Early this year I received a call to say I’d been nominated for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year title. This was a nice surprise, though I wasn’t too hopeful of getting through to the finals. I remember the formal meeting with the EY team as it was the first I had, where we were trying not to shake hands – instead we used variants of elbow-bumps and shoe-taps. It felt very strange then not to shake hands with visitors, and now it seems strange to be in the same room as someone – how quickly we adapt. They went on to interrogate me about Aspira – the business, the USP, the vision.
Becoming a finalist
During the first phase of lockdown, I got the call to say I had successfully made it as a finalist in the International category. There were 24 finalists in total, split between Emerging, Industry and International categories. This was great news and the whole team was delighted with the recognition of what we had achieved together.
Pre-Covid, the plan was that all finalists would travel to Cape town in South Africa for a week of business meetings, master classes and networking with many of the Entrepreneur alumni who have been through this program. For me, this was to be the biggest advantage of being selected as a finalist – the chance to be part of that alumni – to meet with other business owners and have candid discussions about business problems and ways to solve them.
But of course, Covid meant that travel plans were curtailed. Initially the back-up plan was to host a 3-day retreat in Wicklow, but as restrictions persisted plan C was to hold a 2-day virtual retreat. This was an excellent session, with fascinating speakers and lots of virtual-interaction between participants.
We also held a number of dedicated Zoom calls with all the finalists and separately with those finalists in the International category. One of the big themes that emerged from those calls was positivity. I guess it is in the nature of entrepreneurs to be problem solvers and to see the glass as being half full. After coming off the calls with my fellow finalists I found myself motivated and inspired by their ‘can-do’ attitude.
The Video Shoot
Each finalist was contacted to arrange a video-shoot – approx. 3 minutes of video footage that would give a sense of the person’s journey and what their business did. This is where I am at a disadvantage, as Aspira are a technology project services company – we don’t have a cool backdrop of a product being manufactured by robots or jaw-dropping shots of our product in action. Instead our typical work scene is people typing on a computer – and now those people were all working from home…
The TV producers suggested we feature my personal journey. So they shot some footage of me in my home village of Patrickswell, Co Limerick, and some footage of me outside our family business premises, where I first learned to deal with customers, and learned the service ethos that remains within Aspira today.
Then they brought me to the old site where Motorola were based in Cork – this was the company that hired me in 1990, and is the reason I now live in Cork. So I spoke about my experience working in a multinational and what I learned there.
Next they filmed me at our HQ in Aspira. They required me to walk into our building four times before I got it right (strayed off the path first time, too grumpy looking the second time, opened door too fast the third time, fourth time just right – or else they stopped caring, not sure which?). This experience confirmed that I was correct not to pursue an acting career…
At the end of the video shooting you are really at the mercy of the production crew, as they gathered probably 2 hours of footage which they would edit down to a few minutes to tell a coherent story. The production company was Loosehorse, and they did an excellent job – I enjoyed watching all 24 videos that they produced for the finalists.
The Awards Night
In the run up to the awards night, EY released 2 minute videos of each entrepreneur. I was blown away by the support I got from so many people – old school friends, neighbours, colleagues and customers. I was amazed at how many people got to see the footage and was delighted that it included a nod to my family and my home place as well as my business journey.
The regular 1500 person televised black-tie awards event would have to change. It stayed as a 1500 person televised black-tie event, but almost all those people were dialled in from home, including all 24 finalists, sitting on their couches or in their office, wearing the black tie formal wear!
EY sent us each a couple of bottles of personalised champagne, and a pop-up banner to try to fit into the camera shoot. The show kicked off with the 24 finalists waving maniacally at the TV audience. I was delighted that my wife and children were able to squeeze into the picture alongside me, and I grabbed our family dog to get into the frame to share in the spotlight.
The show zoomed along, with the winners of each category announced. Congratulations to John O’Connell of West Cork Distillers for winning the Industry award, Matt Cooper of Inflazome for winning the Emerging award, and Nicola Mitchell of Life Scientific for winning in the international category. There was also a special award given to Front Line workers in the Health Service and the Garda Police Force, before Nicola was announced as the overall winner who would go on to represent Ireland at the World Entrepreneur of the Year finals next year. She is a so full of positive energy and really transmits that enthusiasm, even when communicating virtually, so I think she will be a strong contender in the World finals and would be great to see her succeed there.
Because Nicola was in my category of course that gave me license to claim I had come second. Given the US presidential Election Count was in full swing I also threatened to refuse to concede and declare myself to be the true winner. But unlike the situation with President Trump, nobody seemed to care what I declared!
One of the other finalists, Joe Lennon of Workvivo, wrote a post on LinkedIn about the value of the awards which really resonated with me. He said that in his journey to build his business, there is never time to stop and smell the roses – you are always focused on the next challenge, the next problem, the next opportunity. But participating in an awards program forces you to step back, to summarise what has been achieved. To realise that you have been lucky enough to work with a brilliant team of committed people who have helped take your vision and bring it to life. When you stop to collate what has been achieved, it generates a mixture of pride and gratitude.
So now my EY Entrepreneur finalist journey is over. I have made some great contacts and friends through the experience. I have become part of the Alumni, joined what is a very active Alumni WhatsApp group where people regularly reach out to offer practical help to each other. I will also get an invite to the next trip – which we hope will be to Cape town. It may be 2021 or 2022. Regardless – I have my bag packed and can’t wait to go!
Author: Pat Lucey, Aspira CEO