‘Trust Is Implicit’: Four Pairs Of Irish Sisters On Keeping Business In The Family
"It's made us grow closer, as we get to share all these amazing experiences together."
Galway sisters Drs Jane and Katherine Mulrooney are both Dermatologists, and own their own practice in Dublin – they also run the skincare brand Seavite by Drs Mulrooney
Jane: “As kids we had really bad eczema – our father was a marine scientist and noticed that our skin did really well after we bathed in the sea, so he created a skincare product called Seavite. When we went to study medicine, dermatology was always at the forefront, and as we went through college we were never really swayed from that. Myself and Katherine have since taken over Seavite – we’re involved in all the product development, so any new products that are made, we formulate them. We also deal with patients on a daily basis in the Dr Mulrooney Clinic in Dublin.
We were very different growing up. I was older – I wouldn’t say wiser – but my sister was sporty, I wasn’t so sporty. In school, we didn’t hang out as much. When you’re at that age, two years is a big difference (or so you think) but it was probably when we both started studying medicine that we started hanging out more. We never really planned it, definitely not as kids, but as we got older and realised we wanted to follow the same career path, it was a natural progression to work together. Because we’re quite different personalities, we’re bringing different skills to the table. We’re very professional working together, we can put aside any sisterly rifts or fights over clothes! We do sometimes end up talking about work when we’re out together, but we’ve reached a good balance over the years.
Having my sister there is great support. When I was off on maternity leave, Katherine saw my patients – she just had a baby ten months ago, and I returned the favour. We have each other’s backs.”
Katherine: “We were always close, but we became very close in college. I very much relied on Jane for guidance – your older sister two years ahead of you generally sets you straight. We were both so interested in dermatology because we had suffered so badly from eczema, it was top of our list to specialise in.
We’re the best of friends, and we support each other. We have our moments, but every relationship does. In the clinic and in our business, it’s all about trying to grow and improve every day and strive for better and better. We’re like-minded when it comes to business, though we both bring different strengths to the table. The family connection is important because trust is implicit. You can’t manufacture that.”
Ailbhe and Isabel Keane are the founders of Izzy Wheels, which sells stylish covers for wheelchair users. This year, the sisters were named on Forbes’ prestigious 30 under 30 list
“My younger sister, Izzy, was born with spina bifida and is paralysed from her waist down. Growing up she found it very frustrating and upsetting that there was nothing available for her to personalise her wheelchair. It was the first thing that people noticed about her, but it wasn’t a reflection of her bright and bubbly personality. I came up with the idea for Izzy Wheels in 2016 when I was in my final year in the National College of Art and Design. I designed a range of stylish wheel covers for wheelchairs so that users could express their individuality. Together, Izzy and I came up with the motto ‘If you can’t stand up, stand out’.
The project went viral, so we decided to open an online store selling our designs. We now collaborate with famous artists and fashion designers to create beautiful wheel cover collections, and they’re sold all over the world. I’m the creative director, so I manage all of the design work and work very closely with the artists to build the brand. Izzy is brand ambassador so she engages with our growing community online.
I was four when Izzy was born and we’ve been best friends ever since. When we were little I thought her wheelchair was literally the coolest thing ever, and I loved when she let me play in it! I was so jealous of all of her cool mobility gadgets. She has the most incredibly positive outlook on life and it rubs off on everyone she meets. We have so much fun building our brand and working together – we love coordinating our outfits to compliment each other for events. Our parents always encouraged us to express our individuality and we learned that it’s good to be different.
We’re both incredibly driven people. Izzy Wheels started off as a passion project and neither of us ever anticipated it growing into a global brand. It’s a dream to be able to work together on something that means so much to us both. If anything it’s actually made us grow closer, as we get to share all of the amazing and special experiences together.”
Drs Lisa and Vanessa Creavan are the ladies behind the Spotlight Teeth Whitening range, and come from a family of dentists
Vanessa: “Lisa definitely started the trend of becoming a dentist and I followed suit. We both qualified as dentists from Trinity College Dublin. Our other sister and brother are dentists too! Lisa is most definitely a trend setter. I worked in other places after college but would always be consulting Lisa on different things. Working with her made sense – it saved on the phone bills!”
Lisa: “Going down the dentistry route was always on our minds, but we never thought that we would end up developing and launching our own product. I always knew I wanted my own business and was determined to make that happen. I am also very family orientated so would have always hoped to have my family working alongside me. Our practice, Quay Dental, focuses on cosmetic dentistry so whitening is always a topic of conversation with our patients. Everyone wants white teeth but the market was definitely lacking something that was safe, effective and affordable that we could support.”
Vanessa: “We have seen patients who have extreme sensitivity and damaged enamel as a result of some extreme whitening treatments, and with Spotlight, we want to get the message out there that whitening is achievable and safe when done correctly.”
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Lisa: “Everything we do is pretty much 50/50. I have two young kids so Vanessa probably does take a more forward role when it comes to travel but we are on the phone to each other about twenty times a day! It’s important to be able to bounce ideas off someone and even better when it’s your sister. We really operate it on a no-holds-barred kind of basis and always say what we feel.”
Vanessa: “I think that sort of approach works for us because we have a different relationship that other co-founders can’t have. Because we grew up with each other, there is a huge amount of existing trust and loyalty built up. She is very business minded and very innovative and I, on the other hand, would lead things in terms of regulation, product development and brand awareness. I suppose the most difficult aspect of going into business with your family is that sometimes it’s hard to switch off. In saying that, working with family is so rewarding. The bond and trust is there and thankfully we have been able to share our success together. Also, they have to love you no matter what!”
Malindi and Elena Demery distribute Freddy Jeans Ireland
“While we were both at college my sister and I talked about founding our own fashion distribution company. Our family has a long history of experience in fashion supply and sales in Ireland so we were both familiar with how the industry typically works. We both studied business degrees and had an equal appetite for digital marketing. is along with our semi- addiction to social media and online shopping is what drove us to set up the Malena (Malindi & Elena) Group in 2014. Safe to say, we didn’t have a clue about the initial set up process or how much it would cost to get started, but the first steps were simply to get help from those that know what we don’t and become good at sourcing the right products and selling them.
We’ve always been really close despite our four year age gap, and are proud to say that we’re not only sisters but best friends. We certainly didn’t have a strict plan at an early age to work together, but as soon as we talked about setting up a company and it became a realistic opportunity for us, we never looked back. There are huge benefits of having someone so close working with you, of course emotionally (as there’s plenty of emotion from time to time!) but also practically… We’re probably the only people that can be very direct and firm with each other without either of us taking offence. It also just so happens that our skill sets are opposite – I would be more operationally minded and deal with a lot of clients and influencers, while Elena is hugely artistic and looks after all the creative design and social media promotion.
Our dad is the classic entrepreneurial type and it obviously rubbed off on us over the years – we were never afraid of starting something new or taking a calculated risk. Even during our school days we set up a ‘home tanning service’ for all our friends and charged them to look orange for the weekend! There was a different idea every week so we’re no strangers to failure either, which keeps us firmly grounded with Malena.
We’ve a team of five full time staff, three contractors, three agents and an external warehouse team so there’s plenty happening across the business. It’s never felt like plain sailing, that’s for sure, and while it’s probably natural to feel like that when you own your own business, we’re both probably overly self-critical. Luckily this doesn’t apply to one another, so when one of us is under pressure the other helps to ease the stress and get things back on track. Any short spats are usually forgotten about within the time it takes to eat a rice cake!”
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