On Tuesday 8 March all around the world people celebrated International Women’s Day. We loved gathering with a group of inspiring women last night to celebrate our home-grown talent and inspiring women. To keep the celebrations going all week, we have been profiling one local enterprising woman every day. Today is the turn of Kate Burns, the founder and CEO of Islander Kelp.

What prompted you to start your own business?

I come from an island of 150 people and my son is the last commercial fisherman working there, descended from many generations of fishermen before him, so I come from a maritime family. I sail, row and am a founder member of the Causeway coast maritime heritage group. 

 I am passionate about the sea and the potential it offers. I believe marine innovation must be relevant to small coastal communities as well as big offshore energy firms etc. I wanted to create a new business on the island of Rathlin which was environmentally sustainable and provided a rewarding career opportunity for employees.

The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘Break the Bias’ – can you share any experiences you have had of gender bias or prejudice?

 The biggest challenge on this journey has been the lack of response from civil servants and agency staff in the marine and fisheries sector.

Our business has been a huge trail blazer. I have been asked to speak at conferences from Alaska to Germany, yet no one in Northern Ireland seems interested, particularly given the potential for kelp to reduce methane as an additive to animal feeds, and to reduce the need for antibiotics. 

I have tried to talk with the animal feed industry and other leaders in the farming industry and have been literally brushed aside. I am not a shrinking violet, few women entrepreneurs are, but I have faced an uphill battle now for 7 years to get support and interest, it’s hard to be honest.

On the other hand, the business employs 2 men and 4 women.  Women do boat handling, harvesting, we have trained them up in what are traditionally male skills. They did sea survival training at Greencastle fishery college in Donegal, and I think the other fishermen training with them were just scared of them!

In your experience what are the main challenges faced by women in the business world?

 One of the hardest things is balancing this with family. There is no solution to this, but I did not let my business take priority…I think!

Keeping your energy up is another challenge.  I am 64 now and I do struggle with energy. One of the important things isn’t to judge yourself against others. I see women older than me who are so productive, but I don’t criticise myself anymore.  I accept who I am. I think that is one of the joys of being older. 

What advice would you give to other women who were considering starting up their own business?

No. 1, it’s ok to be a bit mad. I have been called nuts so often, but you know I couldn’t have done what I did without letting the imaginative and courageous bit rule over the sensible me. 

So, words of advice? Be yourself, ignore the ‘you’re a mad woman’s comments, don’t think you should be able to do more. Be proud. Care for your staff and be sustainable in all ways possible…and if you make money even better! If you don’t, you are living life well and be proud.

Kate worked as a rural and marine resources consultant for 16 years and spent 3 years working for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute where she first came across kelp farming. In 2012 Kate came home to Ireland to see if Rathlin would make a good kelp farming location. With her professional background and personal interest in marine innovation, Kate’s ambition is twofold. Firstly, to help people access a new resource of delicious, highly nutritious food. Secondly, to use kelp production to regenerate coastal and island communities.

If you have an idea and need help to bring it to life, get in touch with us here at Enterprise Causeway