ed. In school and to this day I still have to ask people I know things I never learned – Have I used Shakespeare in my daily life since school? Not once! With regards to the Justice System – yeah there are a lot of changes that are needed because people are just a cog in a wheel. There is very little for people who get caught up ion drugs etc and then they come out of prison expected to be an active member of society with no supports – how does that work?
- Are there any other companies or organisations in Ireland that you’re a fan of?
Gosh there are LOADS! Da Silly Heads, SSDP, That’s Life Education, Life Connections, Carers Network Ireland, Kinship Care Ireland, YouthReach Schools, Ignite UCC, Rise Up Women, MentorHer and Focusondiverity.ie of course! the list goes on!
As for an international shout out, it has to be We Make Change! If you’ve not checked the out, you must!