Orna Stokes of Ulster Bank, explains how a dentist’s waiting room led her to track the progress of an innovative entrepreneur.
In 2012, in the dentist’s waiting room, a magazine article caught my eye – as an advocate of women-in-business for many years, my radar was activated by the story of an innovative woman entrepreneur, who re-invented herself when the downturn took its toll.
And I was personally intrigued by the idea of sleeves that could transform sleeveless dresses and tops into outfits I could feel comfortable wearing, day or night.
Four years since buying my first Canopi Sleeves, I am delighted that Ulster Bank can count Canopi among our customers, and I am proud that we are able to support Sandra Walsh’s ambitions for Canopi. I take a proprietorial interest when I walk into a boutique or department store and see the distinctive Canopi boxes in pride of place, so it was great to hear Sandra had been chosen to take part in this season’s Dragon’s Den.
As Sandra prepares for her debut on Dragon’s Den, I was delighted to interview her for the Business Hub.
Sandra, what inspired you to set up Canopi?
As the proprietor of a fine fashion boutique, Sandz, in Ranelagh for 15 years, I was often struck by the number of times women turned away from gorgeous dresses because they were sleeveless.
The vagaries of Irish weather; women’s discomfort about “bingo wings” and the preference of many women for covered arms, highlighted the need for “arm wear” that could transform sleeveless dresses into outfits that could take them from summer to winter, and from “desk to dinner” with confidence.
When the recession took its toll, I was forced to close Sandz in 2012, I was left with a clear idea – I wanted to develop “arms” to transform sleeveless dresses and tops into full-sleeved outfits.
While some solutions for arm cover had been launched in the past, the designs were not always successful, so after some research and testing Canopi was born – a simple, seamless garment that can be worn under any sleeveless top or dress to arm a lady with confidence.
How did you feel about the loss of your earlier business?
Sandz was my “child” for 15 years, so I was very disappointed to have to close in 2012. However, I welcomed this new challenge of building an innovative concept, and embraced the very different roles involved in building the Canopi brand. As a singer, one of my favourite hymns is ‘Be Not Afraid’, which has become my mantra for Canopi.
Tell us about the growth of Canopi?
Initially, I tested Canopi in the Irish Market, in 2012, and set up a website to market my products www.canopisleeves.com. It quickly became clear that there was a demand for high-quality sleeves, and the product was taken on by a range of high quality Irish retailers including Brown Thomas, Arnotts, Pamela Scott and Serena.
Since then Canopi has gone from strength to strength, and Canopi is now in Harvey Nichols, Harrods, and Fenwick, in Bond Street, London. I’m very proud that Canopi’s Luxuria, bespoke embellished sleeves have been chosen as part of the uniform for the Irish Chamber Orchestra.
Did your early influences help?
I got my love of fashion and my confidence in retailing, from my upbringing in Tipperary town, where in our family business, The Fur Shop, I sold my first fur coat to the great Richard Burton, Liz Taylor’s husband, when I was 13.
As a qualified Theatre Nurse, I had worked in the Plastics & Burns theatres in St James’ Hospital, which made me aware of the importance of Sun Screens (Canopi Sleeves have a UPF factor of 50).
Entrepreneurs tell us their support network is very important, who supports you in your journey?
Local Enterprise Office Enterprise, Dublin City Council gave me my first funding with Online Voucher for the development of my new website in 2015. Enterprise Ireland have just taken my on as an Enterprise Ireland client. The Women’s Network Ireland, Grainne O’Rourke Fashion House, Lucas Promotions, have been very important to the growth of Canopi. My PR company MPR Stack and IPC Digital Media have produced Canopi videos and marketing content.
I can’t underestimate the importance of my personal support network – my husband Barry Walsh, children Vicki and Alex and my mother Pauline Corcoran, siblings and friends have been incredible supporters throughout Canopi’s journey.
And Ulster Bank has been very supportive with their banking services and customer care. I feel looked after and that my business is valued by the team there.
You are appearing in this season’s Dragon’s Den, on Sunday 8th May (RTE One 9:30PM). Which Dragon are you most keen to partner with?
My target Dragon is Gavin Duffy. I feel Gavin inspires confidence in the business world. I get the sense he understands women; he has a track record of investing in women’s products for example henparty.ie and tanorganic.ie. I feel he will understand where I come from and would compliment my personality, respect my tenacity, and I hope he will recognise what a fantastic product Canopi is.
Orna Stokes is Senior Manager in Ulster Bank’s Customer Experience & Products Team. Orna.stokes@UlsterBank.com or on 087 6222182.