The achievements of a new generation of women entrepreneurs in the North East were recognised and celebrated at a special event yesterday in Ballymena organised by Invest Northern Ireland.

Over 70 businesswomen attended the networking event at which Wendy Austin, the BBC Radio Ulster presenter, and Rotha Johnston, a Director of Variety Foods, were the guest speakers. Variety Foods is a marketing and distribution company, distributing frozen and chilled products to the hospitality and catering Industry from centres in Belfast, Dublin, Cork and Limerick. Mrs Johnston is also Vice Chairman of Invest NI.

The event, held at Galgorm Manor, is part of the North East Women’s Development Programme, which is provided by Invest NI’s North East Local Office in Ballymena. This networking event was co-funded by the European Social Fund’s Peace 11 initiative ‘Building Sustainable Prosperity in Northern Ireland’.

The programme is an integral part of an Invest NI action plan for its local offices to promote self-employment and business start-up among women across Northern Ireland.

Said Mrs Johnston: “Initiatives such as the North East Women’s Development Programme are exceptionally important because they highlight business opportunities, provide a support structure and create successful role models for aspiring entrepreneurs to follow.

“Although there are already a number of excellent examples of entrepreneurial women in their own businesses or working within successful companies, I am convinced that many more women throughout Northern Ireland have the ideas, ability and enterprise to develop careers that are rewarding in financial and personal development.

“The extent of the challenge facing Invest NI and the entire community was demonstrated in a recent report by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment which found that Northern Ireland has one of the lowest levels of entrepreneurship among women in the United Kingdom,” she added.

In her address to the event, Wendy Austin said: “In my role as a broadcaster, I meet talented women from most parts of Northern Ireland who are making a very positive contribution to the wellbeing of their local areas and the entire community in so many different ways.

“Women are increasingly providing leadership in most walks of life including politics, local government, the media, and in the world of business.

“It’s also encouraging that Invest NI is seeking to engage many more women in efforts to shape a more robust and dynamic economy based on entrepreneurship and enterprise,” she added.

Invest NI’s Sharon Polson said the programme had been designed to help participants improve their capabilities and confidence through a structured series of workshops and networking sessions that are focused on business skills in essential areas such as marketing, finance, staff management and problem solving.

“The challenge facing Invest NI is to accelerate growth among women entrepreneurs by providing initiatives that harness the potential of women throughout Northern Ireland and offer greater opportunities to explore business as a viable career option.

“By offering a support network that includes greater access to training we hope to encourage women thinking about business to put their ideas into action. Another equally important objective is to encourage and assist established entrepreneurs to grow their business.”

The North East Women’s Development Programme 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 70 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.