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A decade of minority entrepreneurship bearing fruit

Posted: 31 January, 2017

The Institute for Minority Entrepreneurship (IME) in DIT – led by Professor Tom Cooney - has been helping minority communities for over a decade and through its work, DIT has become a leader in minority entrepreneurship education in Ireland.

‌‌Now the focus is on research and advocacy, and a busy year lies ahead.

During the Celtic Tiger, Cooney saw that under-represented, disadvantaged communities were being left behind. “When I looked at what I could offer, my key skill-set was entrepreneurship education. If I could help people to start their own business, I would be helping people to help themselves.”

Originally from Fermoy, Cooney founded the Institute for Minority Entrepreneurship (IME) in 2006 as a research group at DIT. “The interest in minority entrepreneurship comes from a value system that was given to me by my parents. I was brought up to respect everyone, irrespective of background. It was instilled in me.”

Research is at the heart of the IME. The group was established to offer minority communities in Ireland the opportunity to start their own business through training programmes, which are based on research that assesses the specific needs of each individual group. 'Minority' is defined by IME as communities who are outside of mainstream Irish society in terms of entrepreneurship activity: Ethnic, Women, Gay, Irish-Speaking, People with Disabilities, Prisoners, Socio-economically disadvantaged, Travellers.   


Attendees at the 'Supporting Women Entrepreneurs in Ireland' seminar hosted by the Institute for Minority Entrepreneurship in DIT Aungier Street in 2016

“A few years ago, for the first time ever, I had more female students than male students taking my entrepreneurship course.” One of the big changes Professor Thomas Cooney has seen since he started teaching at DIT in the 1990s is an increase in the number of female students opting to take entrepreneurship courses.

Although female millennials may be increasingly taking entrepreneurship courses in college, women are still disadvantaged in terms of starting their own business in Ireland, according to a report prepared by the IME in 2016 for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The report, Supporting Women Entrepreneurs in Ireland, found that just 25% of Enterprise Ireland funding for start-up businesses is awarded to women. The IME concluded that more needs to be done to support women in developing their own businesses, particularly in the areas of maternity benefits and childcare.

The IME has accomplished a lot over the past decade. Some memorable moments for Cooney include teaching a training programme for people in prison, helping to set up the Irish Gay Business Association, and his extensive work providing training programmes and advocating for immigrant communities from all corners of the globe.

Cooney describes his proudest moment as an entrepreneurship programme for women travellers, a group he feels faces a triple threat of challenges: disadvantaged because they are travellers, because they are women and because they live in a patriarchal community. “To complete the programme, we hosted a special lunch in a lovely venue and presented certificates to all participants. Everyone dressed up, we got a guest speaker, it was an occasion. One of the women said to me, ‘This is one of the proudest days of my life.’  Think of the impact that has, of valuing her, what she has achieved.”

In 2017, the IME is working on an EU funded project called Diaspora Link, which focuses on realising the potential of transnational entrepreneurship among the diaspora of 26 partner institutions worldwide. Cooney’s PhD student, Osa Godwin Osaghae from Nigeria is working alongside him on the project. “My key message right now to the enterprise agencies in Ireland is that we need to be taking proactive steps to examine how the networks of 10% of our population could be harnessed to build international trade.”

With 10 PhD students under his supervision, Cooney is excited for the future. “I think this is the best place the IME has been for a long time. We need to seize the moment and take this opportunity to build for the future with the young people.”

When asked about the impact of the IME, Cooney pauses for a moment to reflect: “The biggest achievement is that we’ve kept the argument on the agenda that underrepresented, disadvantaged communities should be valued and that there are significant opportunities within those communities in terms of entrepreneurial potential. Even the fact that somebody who they would view as being in the system actually values them has a lot of meaning. When you’re looking to change culture, we point at government, we point at agencies, but we should also be pointing at ourselves. There are always things we can do ourselves.”