One of the most successful social enterprises in Ireland, The Shona Project works with schools and organisations for young people, to help teenaged girls to in their words “Figuring out who we are, and where we fit into this world is hard, and there are so many challenges; anxiety, depression, body image, self-esteem, boys, family drama, social media, exams stress, hormones, sexuality, relationships, bullying and feeling like we don’t fit in.”
- What’s your background, how did you get to starting your own business?
My background is in admin and management on the third level education sector. I had the idea for The Shona Project because I was very involved in girls’ soccer and could see so many of my players were struggling. I always thought there should be an organisation to support and empower them but figured if it was that good an idea, someone would already be doing it! I couldn’t find anything so started running workshops in 2016
- What was the “spark” for starting your own business?
I was studying a Masters in Education and had to deliver a microteaching session to my class, who were mostly lecturers or teachers. I delivered what is the bones of our current workshop and the feedback and encouragement was so overwhelmingly positive I figured I really needed to give it a go.
- Why did you choose to start the company as a social enterprise? Why was the model best for you?
I felt that the organisation was never going to make anyone rich, and had already decided to reinvest profits, which meant that we were eligible for lots of grants and philanthropic funding. I did my dissertation for my MA in Business on social enterprise models, so I had definitely done my homework.
- What are 2-3 pieces of advice you would give to anyone thinking of starting a social enterprise? Is there anything you would change from when you started?
I put it off for too long as I thought to do it I’d have to be an expert in every discipline, marketing, finance, mental health, education, governance etc. I realised eventually that you can’t know everything, you just need to surround yourself with people who do, and that really freed me to drive forward. You learn more on your feet and by doing than you can by research ahead of time. Yes you’ll make some mistakes, but that’s unavoidable unfortunately.
- What has the company grown to now?
My first year I delivered workshops to 67 students. Since then, we have delivered workshops to 25,000 students in pretty much every county in Ireland.
We also have expanded our projects to include summer schools, handbooks, our online community and so much more. Our biggest achievement was Shine festival which was attended by 40,000 students during the pandemic.
- Where do you see the company in 5 years?
I see us being the biggest influencer of teenage girls in Ireland, supporting, girls and their ecosystems (parents, schools, coaches etc). To do this we have to run a business as an events, media and training company. We need to be unapologetic about generating profits, but then reinvest those profits so we can reach the girls who need it most.
- How did the pandemic affect the organisation? Are there any positives you can take from this time?
It was tough, as the schools were closed and that was our bread and butter revenue gone. We were also very frustrated because the girls we support needed us more than ever, they were isolated, scared, hopeless and stressed. We had to adapt or die, so we adapted, and we’ve grown more in the past year than any previous year. Theres nothing wrong with a little discomfort from time to time.
- How did you go about building out your team? What would be some of your advice about hiring for social enterprises early on?
This has been our biggest challenge, our resources are never enough to support the work we do. We also struggle to secure long term funding, so its tough to recruit when you can only ever offer short term contracts. When funding comes in, we need to decide what is the best use of it in terms of creating impact. I myself left a full time, pensionable job to do this, and my job is only subject to funding too so at least we’re all in it together. Our team are amazing though and are so passionate about what we do. I’m so proud of all we’ve achieved.
- Have you won any awards in recent years? What were some of the highlights?
We have won some big awards in the past year. Shine Festival won a Gold award for digital Innovation at the IMRO awards. Also at the Red Cross Awards, I was awarded Humanitarian of The Year which was my proudest ever achievement. We also won another award for digital influence. Awards are great to boost your confidence and build awareness and trust in your organisation.
- Are there any other organisations in Ireland that you’re a big fan of?
So many, the social enterprise sector is tight and so supportive of each other. I have huge respect for GIY, Speedpack, Food Cloud and many others. We all learn so much from those who have gone before us.