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Liz Waters, Social Entrepreneur of the Year: ‘Technology is changing the way we teach’

by Jillian Bolger
10th Dec 2018

Liz Waters, CEO of An Cosán VCC, was named Social Entrepreneur of the Year at the IMAGE Businesswoman of the Year Awards 2018. Speaking to Jillian Bolger after her win, Liz opened up about the importance of education for women in Ireland.

“If you can bring a young woman who is a lone parent to degree level, she will earn 67% more than her colleagues without a degree. That means she and her family will exit poverty forever. And that is such a powerful statistic that shows us it’s the way to go.”

Related: Gemma Teeling, Management Professional of the Year:
‘Prove you’re making a difference’

A startling declaration from Liz Waters, whose work with An Cosán, a registered charity and social enterprise founded in 1986 to provide “second chance” community-based adult education, childcare and enterprise to local residents, led her to win this year’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

About An Cosán

It was in Tallaght West that Liz founded the Virtual Community College (VCC), a non-profit social enterprise education initiative to scale the work of An Cosán nationwide. “I’ve been here for 25 years, through a series of roles, and am really inspired by our founders, Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan.”

Liz Waters by Kieran HarnettLiz Waters by Kieran Harnett

Under Liz’s leadership, An Cosán embarked on a path to virtualise its curricula – from basic education to degree level – to share the knowledge created in Tallaght West with similar communities across Ireland and the EU. “I would not describe myself as a technologist, but when I was wondering how we were going to scale education, I knew the only way was to use this powerful, disruptive force.”

Related: Nora Twomey, Businesswoman of the Year:
‘If you feel you’ve stopped learning, it’s time to move on’

The programme has been designed to empower people to learn using the latest virtual, online and mobile technologies. Working closely with community partners, VCC caters for learners who have not benefited from mainstream education, offering a wide range of accessible accredited and non-accredited courses designed to help students reach their potential.

“Technology is changing the way we teach, the way we learn,” Liz says, “and I wanted to ensure An Cosán was at the forefront of that and to use it as a tool to bring women and men (but particularly women living in isolated, rural, even urban isolation) into a situation where they could actually go on to higher education.”


Liz draws most inspiration from the people she works with every day. “They’re coming back into education with literacy and numeracy issues, no belief in themselves, right through to women who engage in higher education.

Related: Anne Harris, Lifetime Achievement Winner:
‘Open your eyes and observe’

“They inspire me because the challenges women face in their everyday lives are phenomenal if they are struggling with poverty or social exclusion. I’ve never met a woman who wants to stay on social welfare, but it is a hard job to really move out of that. Education is my passion, as it’s a fast track out of poverty.”

Going forward

While acknowledging the great support An Cosán and the Virtual Community College receives from the State, Liz admits that it’s not enough. “Funding is really important. If you want to really change the outcome for families, for women and children, you have to invest long-term. And the return on that investment will be enormous.

“That’s the challenge,” she says. “Education probably isn’t a sexy topic. It’s a really grounded, down-to-earth, challenging issue, and it’s a challenge to get corporates, individuals and philanthropic organisations to really understand that education will lead individuals, families and communities out of poverty.”

Photo: Liz Waters, taken by Anthony Woods