Mary McKenna

Where are you based for work and what do you do?
I’m a tech investor and entrepreneur. I’m in London now and I work out of coffee bars and co-working spaces but I’m about to move back to Northern Ireland. I have a portfolio of early stage investments, I sit on a range of charity boards including SCIE and CAST, I’m an Entrepreneur in Residence at the Northern Ireland Science Park in Belfast. I do lots of other things as well, all based on business – too much for this quick interview!

Did you train for a specific job?
I don’t have a typical career path. I did a degree in Geography with European studies and I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I was about 35. Then the company I was with asked me to take on a senior role (I’d started as an admin assistant and worked my way up to Director of Corporate Services). However I felt I didn’t have the right qualifications for the job and needed to do something about it. I chose to study accountancy as I felt it was useful. I worked as an accountant until I switched to sales and tech, which is a really unusual route to take. However, everything I learned at accountancy school is really helpful every day. Sometimes you don’t realise at the time that what you are learning is useful!

What are you doing now? A typical day

I have very full-on working days from breakfast to evening all week – a little bit of everything every day. A bunch of skype calls, blogs, emails, calls and meetings (particularly with entrepreneurs I meet and support) across the city in coffee bars and hubs. I make trips back to N Ireland regularly and travel overseas a lot with the enterprise interest groups I work with or via my investment portfolio. I deliver talks on a regular basis.

What are your aspirations for your career in the future?

If I die tomorrow I would know that I have done everything I set out to achieve. It has been interesting; I’ve made some changes in the working environment that are hard to do, particularly in the public sector. The reason I keep doing more is because every generation has someone coming behind – and I believe that we should help that next generation. I work because I choose to rather than have to. Work isn’t just about money.

Can you tell me about a defining moment of your career
I’m talking at a TED talk in August and I am talking about this very subject! The first defining moment was taking on a job that was way beyond my capabilities, when my boss moved on. I made a big jump. Secondly, it was deciding to take
voluntary redundancy when I was 43 – and I have worked for myself ever since. Thirdly, it was starting Learning Pool (which I co-founded and sold) when I already had a comfortable consultancy business.

Who helped you along the way? Did you have formal or informal mentors
I’ve never had a formal mentor but I have had two or three informal ones. I still work with them. They were people who were older than me and were further along than me in their careers. The boss who encouraged me to take on the big job, recognised my ability way before I did. He was the one that made me realize that work is much more than just ‘show up and get paid’.

Have you changed direction in your career. Did you ever swerve off course?
No – because I am interested in business and it’s my hobby as well as my livelihood.

What are the worst and best bits about your work?
The best is the variety and the different sorts of people. I like chaos and making it orderly. The worst bits are that sometimes there are disappointments – when people I support get a knock-back. It’s part of their learning but I feel for them.

Have you ever considered a board/ned/trustee role?
I’m on the board of 4 charities and undertake a number of other similar roles.

What helps you to stay interested/excited in what you do?
It’s the variation and the wide portfolio – I’ve done so much! I might be helping an Olympian get to Rio, or a start-up get their sales strategy together. I informally mentor lots of people and I love to help them. I love the fact I never really know what’s going to happen tomorrow. I might receive an invitation to talk at Oxford University or to visit the U.S. and Mr Dell himself…you never know what’s coming next.

My motto is ‘leap and a net will form’.


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