After an illness left her with a disability, Cora Kearney went on to set up a business that would change her own, and others’ lives.
TW* This piece contains a mention of suicide
My entrepreneurial mindset is as much a part of me as having blue eyes, it’s something I was born with. It can also be exhausting until you figure it out. Until you finally realise what it is that you were born to do.
I have had plenty of ideas over the years, ideas that I am glad I didn’t pursue, but it was all setting me up for my current path. The ideas you don’t pursue are every bit as important as the ones you do.[restrict]
I was always trying to think of the one big idea that would make me rich. Until life became about survival. Now, life is about making it as good as it can be, not just for myself but for everyone. I realised that my life isn’t about me, it’s about having a purpose.
In 2007 I thought my life was over when I got sick with fluid on my brain. I lost my speech, my short term memory was shot, I wasn’t able to eat solid foods without choking, as the left side of my face didn’t have feeling. I wasn’t able to concentrate on anything because I had 24/7 headaches and when I wasn’t crying in pain I was sleeping. I didn’t know who I was anymore, I struggled to communicate, I couldn’t go back to any job I had ever had before and had no idea what to do with my life.
My illness didn’t affect my intellect, I was still me, but it had a serious effect on how I process information. I struggled with language, listening to people speaking was sometimes like trying to translate a foreign language that I didn’t speak. I would get hung up on trying to understand a particular word in a sentence and miss the rest of it. I had sensory issues that I had never had before, which were extremely distracting; too much light, too much sound, or too much activity going on around me could send me running from a room to go off and scream somewhere. It was really difficult for me to understand what was going on. Mood swings and tantrums became the norm. If I was trying to concentrate on doing something and someone asked me a question I would completely lose it because it took me so much effort to hold onto my train of thought.
At the time I was going through this, I was 35 years old and back living at my mother’s house. It is one of those chaotic houses that always has something going on.
Fast forward three years and lots of self-constructed therapy, such as knitting, crochet, gardening, furniture upcycling, decoupage, badminton, table tennis, pitch and putt and rollerskating, and things were a little better. I was a bit more in control of my body and my mind.
At the time, we were struggling to get one of my foster sisters through school. On the third day of a business admin course, she came home and declared that she was done. She couldn’t and didn’t want to ever go back. I took her to college the following day and spoke to the principal. I had done a similar course when I had finished school in 1990 and asked to take a place on the course long enough to get her interested and managing on her own. I wasn’t able to work. And while I found I had a lot of issues with concentration on the course, typing was a nightmare because my brain didn’t know how to communicate with my right or left hand separately, it was something constructive I could do. I hoped with practice my brain would relearn which hand was which.
On completion of this course, I still wasn’t able to work but decided college was a possibility. Four years and an honours degree from the Waterford Institute of Technology later, I still had no idea what I would be able to work at or who would employ me. I sent out CV’s and made job searching my job. I got no replies. I guessed the gap in my CV was not something employers were prepared to overlook.
I denied my disability for a long time. But eventually had to accept that this was going to be my life. I didn’t know how to live like this and considered not living. One night after a particularly bad week, I realised that I couldn’t live like this anymore. I had so much medication readily available I had to fight to live. I spent hours trying to find something positive to live for and eventually, I found it; that the day was over and tomorrow was another chance for things to be better. That was my turning point, I got into the habit of finding positive things no matter how small to remind myself that things were and could get better.
When I felt more ready for work I went to the Employability Services and met my jobs coach and now friend Jo Cregan. Jo found me a job with a tech startup and it was life-changing, not just because of the job. But because I was working in a co-work space, Boxworks, surrounded by entrepreneurs, ideas and possibilities.
As part of my job, I had organised an event for World Speech Day 2019 and although I had finished working with the company, I was organising an independent event for World Speech Day 2020. The theme was Sustainable Development Goals, but Covid had other plans and the event had to be cancelled.
My speech was going to be about barriers to employment for people with disabilities. Every business idea I had until I started researching employment rates for those with a disability, had a monetary goal. While I was researching for my speech I considered, what if I could do something about it, perhaps change how employers see us and help them to connect with us on a human level. I no longer had a monetary goal; my goal was now to change the world.
So I took to Google, used hundreds of YouTube tutorials and built positiveability.net, a jobs and social network for people from marginalised groups. I took part in the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Ideas Academy in 2020 and it was fantastic to be surrounded by my tribe, people that were like me and understood me.
In September 2020 I started working as a customer service representative with Kollect, a fantastic company to work with but a customer service role that involves multitasking was more than I could handle. My brain still shuts down when I demand too much from it at once and the stress of it doesn’t make processing tasks any easier.
Thankfully Kollect has a very forward-thinking progressive CEO who sees me for my positive abilities and suggested a solution that would take me away from customer service. He offered me an opportunity to blog about their junk removal services, and upcycling potential, to reduce the amount of good furniture going to landfills and spoke about the possibility of a marketing role. This was fantastic, after all my degree is in marketing and it was absolutely something I could handle, but when you take an idea to someone with an entrepreneurial mindset it should not come as a surprise that they will take that idea and run with it.
And run I did.
We discussed the possibility of redistributing the furniture collected. Most of the furniture upcyclers on my network would fit the criteria of people from marginalised groups, so I suggested using the Positive Ability Network to redistribute the furniture collected.
But what if we could take it further again? Redistributing furniture for free is certainly a greener way to reduce the carbon footprint, and it’s a place to start, but why stop there?
The whole point of The Positive Ability Network is to get more people from marginalised groups employed. At the moment I am looking for storage space for furniture, a small retail space where we can provide training and skills in retail, customer service, and digital marketing where upcycled furniture can be sold and a workshop space where we can provide training and skills in upcycling and decoupage skills.
We want to build a new future where we can look at a person’s positive abilities, develop their confidence, competence and independence.
It’s no less than we all deserve and what I was born to do.