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Home / Think / Cover Interview: Maria Walsh

Cover Interview: Maria Walsh

Founder of events agency Juniper & Ruby and former Rose of Tralee, Maria Walsh has also been working hard as Workbench Bank of Ireland as Manager and Events Coordinator here in Limerick. We were delighted to catch her in the branch on O’Connell Street to find out more…

Maria Walsh was crowned Rose of Tralee back in 2014, representing her long-time home of Philadelphia. Maria is Boston born with family roots in Shrule, County Mayo. She and her family lived in Mayo from 1994 until she left college, when she emigrated for the bright lights of New York. So, the first question we had to ask was how did she find her way to Limerick? “After my Rose year I had made a conscious decision to move back to Ireland. I was on the lookout for a role that suited my personality, my experience in media and business back in Philadelphia and what I had learned during the Rose of Tralee. This seemed like something I could really get my teeth into – Workbench is a completely new initiative by the bank meaning I could really make my own mark on the role in question. The manager who I interviewed with was so energetic about what we can do make a difference from a community perspective, and the role seemed so far from just selling bank packages to businesses – it provided the opportunity to tap into events and things that benefit the city as a whole. Plus I really felt a connection with Limerick – it couldn’t be more similar to Philadelphia in that it has that sense of underdog spirit, which I loved there. So it all just fell into place!”

In terms of making her mark, Maria has hit the ground running, bringing real energy and interest to the colourful Workbench space, which what was once just a blue and grey bank branch. She has recently been responsible for collaborations with LSAD students, displaying their ‘Junk Couture’ in the windows on Bedford Row, as well as events for St Patrick’s Day and mobilising local sport clubs. “I want to create informative innovative event that showcase community success, bring a mix of people together, have that all important female representation, and offer something for all ages.”

So why does the role suit Maria so well? Her entrepreneurial spirit is clear to see, but she didn’t officially set out on her own until after 2014. After moving to Ireland she also set up her event company, Juniper & Ruby. Business was always in her blood however, with her hardworking parents providing the inspiration.

“My father owned an auction business in Shrule, so I started working when I was about 12 years old. I just loved to work, and loved networking even from that age – it offered an abundance of conversations. I studied journalism as my undergrad, during which time I would a runner on shows.

After college I began working for an ad firm, and then fell into photography which evolved into developing brand presence for major fashion brand such as Gucci and Chanel in NY. However, much to my own (and my friends’!) dismay I found that me and New York wasn’t the love story I had hoped for, it just wasn’t for me. So I left and went to a small startup fashion label in Philadelphia, where I was able to branch out into other responsibilities, assisted store launches, did website and brand and logo design, and eventually moved to a larger department where I managed a team of five. Now I am running the business as well as Workbench and media work – so I’m pretty much working 7 days a week!”

Global community action
In between all of that, Maria also dedicates her time to both national and global community organisations. She is ambassador with Plan International, has worked with the HOPE Foundation. Speaking of her experiences with Plan, Maria tells us about her time in Ghana. “I’m really keen on global citizenship and being active in the community. My father would be the type of person who would tell you don’t just sit on the couch giving out about something – go out and change it.
We can all do that in our own space. I learned so much in Ghana – I went with them to look at their microfinancing program for female entrepreneurs, and they taught me more in weeks than I had ever learned over my years in work.

“There was amazing entrepreneurial spirit amongst these women, they would actually introduce themselves as female entrepreneurs, and I don’t know many business people who find it easy to own that term when you first meet them! They were setting up business to sell fruit, coffee and clothes. One group would meet outside a school every Friday to network and help each other; it logistically made sense as they all dropped off their kids there. At the same time those kids inside could see their mothers or relations doing that, they got to see that ethos and it passes down the idea to the next generation. There is something serendipitous about it, every action and conversation they were having was helping them move forward but also planting seeds for the future. I think that is something that applies everywhere, every conversation we have; every idea that is planted is going to create change. It’s about understanding the issues at hand at a political and social level and giving something back in your own environment. That links back to what I’m trying to do here, to work with the community, to help others change what’s within reach, and the bigger stuff will follow.”

Planting seeds
Turning the conversation back to Limerick, Maria is keen to ask questions about the city. “I am new here: I don’t know the city like you do so it’s my responsibility to ask the obvious questions and to give something back to a place that has welcomed me in. I ask ‘what do people think Limerick needs more of?’
‘What can I do to make things happen?’” The long term vision should be at the heart of every action, she emphasises. “We live in a time where we’re all following feeds of tweets that are in front of us for 8 seconds, so we have to grab attention in the moment but often the changes you are working towards won’t be seen in your lifetime.

The seed planters are vital, every idea and conversation we have is another step forward, another thing being created, another person inspired, so we need to realise the value of that too.”

True to her word, Maria asks what I think about Limerick, and we talk about how Limerick has come together, particularly in the arts community, being more collaborative and believing in the city’s own potential. She agrees “it’s about finding that balance between trends and soundbites that yes get people talking but how to sustain that beyond words.”

In terms of creating change and global citizenship, could a move into a political role be on the cards? Maybe, she says. “As I’ve said I’ve always had interest in active citizenship and there is no more active citizenship than politics. I’m not saying it’s an immediate goal but it’s something I’ve been an interested observer of, and hopefully when you are interested in something it means it’s going to be part of your life or career at some stage. During the Rose year I really felt something towards our political leaders, that sense of always having to be ‘on’ and always have an ear, it made me appreciate what they do, I just don’t know how they keep going with that for years and years.
But the purpose of always being busy, I love that. It’s definitely a long way off though – if an election is called soon, no I won’t going for it!”

Outside of Ireland, Maria also has some interesting observations about global politics. “There are these crazy changes happening, we have our 45th American President, something like we’ve never seen before. There are more elections happen across Europe, and yet there’s a real disparity between what we’re seeing in leadership in global politics and what’s happening at a community level.

There seems to be more, dare I say, a more traditionally left wing idea of community level action and how can we give back and work for the greater good – how did we get to this point of total polarity? We live in interesting times.”

Maria is often cited as one of the most successful women to come out of the Rose of Tralee. Her own definition of success is rather different, however. “I am very self-critical. Extremely so. I came away from Rose asking what more could I have done, what did it allow me to give. Success for me is about the impact you make on others, seeing people engage with what you have created or what conversation you have started. It’s not about what I amass for myself or the lovely comments received, nice though that is! I always ask how my actions have aided/shaped things around me. To go back to the example of a tweet, we say it is successful because it had X number of Retweets but how many acted on it? How do we know what it did and changed? You never see that, it just kind of happens, it’s not so measurable so it’s hard for people to define that as success. Success is also achieving that work life balance on personal level, which hard to do when we are always contactable and on, but I believe balance should be equally measured with success in career.”

The importance of making an impact is part of the reason Maria has been open to discuss her personal life as someone who is LGBT. “It’s a strange thing when your sexuality is on 10 of the 11 national news front pages! But I wanted to have conversations and if I was asked a question I would say yes let’s talk about that, knowing that people are watching and listening. If that had any influence at all on individuals’ lives then I succeeded.

I have no real way of knowing that it did, though I was asked to visit a school to talk about LGBT rights and the young man who invited me was so over the moon, and proud to introduce me; that was remarkable. If just one person gains from it then it’s worth doing.”

Article by: Kayleigh Ziolo
Photography by: Eoghan Lyons

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