Larne businesswoman Wendy McConnell is planning an expansion of her bridal wear business after taking part in a unique Invest Northern Ireland initiative.

Wendy opened Sarah Jane Bridal Wear in 1997 when she was just 21. She developed this business, with a province-wide client base and built it in on a reputation for excellent customer service and a quality product.

Just recently she felt that the business had levelled out and was beginning to stagnate and she knew she had major decisions to make, but lacked confidence and direction for her business. With this in mind she joined Invest NI’s North East Women’s Development Programme.

“Participation on the programme gave me time-out from the day to day running of the business and enabled me to think more clearly about the business and where I wanted it to go,” Wendy says.

“It also helped me develop my business skills in areas such as marketing and financial planning which I was able to use in my company immediately.”

Through the new skills and the networking with other business women on the programme, Wendy’s confidence increased. She now has made those major decisions and has moved to bigger and better premises. She is planning to take on more employees and has a clear vision of where she wants her business to go to over the next number of years.

As a result, the business has seen significant growth over the last six months, which is probably down to participation on the programme but mainly down to the drive, enthusiasm and vision Wendy now has for her business.

The North East Women’s Development Programme, aims to help increase business knowledge and capabilities among women in the region. It also offers a support network.

Joy Knox, Manager of the North East Women’s Development Programme, says the programme had been established to promote business enterprise among women in the area from Carrickfergus to Ballycastle.

“The aim is to help women to develop their capabilities, personal skills and confidence in areas such as assertiveness, stress/time management, problem solving, communication/presentation and motivation. It has, in addition, been designed to develop expertise in marketing, finance and technology,” she adds.

“It’s an example of Invest NI’s focus on promoting self-employment and business start-up throughout Northern Ireland by targeting key groups such as women. Northern Ireland has one of the lowest business start-up rates among women in the British Isles.”

The programme is the result of discussions with a group of female business people and enterprise bodies in the North East that identified a demand for initiatives geared to the specific needs of women in the area. It is being delivered by Business Foundations, the consortium of enterprise agencies covering Antrim, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Carrickfergus, Larne and Moyle, with Ballymena Business Centre in the lead.

Over 60 women are taking part in the current programme. They include established businesswomen, those considering starting a business and women who are involved in community organisations - either on a paid or voluntary basis.

Another 50 women have completed similar development programmes in the North East and it is envisaged that these 110 previous and current participants will form a network to support and empower new and established businesses in the council areas of Antrim, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Carrickfergus, Larne and Moyle.