The ACORNS initiative is proving to be one of the most feel-good stories of the year, to put it mildly. Creating businesses outside of our cities, improving Ireland’s export status, defeating isolation in rural Ireland, and increasing the rate of female entrepreneurship; all four of these are being achieved by just one programme.
The ACORNS scheme is funded fully by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine’s CEDRA programme, and creator Paula Fitzsimons is the beating heart. Speaking to That’s Farming, Paula explains to us how after last year’s pilot run, ACORNS 2 is now up and running with plans of ACORNS 3 and even 4 in the pipeline for the future.
Accelerating the Creation Of Rural Nascent Start-ups (ACORNS)
ACORNS is a mentor-based programme that takes on dozens of women based in rural Ireland who have the spark or just the foundations of a brilliant business idea. The programme has seven ‘voluntary lead entrepreneurs’; these already-established women give of their time to help like-minded people who could do with some help in starting off their business.
The programme excellently utilises ‘positive peer pressure’. This involves groups sitting around a table and verbally realising their ideas; the presence and support of their peers means that the participants are much more likely to actually act on their ideas; perhaps making more progress during the six-month programme than they would have alone in 18 months.
Around 40 women were taken on for the pilot programme last year, and the superb success and 100% recommendation rate meant that ACORNS 2 was launched this September. This year, the original six voluntary lead entrepreneurs increased by one, meaning that seven mentors in total are now involved.
The programme manages to defeat psychological and physical isolation that can be experienced by men and women across rural Ireland:
“The interesting thing is that in rural Ireland, both men and women can feel isolated; there’s less of an entrepreneurial eco-system compared to urban areas,” explains Paula.
There are far less female entrepreneurs than male entrepreneurs at the moment, and ACORNS aims to improve the current figure.
“In the programme, you can find like-minded people. One girl who started with us actually said that a friend of hers made a comment when she joined us. She said to her ‘You have found your tribe’, and I think that’s exactly it.
“You meet other committed, driven, and ambitious people. Joining us means that there’s a reduction in psychological and real isolation. Registration is open all the time, but there’ll be a new cycle in August 2017, we hope,” added Paula.
“We had 200 applications for the first cycle, and only 40 places. There was such a good response and success rate for the participants’ resulting businesses that the Department of Agriculture helped us to bring it even further.”
“The entrepreneurs who started with us created at least 20 new jobs, and it created five new first-time exporters. 86% of the women experienced an increase of over 40% in sales. Of the 44 pilot women, 43 signed up for further development support. Because we keep the programme running long-term, it keeps people on the strategic path necessary to thrive.”
You can find out more on their website, and you can even check out the outstanding agri-businesses that were developed with the help of the programme! Women who have developed snail farms, hive-shares, food companies and farm safety campaigns gained great experience with the scheme, and hopefully there’ll be many more success stories to come.