Mary McKenna on disguised opportunities , jumping off cliffs and the might of networks

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  • Mary McKenna MBE closed off the inaugural Women in Tech NI Conference by delivering the keynote address to the 330 delegates who had gathered in Titanic Belfast. 

    The technology entrepreneur and angel investor titled her talk “When Opportunity Knocks … Make Sure You’re Listening”. She said that Steve Jobs’ quote did not tell the full story when he said “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards”.

    Mary insisted that with the correct mindset, you can spot opportunities, even when they “are heavily disguised as something else: often hard work or a big problem”.

    The audience laughed when the co-founder of Learning Pool explained “I was not born as a fully formed tech entrepreneur.” Born in Dungannon, County Tyrone, Mary’s family moved to Doncaster for work reasons when she was young. Later, qualified as an accountant, she worked in London for nearly 20 years “clambering my way up the greasy pole”.

    As a finance director in a large professional membership body, she was well paid, benefitted from lots of perks, but the job “which I could do standing on my head” lacked challenge. “One day my phone rang and it was someone from PwC in Belfast inviting me to apply for a Finance Director role in a spinout from QUB.”

    Mary was interviewed and accepted the job on her 40th birthday. Six weeks later she had moved from London to Belfast and started work.

    “I had jumped off a cliff into a maelstrom of chaos, and I loved it” she explained to the conference delegates. Having caught the startup bug, when the company was bought out Mary willingly took voluntary redundancy and was able to start up her own new company. 

    “Like sunrises, opportunities are fleeting … and they will pass if you are unprepared.” (William Arthur Ward)

    Now working as a management consultant, Mary and her business partner knew that their firm was not very scalable. Overhearing a conversation about an opportunity two men had decided to turn down, Mary explained to the delegates how she picked their scrunched up piece of paper out of the bin, read it, and half an hour later was on the phone to the local government agency who were selling off what she would discover was Learning Pool.

    Not all opportunities are silver lined, and Mary acknowledged that “there was a lot not to like about this particular one”. The sale had to be completed within one month. No due diligence was allowed by prospective bidders. It was currently costing local government a lot of money. The underlying technology didn’t work and needed to be rebuilt.  And on top of that, BT and other large established learning companies were bidding.

    “We were the smallest, least significant company on the list … but having worked in and around local government for some years, I could see it had potential.”

    For Mary, opportunities and networks are closely linked.

    “Every opportunity is attached to a person and everything in life and business is about people” says Mary who believes that people in the tech industry “need a large and varied network that is both deep and wide”.

    Knowing key people involved in the Learning Pool sale gave her an edge over the bigger players who were bidding. They won the bid and a month later took over the company.

    While Mary left Learning Pool in May 2014, she says that “today I am still proud that the business continues to grow, and a lot of the people we recruited in that first year are still there 11 years later”.

    She admits that during the first two years of Learning Pool, “it nearly killed me having to keep my head down [and avoid looking at other opportunities]. I’m a flibbertigibbet. But I couldn’t be distracted. Now, I’m always looking for opportunities.”

    Mary offered advice to the assembled women:

    • You need to pay attention so you can spot an idea when it comes along.
    • You may have to step outside your comfort zone to act even though you may not be holding all the pieces of the jigsaw. 
    • You need to believe in yourself, your abilities and your worth.
    • You need sufficient support and encouragement around you.
    • Being decisive helps, because opportunities don’t wait for procrastinators. 

    She spoke enthusiastically about company mentoring programmes, but encouraged women in the audience to be mentors as well as being mentored. And she reminded them of the Madeleine Albright quote: “There's a special place in hell for women who don't help each other.” 

    Since leaving Learning Pool, Mary now works with early-stage startups and has invested in a number of new businesses, including some with all-women teams. Mary admits that it would be very hard to give up the taste of freedom.

    “I love that my time is my own. I’m not beholden to anyone. I can say what I like and there’s no comeback because there’s no one to answer to. I like that freedom. I like having control over my own destiny.”

    She’s spends one day a month as ‘entrepreneur in residence’ at a local girls school, St Mary’s College in Derry. The opportunity came about after one of the IT teachers mentioned to her that a Putney High School in London had recruited an entrepreneur in residence. 

    “I went home and thought to myself that I’ve got the luxury of being able to devote some time to this, so the next day I called the school principal and asked her if she’d like me to be their entrepreneur in residence and work with the students to bring to life their business studies and IT classes as well as help with career guidance. 

    “I’ll be there potentially for years, and I’m hoping that some of them will start businesses and I’ll have an ongoing relationship with them.”

    And there’s interest across the island of Ireland in scaling the idea and linking up more entrepreneurs into schools.

    Along with Clare McGee, Mary is also bringing the 300 Seconds format to Ireland, encouraging more women to develop the skills to become confident public speakers.

    “Clare and I were sick of going to conferences with panels and panels of men. So we’re doing something about it.”

    Mary closed her address with an apt quote from Carey Lohrenz: “Too comfortable is a heartbeat away from being complacent, and complacent is a heartbeat away from being irrelevant”. 

    Who knows where Mary will invest her time and energy next? But you can be sure she has her eyes open to spot the next opportunity that presents itself.

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