Celebrating women on #IWD2016 – Carmel O'Keeffe

Yesterday as I was writing about International Women’s Day I remembered that I’d interviewed Carmel O’Keeffe of Dress for Success Cork for the Sunday Business Post Magazine’s This Life slot a few years ago. Carmel’s story is pretty inspiring so I’ve reproduced it here, for a bit of motivation on IWD2016!

Carmel O'Keeffe of Dress for Success Cork on the RTE Today Show.

Carmel O’Keeffe of Dress for Success Cork on the RTE Today Show.

“I was the one who was wearing the Creme de la Mer, buying the Prada bags, all of that. But I worked very hard – I had no time to play very hard, because I was working 24/7. When you’re self-employed, that’s what you do,” says Carmel O’Keeffe, who is dressed in what is clearly an expensive black suit. Expensive, but not new.

Carmel was a successful interior designer and life coach with a large, wealthy client list, until the recession hit.

When the economy began to go south, Carmel started to help out in her husband Eddie’s furniture store on Main Street in Midleton, Co Cork. She got involved proactively, dealt with creditors herself, and they managed to keep their heads above water. Gradually, their ten staff’s hours were cut, and one by one, they were let go until they were left with Carmel and one member of staff.

In November 2009, a decision was made by the business’s landlords to increase the rent. Unable to pay the increased rate, Carmel and Eddie were forced to find a new premises within 48 hours.

“I had to go and find another building, take stock out of 10,000 square foot of a building, set it up and open for business. And we did. That was on a Tuesday and we were open again on Friday.”

The new location outside the town in an industrial estate was not suitable, but it was the only option they had. The cold winter of 2010 brought the beginning of the end for the business.

“There was nobody coming out to shop. Business was really bad. We were struggling big time. And then Eddie goes off and dies, in May 2011… it took me a while to be able to talk like that about it.”

Carmel woke one morning to find her beloved husband dead in bed beside her. They had married late, both after previous marriages, and had a wonderful life together.

“Eddie was the sort of person who kept everything in his brain. If Plan A didnt work, just drive on. A very optimistic man, full of energy, full of humour.

“So I was left that Monday morning with all bank accounts closed – which is what happens, so it’s not a criticism of the banking system,” she says.

Eddie was younger than Carmel – he died at just 50. Her whole life was thrown into uncertainty.

“When he died, he was buried on Wednesday and I had to go in and open up the business on Thursday, because there were orders waiting to be sorted out, carpets needed to be fitted and whatever.

“And that kept me going; adrenaline just kicked in. Until eventually the accountant and all my friends said look, it’s just not viable to keep going, you can’t run this on your own.”

Her group of friends – not one of whom was found wanting during this whole terrible period, she says – looked after her.

She closed the business in August 2011.

“I had to close all that down and sort it all out, generally just with my friends and myself, which was a huge thing because it was more Eddie’s business than mine, so it was heartbreaking to close that all down.”

Friends helped her, financially and otherwise. In March 2012, she realised she couldn’t go on like this.

Their mansion near Castlemartyr – which they hadn’t been able to heat for the last year they lived there – was too big for her. She managed to rent it out to an American couple, who wanted it unfurnished.

“The house is 5000 square feet, we had a business where I was able to buy everything at trade plus VAT… so the house had something like 51 lamps, 21 lamp tables… just to start with. I had 40 boxes of books by the time I packed up.”

She eventually found a small house to rent in Cork city centre.

“It’s the size of my hallway in my other house, but it’s absolutely beautiful and I love living in the city now. You can walk ten minutes into town and it’s brilliant.”

A contact – Siobhan Finn of Cork Innovates – had suggested Dress for Success to her.

Dress for Success is a non-profit movement that aims to equip women for the workforce; women who have never worked or who are returning to work after a period of education, unemployment or maternity leave.

It’s aimed at addressing common problems that are not officially acknowledged, such as the importance of personal presentation at interview – many people jobseeking cannot afford a new outfit, for example – and all the more usual components of jobseeker training such as interview skills, CV writing and presentation skills.

“The values of it resonated with me. I love the whole idea of getting women back to work.

“There was I now; I’d been an employee; I’d been an employer, I’d been self-employed, now I was unemployed; so everything just resonated with me.”

She went through a long application process – everything must go through Dress for Success in New York, and the auditing process is thorough. You cannot contact other affiliates (Sonya Lennon, in Dublin, is nearest).

She researched it, told them her story, and after an application process complicated by Skype interviews, lots of legal requirements, and Superstorm Sandy (her application was late after the head office in New York was hit by the storm), she was successful. The New York committee loved her approach, and was inspired by her get-up-and-go attitude.

After months of getting ready – finding a premises on Oliver Plunkett Street in Cork City at reduced rent, negotiating sponsorship of furniture from sofa giant DFS, tying in professionals to voluntarily coach, speak to and style her clients, and finding a committee that would help steer the organisation – Dress for Success Cork launched on Thursday 31 October at Cork City Hall.

Carmel walks to meetings and appointments – she can’t afford a car – and is determined to change her story to one of success once again. The service is free to disadvantaged jobseekers and relies on voluntary support, while Carmel hopes that, through fees for some services and sponsorship, it will eventually generate a salary for her.

An entrepreneur all her life, Carmel says her own situation made her conscious of the plight of the unemployed self-employed, who have fewer benefits to fall back on and for whom many of the regular support services are not adequate.

Find out more by emailing cork@dressforsuccess.org or calling into their discreet premises at 131 Oliver Plunkett Street.

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