Northern Ireland might have had a leadership vacuum for the last ten months, but that’s just in politics. In the world of business, some of our brightest talents have been getting on with it, going from strength to strength.
Meet Naomh McElhatton. As Director of Digital Education at Smart NI and House of Comms, she has provided digital transformation and marketing consultancy services to clients from all over the world – and she’s from Cookstown.
On Thursday night she will be speaking at TEDxStormont Women. We were excited to learn a bit more about one of Northern Ireland’s most enthusiastic entrepreneurs.
From primary school teacher to entrepreneur
Not everyone knows what they want to do when they grow up. When Naomh was studying Theatre Studies at Trinity, she feared that she was on course to becoming a waitress-actress. It was only when one of her friends was about to start a degree in primary education that she decided to join her. Surely teaching would be a more solid career choice?
But it didn’t quite go to plan. “In my first week of teaching practice in England I had a pupil vomit over me, another kid fell, hurt his nose and bled all over me,” she recalled, “And then another child peed over my feet. That was my first week! I’ll never forget it.”
It was a bit of a shock to the system. While Naomh realised that teaching wasn’t her vocation, she discovered something that was. When she sold advertising for the school magazine, her efforts were enough to get a special mention from the principal – he’d never seen anything like it.
After moving on to a job selling classified ads for a newspaper in London, she was initially reluctant to leave London. “I knew that I wanted to do something for myself, but I just didn’t know what it was. So I came back home when I was about 23-24, and started working for Ulster Business Magazine, and everything else evolved.”
It wasn’t long before Naomh was ready to go it alone – in a pretty tough set of circumstances.
“I suppose I was pushed into it. I just had my second daughter. Let’s just say it didn’t end favourably with my previous employer – I didn’t get any maternity leave. My husband was out of work at the time, and we had two mortgages, two babies under two, and I thought, ‘To hell with this, I’ve been doing it for everybody else for long enough, I’m going to do it on my own.’”
A business plan on the back of a napkin
With a five-day-old baby, Naomh set up meetings to try and start her own business. “I didn’t know what a business plan was,” she admitted, “but I knew I had a great idea. I knew it could make money.” With a business friend, she went over it all. “Talk about the cliché of writing on the back of a napkin. I still have the napkin in the house!”
DANI was the first online advertising network in Northern Ireland, and it wasn’t easy being a pioneer in a new and rapidly evolving market. “It was a complete rollercoaster,” Naomh reflects. “With the introduction of the Google Display Network and other targeting features and capabilities, our product offering was pretty weak in comparison and overpriced.”
Her company had been shortlisted for a regional award – twice – but didn’t quite make it to the top spot. Naomh asked for some feedback from the judging panel. “One lady said that we looked like a girl band. A girl band,” she recalls with exasperation. “Another said that I should consider a career in PR, and a guy said there was no growth or scalability.”
Sexist and patronising, the experience made Naomh even more determined. “We looked like a girlband? God forbid you should be a female entrepreneur and you like to be presented, get your hair done and wear make up.” She thought to herself, “‘You know what, bring it on!’ That was the fire I needed to keep going.”
It is striking that the ‘girl band’ comment came from a woman. Indeed, in the testosterone-heavy world of business, most Naomh’s experiences of sexism haven’t been brought about by men. “A lot of women don’t have each other’s backs,” she laments. “I’m actually really fortunate that I have an amazing circle of friends in my professional working capacity and we meet up every few months. We have a WhatsApp group, we and keep in touch, take care of each other. And only for those girls, it would be very difficult.”
In her current role, Naomh is frequently in Dubai to deliver training on digital education to some of the world’s top brands. “I actually have more respect as a female entrepreneur in the Middle East,” she reveals.
She used to feel guilty about being a working mum, but she now realises how she can be a role model for her children: “My young girls will be totally empowered, to be independent, to be strong women in their own right,” she reflects. “They know what it takes for their mummy to work hard to provide for them. They take it in.”
But don’t call Naomh a ‘mumtrepreneur’. “I absolutely hate the word,” she squirms. “I just work. ‘So are you a ‘dadpreneur’?’, I say to people. I have two gorgeous daughters who I absolutely adore, but so do lots of other people.”
‘A dream come true’
At Smart NI, Naomh is used to educating companies on how to embrace digital opportunities. But ahead of her TEDx talk entitled ‘Virtually Connected, Socially Disconnected’, she’s been doing some learning of her own.
Embarking on a ‘digital detox’, she set herself the challenge of reducing the time she spent in the virtual world. “It’s basically like a story of my own self-awareness,” she says. “It’s a complete contradiction to everything I do in work. But for me, being so connected to my devices has serious implications. Nothing serious, but it could have. So being able to disconnect when you’re at home is important.”
It’s about discovering the balance between using technology in a healthy, beneficial way, and preventing it from becoming a compulsion. “It’s raising that awareness, because it’s having serious implications on society – social anxiety, social awkwardness, eating disorders, bullying, all of these things that are on the dark side of it that we don’t highlight enough.”
Delivering a TEDx talk will be “a dream come true” for Naomh. “I tweeted two years ago that I’d love to do a TEDx talk, never thinking it would ever happen,” she laughs. “I have come through from some horrendous things over the last few years. Never give up, for I sure as hell won’t.”
Naomh is conscious that appearances on social media can be deceptive; people see success through a filter. “People have this perception, they see you all glammed up, and they think, ‘Oh, she’s such a great life.’ You can get carried away with all the glitz and glam,” she observes, “but the reality is that I still work to 11:30-midnight most nights when I don’t have the kids. I’m in the office every morning at 8:30. It is hard work. People think you’re just handed this.”
Politicians need a reality check
Like so many of the people we interview for our Northern Roots series, Naomh is optimistic about Northern Ireland’s future, but she’s concerned that we’re not tapping into our full potential.
“We’re still very focused on politicians being the answer, because obviously they hold the purse strings and so on, but I think we have to look beyond that,” she suggests. “Northern Ireland has so much talent – in all sectors. We genuinely create some of the best brains here, and I think it’s a shame we don’t do more to keep them.”
For Naomh there’s too much focus on Belfast and too much reliance on Stormont. Her advice to entrepreneurs with a business plan? Go out there and make it happen. “I’ve seen politicians give the same speech three years in a row,” she complains. “I think we need to be brave, be bold. Because here’s the thing, there is no Assembly! So we have to stop waiting and just get on with it.”
If Naomh had her way, politicians would get some work experience. “I would love for them to go on a work placement for a month, where they have to run the business, and they can see how difficult it is,” she muses. “If you’re the Minister of Finance, go and run a business finance department. If you’re a party leader, go and be a boss and see how you get people to work for you, how you get people’s buy-in for them to actually deliver for you.”
But she still has time politicians. If she could invite three (past or present) to dinner, she would pick Mo Mowlam, Mairtin O’Muellior and Naomi Long. “I remember meeting Mo Mowlam a few years ago through the Ulster Theatre Group. I was about 17 at the time. She was amazing,” Naomh recalls.
“I think Máirtín Ó Muilleoir did a fantastic job as Mayor of Belfast. He was really positive. The energy he brought,” she applauds. “I think if more politicians were as passionate or as proactive as him, I think it would be great. He has a lot of potential.” Naomi Long “is a bit of a legend too,” Naomh adds. “She puts up a good fight.”
Whether in business or in public life, Naomh has a simple message: “Having a positive attitude definitely works.” It’s a message of resilience and perseverance in the face of uncertain times in Northern Ireland: “I think if more people could get over that cynicism and negativity, and become more positive, I think that we would have a much brighter future. If we just embrace it.”
TEDxStormont Women will be taking place on Thursday 2 November at Parliament Buildings.
Tina McKenzie: Award-winning business leader, having worked across Europe over the last 20 years to connect people with the right skills with the right jobs.
The Women in Business Choir: The WIB choir is led by choirmaster Katie Richardson.
Goldie Fawn: Goldie Fawn is the musical project of musician, MD, facilitator and activist, Katie Richardson
Maxine Mawhinney: Award-winning international journalist and broadcaster.
Elizabeth Flilippouli: Serial entrepreneur, founder and CEO of Global Thinkers Forum.
Ana Matronic: Artist, musician, author, DJ, radio and television presenter, and public speaker.
Jayne Gallagher: People manager, networker and Chartered Marketer.
Lyra McKee: Freelance journalist. Publications include Buzzfeed, The Atlantic, Private Eye.
Rosemary Jenkinson: Writer, artist-in-residence at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast.
Vanessa Woolf: Specialises in stories for adults in urban environments.
June Burgess: Property developer, leadership coach and international equestrian.
Naomh McElhatton: Director of Digital Education at SMART NI and House of Comms (UAE).
Clare Mulley: Award-winning author, historian of women and war.
Also published on Medium.