How Dragons' Den is flying the flag for females in business


Alison Cowzer, East Coast Bakehouse entrepreneur and two-time 'Dragon', hopes there will soon come a time when this isn't even a news story.

For now, however, it's an angle that the very show she stars in is pushing. And with good reason – as Dragons' Den hits Irish screens for its eight series, the addition of Chanelle McCoy makes for the first ever female trio in the international history of the franchise.

Pharma expert McCoy joins Cowzer and Budget Energy's Eleanor McEvoy to tip the dragon scales in the women's favour, with the panel completed by Barry 'Silicon Valley' O'Sullivan and evergreen show presence Gavin Duffy.

Not only that, 22 of the 38 business pitches come from women, which Cowzer sees as evidence that the programme has made an impact in "normalising that scenario". There's still a ways to go, to her mind...

"In one sense, I struggle sometimes to focus on it," Cowzer admits in the surroundings of Residence members Club just off Stephen's Green on a sunny Dublin afternoon. "Why can't we get to the day when this is normal, that it's not news anymore?

"I hope that programmes like Dragons' Den can get us to that point where nobody will comment on the fact that there's three women on the panel. We've had three and four men on the panel for the last seven years and that was not such a big deal...

"In the past maybe, it would have been more of an issue: 'wow, there's fantastic female entrepreneurs now coming into talk to us!' But it's getting to a point now where there's actually more females than males, and that's great."

Alison Cowzer with East Coast Bakehouse colleagues.

 Sizing up pitches for the first time, Chanelle McCoy is also showing a public who previously had her down as "wife of Northern Irish jockey AP McCoy" that she's actually rather good at this career lark herself – the Galway-based Chanelle Medical, of which she is a director, enjoys an annual turnover of more than €100m.

Though bearing her name, the company was established by her veterinarian father Michael Burke in 1983. Burke takes care of the animal drug side of things; Chanelle's area of expertise is human generics.

She caught the business bug from him and is now "neck and neck" with his turnover. Her sights are set on passing out the 69 territories his business operates in, with 80 markets being the next target.

'I live in England, no one's going to see it!'

In terms of television work in general, this is her first foray. Spending most of her time in the UK, British projects were proposed but they would have focused heavily on her famous other half. Dragons' Den was different.

"I wasn't interested in building up my profile in the UK," Chanelle explains. "I was very content with managing my own business. I just didn't have the time either.

"When I got the offer to do Dragons' Den, it really interested me, because I love business.

"I love learning about business, I love reading business books... you're learning so much from other people who have already gone ahead and scaled up their business and achieved. So for me, the whole subject matter was really interesting."

"For me going in there, the biggest thing I wanted to do was just be myself. I'm not going to try and be this or that, I'm just going to be myself and if I'm embraced, great. And if I'm not, I live in England, no one's going to see it!"

Chanelle McCoy and son Archie McCoy during Champion Day of the 2017 Cheltenham Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse. Picture by: David Davies/PA Wire/PA Images

 There was excitement, then, and no small amount of nervous energy.

"I was absolutely petrified!" she admits, laughing that it was Eleanor who scared her the most. Her chief fear was how she was going to be "perceived by the dragons", more so than the public reaction.

"That they would be thinking 'oh, who's this trophy wife coming in here?'"

At this point, the never-less-than-forthright Eleanor pipes up to Chanelle's right.

"I didn't think it, I said it!"

"It was 'you're AP McCoy's wife, what have you achieved?'," McCoy continues. "So it was nice that they later realised that 'actually she is involved in her family business'."

'I like to think we're The X Factor for business'

As for Eleanor McEvoy, who was responsible for creating two multi-million euro businesses before founding Northern Ireland's only independent supplier of retail, pre-paid electricity, it's her second year on the show.

Speaking last summer following her first series run, she confessed that she hadn't picked up any "financial tricks" from the experience, because of the unique and artificial environment it places you in.

She told the Irish Independent that "only time will tell" if she learnt anything from the investments she made. With another series under her belt, was this outing any different?

"You're absolutely right, investing is strange on the show," she nods. "But I was much more comfortable 
this year. I was much more relaxed knowing what to expect. And then I had this mad one on my left which made it even funnier.

"But yeah, it was good. Much, much better. I'd be interested myself to see how different it looks [with experience]... I don't know if that's going to make me more uncomfortable, or weird, or self-conscious!"

Eleanor McEvoy

Eleanor McEvoy. Twitter

 You can probably guess from her blunt initial appraisal of Chanelle that Eleanor was not completely on board with adding another female, particularly if it was in any way tokenistic. She's pleased with how it's worked out.

"I will say I was a little bit cautious – 'Oh my God, we're going to turn this into a girly show!'. I'm heavily involved with the Entrepreneur of the Year programme and every time females come through, I'm very critical of [whether] they're actually the real deal. Because I think it undermines it if it's not.

"But I like to think we're kinda like The X Factor for business. That's how I think it drags it in. Genuinely.

"Because you look at all the youngsters who came through – singers and dancers and whatever – who would never have done it except for TV.

"If we just influence a couple of young girls sitting at home going 'when I grow up, I can be that'... We had no role models growing up, male or female.

"I remember knowing I wanted to be or do something but there was nowhere to look.

"I almost feel... a 'duty' is too strong a word. But I'd like to think we will change the future for some young people."

Craig Fitzpatrick, 

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