Reeling in the years: The story of the IMAGE PwC Businesswoman of the Year Awards
This year marks the 15th IMAGE PwC Businesswoman of the Year Awards. Here's the story behind how it all began...
Throughout my 20s and 30s, I was always aware of the awards and the buzz that ripples through the city on the night. I remember aspiring to stand on that stage, amongst Ireland’s most inspiring businesswomen. As a new(er) member of Team IMAGE and being fully immersed in the project for the first time this year, I asked Group Contributing Editor Melanie Morris to share the full story of the awards with me. Pour a cuppa, it’s time to reel in the years and it’s been quite a ride!
I know it wasn’t *that* long ago, but set the scene for the reality for women in leadership roles or starting their own businesses in Ireland 15 years ago…
First, we’ll clarify that the first IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year Awards was in 2007, but because of Covid-19, we’re marking our 15th awards ceremony this year, as opposed to our 17th.
Looking back at that first year, in 2007, Ireland was in boom times. At that time, a lot of women were employed in large organisations or working for other people. There weren’t as many female entrepreneurs in Ireland; there weren’t as many female-led businesses; and there were far fewer women in the range and diversity of roles we see women operating in today. So, it’s amazing to think that even in 2007, our first Businesswoman of the Year Awards had a category for an overall winner, an entrepreneur and a young businesswoman.
How many people were at that first awards ceremony?
In the first few years, the awards were held as a cocktail reception in the Merrion Hotel. It was a really lovely evening, with about 100-150 women in attendance (this year we will welcome over 850). What was really interesting was that after the first, second and third year, women would come to me during the year and say, “You know, I really, really enjoyed the reception in the Merrion for the Businesswoman of the Year”. Each time, I’d ask what it was that made it so enjoyable and they would all reply that it was amazing to meet other businesswomen. It dawned on us that, at that time, all the parties and the receptions women would go to would be social events, socialite-oriented and not events where women would be acknowledged as businesswomen, as leaders, as entrepreneurs or as women with purpose or ambition.
Tell me more about that…
So, our attendees were finding it absolutely amazing to go and find kindred spirits, to swap stories and to gather a network of their own. On reflection, as you ask me this, that was not only the beginning of the IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year, but it was also the beginning of our IMAGE business community. It became a seedling for the IMAGE Business Club in more recent years and for all the events that we started running for businesswomen in Ireland.
Where was the seed sown for the first awards?
My great pal, the PR Caroline Kennedy, and I were on our way back from a trip somewhere. At the time IMAGE used to produce a business supplement. We’d done a couple of them and it was coming around time to produce the next supplement. We were in the car and we were both saying that though it’s great to be doing this supplement, let’s bring it to life! Let’s do something where, you know, women in business can meet and network together, and let’s do an awards ceremony to recognise them. So, I don’t know who had the idea first, but we spent the whole car journey back planning it. And though some ideas get left in the car, this one thankfully did not. We brought it into the office. Brown Thomas were one of our first sponsors and we had great chats about the event and how we’d bring it to life. And we did, in April 2007.
How did the awards evolve over the years?
We held it in the Merrion every year up to and including 2011. Then we decided we’d be a bit brave and host a dinner. The first one we did was for 125 people in the Stephen’s Green Club in 2012. In 2013, we moved to Royal Hospital Kilmainham. I think we had about maybe 300-350 that night and there might have been about six or seven categories at that stage. I can remember that we were always surprised by the uptake – we had a room that year in Royal Hospital Kilmainham but due to the popularity, we had to add a second room with a screen in it. We told people that “unfortunately, the main room is full up” but they still wanted to come. They said they didn’t mind being in a second room, they just wanted to be there! That was in 2013 and 2014 when we moved into, as it was then, the Burlington Hotel, now the Clayton Hotel Burlington Road. As the event grew and grew, very quickly, we were selling out that space in the largest ballroom in Dublin city centre.
Ciara Cosgrove came on board to organise the event and she brought things up to a whole new level. The quality of production on the night; what we were offering our guests; the whole experience expanded to a new, elevated standard that we had never done before. So, that was absolutely brilliant. We were – and are – so grateful to Ciara and her team for that and it meant we could grow further and increase the categories yet again. So, 2023 is our biggest year. We have 11 categories and it’s fantastic. Every single year things have grown, expanded and elevated.
What do you most look forward to about the awards?
A few things. Firstly, the entries, I love seeing new names, names of people I haven’t even heard of before. And I also love seeing familiar names who have had an amazing year. And I love seeing women who are proud enough of their achievements to wholeheartedly put themselves forward or let themselves be put forward in their best possible light.
In life, I think that there is a great place for humility, but the application form for the Businesswoman of the Year Awards is not that place. So, we love women’s achievements and it’s lovely to see growth year-on-year. And just as much as I love seeing new names, I also love seeing people who have the spirit to apply again and again and again, whether it’s in a different category because their business has evolved, or whether it’s the same category, but they feel they’ve got a better offer or a better presentation for this year. I love seeing that. And as you know, Leonie, every single application form is read and critiqued thoroughly.
I also love the judging day because we have such a diverse range of about a dozen judges, all of whom bring substantial acumen and experience in their own right. It’s amazing to see different people’s input but what’s really, really amazing to see is that even though a dozen judges are reading the shortlist application forms on their own over the space of about a week or two, there is a consensus that comes together on judging day. Not everyone might choose the same person, but there is usually a consensus of opinion in choosing our winners in each category. So, that’s great to see and very reassuring.
On the night, I just love the buzz of the room! I love it. I can always tell from the minute I stand up on that stage to welcome everyone… you can tell by the energy coming back to you that everyone is here to celebrate. They’re there to celebrate their friend or colleague or spouse or family member. But they’re also there to celebrate everyone in the room. I know it sounds really corny, but you can absolutely feel the uniform passion in the room as people support other people, will them on and wish them luck. There’s also a certain pride about celebrating women’s achievements and you can feel that on the night.
What do you believe is the impact of the awards on women in business?
I think the reward for being brave enough to put your name forward for an IMAGE PwC Businesswoman of the Year Award is the light that shines on your business. Everyone who is shortlisted for an award gets, you know, artwork and assets that they can use to promote their business. And then obviously, there’s the focus image on the businesses. There’s the publicity around it, there’s the noise around it, there is celebration around it. We know women arrive at the office the next day, perhaps feeling a little bit tired or worse for wear, but their colleagues have seen the buzz and have decorated their desks or arranged a celebration whether they had taken part, been a finalist or a winner. It’s amazing to see the support nominees get internally, but also the support and recognition that they get externally.
Anecdotally, we hear a lot about the impact on individuals who are shortlisted or win an award. They tell us that it’s given them a huge boost and a lot of new energy in their career. It can lead to new positions, new jobs, new opportunities, non-executive directorships, whatever it might be – there definitely is a knock-on effect from entering, being a finalist on the shortlist, being a runner-up or being a winner in the Businesswoman of the Year Awards.
Thank you, Melanie, I really appreciate you looking back over these momentous 15 years of awards. I am off to find my style for the night and to prepare to be inspired and to celebrate Ireland’s leaders.
The shortlist for the 2023 IMAGE PwC Businesswoman of the Year Awards can be viewed here.
We will announce the winners on the evening of April 14th across 11 categories, alongside the presentation of the overall IMAGE PwC Businesswoman of the Year and the Lifetime Achievement Award. If you would like to join us, tickets are available below, or email our events team at [email protected].