Here’s something about Mary McKenna

Mary with politicians
left to right: Mary McKenna, Mark Durkan, Ed Vaizey, Phil Redmond

She’s met Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill Clinton, Sir Ken Robinson and Robert Plant.  So I was thrilled when she agreed to an interview with me. 

Readers, I give you Mary McKenna, co-founder of Learning Pool.

1. What is your most pivotal career moment to date?

Without doubt leaving a safe public sector related job in London to jump in at the deep end as global CFO with one of Belfast’s tech start-ups, Queen’s University spin out Amphion Semiconductor. 

I was late to tech as I was 40 the summer that happened, but I had a solid understanding of how traditional business works and I was prepared to work hard to learn. 

Three weeks after I started my new job I was out in Silicon Valley meeting large US tech corporate as part of the company’s negotiating team.  Learning curve almost vertical; terror rating 10 out of 10.

2. What’s the best career advice that anyone has ever given you?

This will sound arrogant but I’ve never listened to career advice from anyone.  Once I made my mind up where I was going, I had the determination to get there. 

At the age of 32 I decided I wanted a professional qualification and I narrowed that down to Law or Accountancy. 

I’m so glad I chose Accountancy – as an entrepreneur you can buy in good legal advice as and when you need it but there’s no getting away from the fact that you yourself need to understand the numbers and what they mean for your business.
 
Having been so dismissive of career advice, I would add that I’ve been lucky enough to have two very good mentors over the years who have shaped my career and indeed my life, to some extent.  They always laugh when I tell them that and say it felt like herding cats at the time.

3. What made you become an entrepreneur?

Seeing opportunity and realising that I could figure out how to service it.  A big part of it for me really is about improving public service. 

Many of the large suppliers out there, especially of consultancy to local government, deliver woeful service at a high price leaving everyone dissatisfied.  I knew we could do better than that with an added bonus of leaving people happy with our outcomes.
 
I’m very lucky to work with a business partner like Paul.  We get on well as people and have complementary skill sets.  We’re both pretty single minded and we rarely disagree about anything to do with business. 

My advice to anyone starting out is find yourself a good business partner.

4. What influence has your family had on your career?

My mum’s not in business but she instilled some basic rules to live by into my head from an early age and some of that comes into play from time to time.  She used to tell us right through growing up “there’s no such word as can’t” and it’s true.  You just need to find a way.

5. What is the one thing you wish you’d been told when you started Learning Pool in 2006?

There’s a lot I’m glad I didn’t know or I would have found it daunting to start the journey.  Everyone can guess those things – how hard you have to work, how physically tiring it can be, how frustrating it is trying to borrow money and find the right people, and so on. 

People tell you a lot of “stuff” – stick to your knitting, don’t bother looking overseas, take investment early, get into bed with X company, you must get started in the USA, etc – but it’s true that you have to find your own way and make your own mistakes. 

We’ve made a lot of good decisions along the way as well as some bad ones – bringing in a Marketing Lead very early doors was one of the better ones! [Thanks, Mary!] 

6. What has been your biggest achievement, most painful moment, thing that makes you most proud about Learning Pool?

Our biggest achievement as a company has to be that we’ve continued year on year to grow revenue and profit in very trying economic times and that’s been recognised by Learning Pool winning the Deloitte Fast 50 Rising Star in 2009 and 2010 – the numbers don’t lie.

Most painful moment has been withdrawing this year from a regional procurement process that we’d invested two years of our lives in because the project stank – painful and pointless and an example of local government procurement at its very worst on all sorts of levels.

The thing I’m most proud of is the easiest to decide – it’s the Learning Pool team as it is today.  It’s taken five years to get there but it’s now close to perfect – a few little tweaks needed here and there but that’s all. 

7. You recently became the first female chair of Northern Irelands’s Digital Circle.  What are your plans for the organisation in 2011? 

I love being part of Digital Circle because it represents all the small people just starting out and because our members are just so cool. 

Digital Circle isn’t for the IT behemoths – Momentum looks after their interests. 

We look out for the web designers, the gamers, the content creators, the small groups of app developers – the people who are dabbling with technology as it goes from emergent to mainstream. 

During 2011 we’re positioning ourselves to play a bigger part in how government distributes funding to our sector. 

My role is to help Matt Johnston promote our sector more successfully so that we ensure we give our members what they need and make government aware of the value they bring to our economy. 

8. How important are the digital and creative sectors to the Northern Ireland economy?

There’s no doubt Northern Ireland’s future will be dependent on a strong digital and creative sector.  Anyone who doesn’t believe that or agree with it needs their head boiled. 

Even worse, anyone who’s blocking the sector’s growth or preventing it from flourishing is a danger to us all. 

As well as initiatives like the one right now to reduce the rate of corporation tax in Northern Ireland the government really needs to focus on ensuring that the education system gives our sector what it needs in terms of skills from the indigenous kids that make up our future workforce.

9. What are you looking forward to for Derry in the coming years? 

I’ve been a non executive director of Derry’s Theatre and Millennium Forum since 2003.  Derry winning City of Culture 2013 and the way it gives the town a canvas on which to converge arts and digital is really like a dream come true to an arty geek like me. 

I’m very excited about the possibilities for Derry and the North West of Ireland that hosting the City of Culture will bring and I can’t wait to attend as many of the big ticket events like the Turner Prize as I can cram in.

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