News & Events

International Women’s Day 2024 - Inspiring Inclusion: Deirdre Mortell

8 Mar 2024

As International Women’s Day 2024 comes to a close, we speak to CEO of Rethink Ireland and UCC Entrepreneur in Residence, Deirdre Mortell about how she Inspires Inclusion through her innovative endeavours.

Rethink Ireland was created by the Irish Government, and launched by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny in 2016. Deirdre was involved in the social innovation charity from the offset, putting together the market opportunity and business plan, and raising funds to get it off the ground.  

After 20 years of working on social issues both as a funder and as an activist, Deirdre was inspired to make a change in society. She could see that Ireland has both effective social innovations seeking funds, and philanthropic and Government funds that sought solutions, but that the mechanism to bring them together was missing. She felt that Ireland needed to offer social innovators the same type of supports that entrepreneurs are offered.

Now a €96 Million venture philanthropy fund, Rethink Ireland backs social innovations that tackle educational disadvantage, health/mental health, advance equality, and the green transition, and that scale social enterprises in Ireland. The charity has supported 415 innovations in every county in Ireland, touching the lives of 15% of the population. 

“I was always involved in making stuff happen - as a founding Board member of Jigsaw, Women for Election, and Uplift, as well as Co-Founder & CEO of Rethink Ireland and, before that, ONE Foundation. As a student at UCC, I was elected Rights Officer at the Student Union and was involved in founding the first LGBT Society, as well as leading the women’s rights campaign that secured the first female doctor on campus. It's simple - I am driven to turn the world into the one I want to live and work in."

Only 1 in 5 Irish start-ups have a female founder.  According to Scale Ireland's 2024 State of Start-ups Survey, 46% of respondents said that greater visibility of female founders would help increase the number of female founders. Deirdre believes that by communicating from a young age that entrepreneurship is a real career option for girls, we can increase the number of women pursuing entrepreneurial careers in generations to come.

“Entrepreneurship is about trying and failing. Failing, and learning that the world didn't end when you did, is a powerful lesson. When our young people are exposed to this, they do well - we had an Irish winner of the European Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship competition in 2017.”

Despite the statistics, there are huge opportunities for women in entrepreneurship and many women are now considering it as a viable career. According to Grant Thornton’s Women in Business 2023 report, more women now hold the most senior positions than ever before – 28% of mid-market businesses now have a woman CEO or Managing Director, up from 15% in 2019.

“It is refreshing to see so many young women viewing entrepreneurship as a real career option. Women have always started businesses, but they weren't called entrepreneurs - the local shop, hairdresser, nail salon. We now see a growing cohort of women who have started businesses that have scaled - women like Rethink Ireland Chair Áine Kerr of Storyful, Kinzen, and now Spotify.”

An emerging development in Ireland is impact investing, which seeks to make a return for investors as well as provide positive social and environmental impacts. Deirdre believes that this new investment approach will attract both women-led start-ups and women investors.

“These venture capital funds seek both financial and social returns, in equal measure, and invest in companies that can deliver that - whether greater diversity & inclusion, or reduced carbon emissions, or both, in my view we will see lots of women led startups here. Wake Up Capital led by Faye Walsh Drouillard is a great example of a female-led pioneering fund in Ireland. “

However, women founders don't get a fair share of investment. In Europe, the proportion of funding that went to women-only teams has dropped from 3% to 1% since 2018.  In 2022, female founded Irish companies raised a record €234 million, or about 16% of total investment. 

“That is an improvement, but 16% is nothing to celebrate. We have a long way to go. We need to see more women investors or playing a key role on investment teams to move this in the right direction.” 

Deirdre believes that everyone sees the world through the lens of our personal experience, unless we deliberately push beyond it, which takes time & effort. However, women's experience has not been valued in the workplace, including in the world of entrepreneurship. This is changing slowly and women are becoming valued members of leadership teams.

“Women who are carers (whether mothers or daughters) are used to negotiating, exerting authority at a chosen moment, and women are often strong on Emotional Intelligence (EQ) which is an additional weapon in our armoury. We saw the value of this during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Furthermore, the world is only now waking up to women as consumers, with purchasing power now going beyond the weekly household shop and beauty products. An increase in women in leadership roles in business helps to bring women’s issues – and products to help solve them – to the marketplace.

“We are beginning to see things like pharmaceutical solutions to tackle women's health issues such as menopause or specialist bras for women who have undergone a mastectomy - both global markets. We are also unlocking the hidden gender bias in product design and testing from physical products such as seat belts and tech services.”

Inspiring Inclusion is integral to creating a world that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive. Deirdre believes that social enterprises, businesses and start-ups alike can create this world for their employees, and in turn developing gender-balanced leadership teams.

“Design your key roles in different ways - when I created senior roles that were part time and flexible (allowing for school drop-offs), I unlocked talent I could not have dreamed of otherwise. It’s also important to move outside your networks when you hire - building your company within your comfort zone is probably not how it will succeed.”

“And finally, it is crucial to see talent in different ways - could your PA now be the operations person next year?”

To find out more about how you can Inspire Inclusion this International Women’s Day, visit

UCC Innovation

Aistriú Nualaíocht

Room 2.44, Western Gateway Building, Western Road, Cork, Ireland, T12 XF62