Inisfáil Social Circle is a social enterprise that highlights Ireland’s ancient monuments and indigenous culture. It’s based in West Wicklow showcasing the region as ‘The Hillfort Capital of Ireland’ – a stunning historical landscape that had received only modest attention until recently.

Mairéad published a beautiful colouring storybook as part of Inisfáil Social Circle, which explores local monuments, artefacts, ancient deities, folklore and culture, using illustrations and text. The book brings West Wicklow’s ancient landscape back to life in an accessible illustrated format with short accompanying texts in both Irish and English. Mairead recently launched an audio tour on the same theme, partnering with other creatives after winning the support of some public funding.

Here, Mairéad tells us how her learning journey with UCD Innovation Academy provided her with just the spark she needed to get her social enterprise off the ground.

I joined the Postgraduate Certificate in Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship to explore how to channel my creativity into a business venture. I’m a Mental Health Nurse. A few years ago, my hobby in story-telling through the historical landscape started to garner some interest locally. I would informally guide family, friends and community members on walks to heritage sites, narrating the Neolithic – Bronze Age significance of the locations. People started to encourage me to offer my walks commercially. I knew I needed to learn the skills and knowledge to establish the ‘business’ component. I was drawn to this programme’s flexibility; I could fit it around my other commitments and still engage meaningfully.

From previous learning experiences, I was expecting lots of modules, reading lists and exams. Thankfully the reality was very different.

I was hoping to meet new people who were interested in creativity too, as at the time, I did not know many creative people. I wanted to feel inspired and energetic about creating a business. I felt there was huge potential in my idea but I equally felt hopeless about how to turn my idea into a functioning enterprise in reality. 

I remember feeling full of anticipation on my first day but also ready to jump in and make the most of it. It was a bit of a culture shock joining a Zoom room for class on the first day. But my embarrassment was soon overcome when we broke into smaller sub-groups and started chatting with each other, and by the end of the first session I had six new colleagues and was enjoying getting to know the people inside each box on the screen.

It felt easy and comfortable to connect and share with my colleagues, encouraged by being in the comfort of my own home. I was amazed by the variety of different backgrounds among my classmates. The tutors were bursting with ideas and personality. They created an invigorating learning space and simultaneously put us all at ease about the programme’s expectations. 

Two main skills that I learned on the programme were one, the value of communicating and presenting myself and my business plan; and two, how to leverage technology applications and software for creativity and business communications.

So many aspects of the programme stand out. It was really beneficial to listen to the experience of business start-up speakers. The first-hand knowledge that they shared with us was very valuable. From the novice start up to well established companies to hugely successful companies – we touched on all types of profiles. I believe this variety allowed each of us to experience the different challenges on the trajectory of any business. For me this really helped in confronting some of the fears I personally had, specifically ‘failure’. The speakers all discussed the grit and determination involved in being an entrepreneur and how fear of failure drives them towards excellence. This experiential learning was hugely inspiring. It gave me more confidence and courage than any theory could ever hope to.

The Design Thinking process was of great value to me. Specifically using this process to solve a ‘problem’ for another business was a brilliant kick-start. It was helpful to have an outside perspective to solve a problem or create a solution. This exercise prompted me to dive into action and to reflect on how stuck I had been on my own ideas. The experience of going through this process shifted my mentality about ‘making mistakes’ and showed me the power of pivoting when a certain choice isn’t working. 

The other people on the programme were a core element of the learning process. I had my own share of self doubt before starting the programme, some ‘who do you think you are?’ thoughts in my head when considering the person I would like to become. Meeting an inspiring group of new people through the programme and sharing together our creative and entrepreneurial ideas was the beginning for me of practicing being the person I wanted to become, and ultimately did.

Between the days of class activity my classmates were a constant source of inspiration, enthusiasm and encouragement. They provided me with a safe space to practice, teasing out ideas and providing helpful feedback. Everybody was ‘in their own lane’, as our tutor would remind us, so it wasn’t the competitive environment I was expecting, instead it was very motivational. 

I made great connections with people I met through this programme that really helped shape my personal growth, and I hope I helped shape theirs. We are still in contact and it’s a super support network. We constantly wish each other well and want to see each other succeed. 

Personally I have grown in courage and confidence. I feel equipped to calculate the risks involved in my business, and decide whether the outcome is worth it. I have since self-published my sketches into a colouring-storybook for commercial retail. I invested in my project, and my faith and courage in myself has been rewarded. I am confidently showing up in my community and reaching for opportunities with success. 

Professionally, I’ve now run my social enterprise for two years now, which is steadily gaining momentum towards reaching my long term business plans. I have realised that activities such as accounting that I was worried about are things that I now pay a qualified person to complete. It is worth the investment as I can now focus on opportunities to make money. This financial year, I have covered my investment costs, which was an important goal for me. I am on target to meet this year’s goal of having a wage. 

Over the last year I have gained huge community support through the publication of my book. I have sold over 400 copies and my book is in over 11 different local businesses. I have my own online store, social media branding, website and I have established myself within the community as an ambassador of our local history. I have more recently won sponsorship and created a publicly accessible audio tour, where I recruited the support of other creatives to work with me.

I would highly recommend the Postgraduate Certificate in Creativity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship to anyone considering it. I found I was able to manage it alongside my other commitments. The modules were practical and relevant and offered a real immersion in some online tools and applications that really supercharged my communications and more. While it is only a six-month programme, three years later I still continue to apply the confidence, skills and knowledge I gained on the programme.