Deirdre Mortell, CEO, Social Innovation Fund Ireland
“I was trying to create the world I wanted to live in both at UCC and when I left". To celebrate International Women’s Day, we bring you a special interview with Deirdre Mortell, CEO of Social Innovation Fund Ireland, the ‘venture capital fund for social innovations’. It was as a student at UCC in the early 80s that Deirdre Mortell discovered her passion for social change and a determination to make a difference in the world. She speaks to us about her days as a student activist campaigning for women's issues on campus, and how she tried to create the world she wanted to live in, both at UCC and in her career.
DEIRDRE MORTELL wasn’t yet seventeen when she entered the gates of University College Cork to study in the early 1980s, but she knew one thing: she wanted to “make a difference in the world” and she went about fulfilling that ambition as a student for the next five years within campus.
She was elected as the Students Union Rights Officer and became very involved in the feminist movement.
That passion for social change and her belief in the power of ordinary citizens to do so, has fuelled her career, leading to her current position as CEO of Social Innovation Fund Ireland, the “venture capital fund for social innovations”, which backs innovative solutions to critical social issues among non-profit organisations, by matching government money, with philanthropic donations.
“What I would say about my time in UCC is that I learnt just as much outside the classroom as in the classroom – I was extremely involved in college life,” says Deirdre.
“I was particularly involved in campaigns. For example, I led the campaign that secured the first ever female doctor on campus because up ’til then, there was only a part-time male doctor who was in his 60s - and I’m sure he was very good, but a lot of the female students just wouldn’t go to him for anything sensitive”.
“In those days, really basic healthcare - like can you get contraception? Can you get a smear test? The girls I knew didn’t have access to that kind of healthcare, because nobody could afford to go to a GP outside UCC”.
“That seems like such a basic thing – but it took a whole year’s campaign because all the college authorities were male and I don’t know if they knew what a smear test was, for instance.”
Deirdre also wrote on women’s issues for the university newspaper and was on the Rag Week committee.
“So I learnt loads and loads of skills, that together with the more formal skills I learnt around management and marketing and even accounting – I would say all of them came together in terms of my career.”
Since she left UCC with a first-class honours degree in commerce, Deirdre has been CEO of ONE Foundation, taken senior roles in fundraising and communications in Oxfam and Barnardos, and held multiple board directorships. She is also currently Social Entrepreneur in Residence with CONNECT, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Future Networks and Communications, at Trinity College Dublin.
Academically, she was too young to matriculate, so she attended First Arts, studying Philosophy, German and European Studies and sat the exams - but wasn’t entitled to get credits.
Then she went on to do a BComm because it offered such a broad range of subjects - ending up specialising in marketing and management, with minors in German and Law.
She almost escaped being a student under her dad Michael’s ten-year reign as President of the university from January 1989, as she had six months left to complete.
“I was very glad that I got out after six months of him being president because who wants to be a student when your dad’s the boss?” she laughs.
At home though, there were always “very robust dinner table debates” throughout her teenage years on diverse issues and she credits her parents’ keen sense of social justice with sparking her own.
“I was trying to create the world I wanted to live in both at UCC and when I left; I was very ambitious and I knew I wanted to do something important in the world,” adds Deirdre.