Claire Ferris from Work West Enterprise Agency will be the first woman from a Northern Ireland business to be given the Queen’s Award for Enterprise Promotion.
Ms Ferris was informed on Saturday that she will receive the award at a ceremony in London followed by a reception in Buckingham Palace in the autumn.
“I am absolutely delighted to be the first woman from the North to get this award and feel that it’s a testament to the hard work of our team in West Belfast and all that we’ve achieved over the years,” she said.
The Queen’s Awards for Enterprise Promotion recognise individuals who make outstanding contributions to enterprise culture in the UK. The Awards are the UK’s highest accolade for business success and are awarded to only 10 people per year.
They are made each year by The Queen, on the advice of the Prime Minister, who is assisted by an Advisory Committee that includes representatives of Government, industry and commerce, and the trade unions. Winners are announced each year on 21 April, the Queen’s birthday.
Work West operates in an area of high socio-economic deprivation with little foreign inward investment. “We hope that will change in the coming years; West Belfast is a fabulous place to do business and the message is getting out there,” she adds.
In recent years Work West has developed as one of the market leaders in the field of social enterprise support and one of the high points of her career was the opening of the Social Economy Village in 2009.
“I’ve seen the difference that social enterprise can make to a community and it’s something that everyone in Northern Ireland needs to sit up and take notice of,” she said.
“Social Enterprise offers a real opportunity for community and voluntary organisations to future proof their ventures and whilst it is not suitable for everyone, it provides a great opportunity for many. We need to provide more support at the pre enterprise stage of development to complement current support at the start up phase to increase the birth rate.
“The creation of meaningful employment is also heavily reliant on our ability to grow our private sector. Interventions such as the Strategy in Business Programme which Work West has just been awarded by Belfast City Council will greatly assist in achieving this goal,” she said.
Ms Ferris has promoted enterprise professionally, through various agencies, for the past 17 years though her business experience goes back further. While completing her Masters Degree in European Business she helped her family set up their Portrush catering business.
“When my dad was in his 40s he decided he wanted to work for himself. I was still a student then and I was able to help him go through the whole start up process and the first years of running his business. But I was determined to forge my own career and wanted to use my skills in a broader way to help other people trying to start businesses.
She worked for Tyrone Economic Development Initiative and Ballymoney Enterprise Company before moving to Work West in 1999.
“Small business is such an important part of our economy here in the North yet we don’t have a well developed entrepreneurial culture. This is something I feel passionately about – we must invest to create a culture where enterprise can flourish. To do this we need to create the right environment with access to resources and to develop the capabilities of our people,” she added.
The mum-of-two young children hails originally from Portstewart but now lives in Belfast where she dedicates not just her working hours but also her spare time to helping potential entrepreneurs and sitting on various boards including the West Belfast Partnership Board, the Neighbourhood Partnership Boards and Footprints Trading Ltd(the social economy business run by Footprints Women’s Centre).
“People often come to us when they need immediate help and we’re here for them. I had a client recently who desperately needed a five year business plan in order to seek private finance for their business. They didn’t have the money to pay to get this done privately so we did this for them outside working hours. It meant we spent a couple of nights til midnight putting it together but it’s essential that we go above and beyond the norm because it’s part of our social objective; it’s what we do,” she said.