Business Showcase with Ulster Bank: Mary McKenna and AwakenHub – demystifying female angel investment

As a seasoned tech entrepreneur and now successful angel investor, Mary McKenna MBE says she’s well aware how much harder it is for women to access funding and finance here.

ary is the co-founder of AwakenHub – a cross-border female founder community which aims to bring women of all business backgrounds together. But her business acumen goes back much further – she co-founded Derry-based tech firm Learning Pool back in 2006.

“I’m an exited technology founder. I co-founded Learning Pool in Derry, along with my business partner at the time and sold my half about seven or eight years ago and then started angel investing. I angel invest in women founders which have a ‘tech for good’ product… and something which through my network or experience I can add value to,” she says.

And following the creation of AwakenHub, Mary launched Ireland’s first all-female accelerate programme called SheGenerate.

“Ulster Bank has been a real key part of what we have been doing at AwakenHub,” she says. “We competed for £15,000 last summer.

“We ran that for 12 months and 56 women participated,” Mary says. “It was really early stage businesses and totally sector agnostic – butchers, bakers candlestick makers – next to med tech companies.

“Out of those early stage 56 companies we think six to eight of them are ready to raise a seed round in the next 12 months.”

The programme is running again this year with 24 in the cohort from around 100 applications.

Mary also recently spoke an event held at Ulster Bank’s Entrepreneur Accelerator, called ‘Demystifying Angel investing for women’, alongside Women in Business, the UK Business Angels Association and the British Business Bank.

It’s something, as a seasoned tech entrepreneur and angel investor, she wants to see more of throughout Ireland.

One of Mary’s early investments was in Elemental Software, also based in Derry, which was subsequently sold in 2021.

“I don’t really do it for the money, I do it for the support of the female founders. Having been a tech founder myself I know how much harder it is for women to access finance, to be taken seriously and to grow a business.

“The amount of women angel investors in Ireland generally is way behind England, Scotland and Wales, other parts of Europe and the US.

“We’ve tried to address this because no one else is… this is an asset class which is being denied to women.”

And with the recent event, aimed at informing and busting many of the myths around investing, Mary says the strength Northern Ireland has in particular is the sheer number of female founded companies in the pipeline here.

She’s also gone on to form a new angel syndicate called AwakenAngels – a female-led community with predominantly women investors supporting women-led start-ups across Ireland.

And amid the current economic landscape, Mary says: “I think people are taking a closer look at their investment portfolios and making sure they have enough money to follow-on with the companies which they have invested in.” 

You can find out more about AwakenAngels at

Commitment to enable female entrepreneurs to increase access to funding

By John Ferris, regional ecosystem manager, Ulster Bank

When the Government-backed Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship was first published one of the key findings outlined how £250bn could be added to the UK economy if women started and scaled businesses at the same rate as men.

Since then, we have been focusing on what can be done to achieve this level of parity and it is clear that one of the biggest factors is around funding. To realise their potential, female entrepreneurs must have access to the finance they need to grow their businesses.

Angel investment is an important source of early-stage funding both in terms of capital and bringing an extra layer of expertise and business experience to start-ups. The challenge is that the low proportion of female angel investors seems to limit the pool of investment available to support entrepreneurial growth.

Research from the Women Angel Investment Task Force shows direct correlation between growing the number of female angels will directly increase the levels of investment in female entrepreneurs. So, this seems like an appropriate place for us to concentrate and focus our efforts on when it comes to levelling the playing field.

Within the Ulster Bank Entrepreneur Accelerator we have been hosting a number of events to try and raise awareness and understanding of the importance of angel investors. With the support of the UK Business Angels Association and other colleagues from within the NatWest Group, we hope to bridge the gap between female founders and angel investors who have the capital and capabilities many early-stage businesses require.

We were especially pleased to have one local angel investor, Mary McKenna, join us for one of these events and share her experiences of delivering this kind of investment. Her first-hand knowledge and passion for supporting women provided great insight into the angel-investing ecosystem and regrettably, shone a light on the fact that Northern Ireland is significantly underperforming in this area compared to other parts of the UK.

A recent report into the impact of female angels on the UK economy, which was backed by the NatWest Group, found that just 38 companies here were backed by female angels. This is compared with 266 in Scotland, 219 in the north west of England and 2,015 in London. This same lag isn’t there when it comes to comparing other kinds of entrepreneurial activity so it is clear that action needs to be taken.

There is genuine commitment across the board to enable female entrepreneurs to increase their access to funding and it is welcome to see this level of collaboration and support for our initiative. What we need to see now is continued action and better support for female founders.

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