After discovering an interest in – and skill for – organising people and events during her time at UCD, Fiona Kelly turned this sideline into her career. Today, she runs her own events business, Zoom In, and Ireland’s only annual conference for administrative professionals, the Executive PA Forum.
About Fiona Kelly
Tell us about your education and early career
I spent four years at UCD doing the BBLS – or business and law as it is now. During that time I joined a number of clubs and societies and got the opportunity to develop skills I didn’t realise I had. I helped organise the society balls and was heavily involved in UCD Badminton. The year we hosted the intervarsities I was club captain. We won and went on to represent UCD and the country at the first ever European Universities Badminton Championships in Poland. So, I suppose I was always organising people, bringing teams together and arranging events, tournaments and social occasions.
When I graduated in 2004, I didn’t want to continue studying law or go down the accountancy or finance route. Instead, I looked around for events roles, but there wasn’t much in that area at the time. So I took a job at Sigmar Recruitment where I was involved in recruiting accountants and learned so much about the operational side of businesses. I loved working with the great team they have there but didn’t really enjoy the role itself!
I then went to Sydney for about 18 months and worked in a conference production company. It was a great learning experience: we were given a different topic every month – everything from strategic management accounting to blended learning and management information systems – and we’d have to immerse ourselves into the subject while we worked on that particular conference. I learnt a huge amount about business as a whole, but also the importance of doing thorough market research, discovering what was topical in that field, building relationships with expert speakers to commit to presenting at the conference, putting together schedules, and writing up the session outlines and content in order to sell the conferences.
Can you tell us about setting up your company and what it does?
I came home from Sydney at the height of the recession and I tried to get a role working in a similar conference production company but there just wasn’t anything available. At that stage, I was 28 and had always wanted to set up my own business, so I thought, why not do it now. Once I made the decision and set up the company, which is called Zoom In, I started getting contracts here and there. For example, I worked on a couple of conferences for the Sunday Business Post and fundraising events for the charity Self Help Africa, as well as for some smaller clients.
Unfortunately, the market was saturated in terms of the kind of events I had experienced working on in Sydney. However, there was a major gap in the market for a dedicated conference for executive assistants and personal assistants and that’s how I decided to produce the Executive PA Forum, which we ran for the first time in 2010.
That’s now become my biggest event of the whole year. It runs over two days, with the first day being a conference with about 200 people and a number of different speakers talking about various aspects of the personal and executive assistant roles. This year, our speakers will include the PA to the managing partner in KPMG; Maureen Quinn from the president’s office in UCD; and Alison Canavan, who’s a health and wellness coach and former international supermodel. That day is really good for learning, networking and developing the PA community in Ireland. On the second day, we have more intensive workshop sessions on, for example, negotiating and influencing skills, personal branding and developing your resilience as an EA.
It’s the only event for the profession in Ireland and I’m really proud of the fact that I set it up and have continued to work on it and to build up this community of like-minded individuals that wasn’t there before.
I do still work with other clients and also run other PA events throughout the year in conjunction with the Association of Professional Administrators in Ireland (APAI), which we set up in 2014 following on from discussions at the Executive PA Forum. And, one unexpected bonus for my business is the fact that a lot of the PAs and EAs are also event bookers. That helps my events business in that I can support them with the events they have to run. So there’s a bit of an overlap that has been purely coincidental.
What does your day-to-day role involve?
Literally no two days are the same. My day can involve dealing with sponsors and trying to negotiate packages and getting win-win deals in place. I could be in touch with suppliers or working on our website and looking at different ways we can spread the word about our events. I would spend a bit of time interacting with my social media manager on what’s topical and what we should be putting out. And some days I’m working with my other clients – helping them with their marketing communications and promoting events. Apart from conferences, I also do Christmas parties, family fun days and fundraising events.
What motivates you?
I don’t think I’ve always been motivated by one particular thing, but looking back on my career, I think it’s probably been projects and events that really make an impact on people’s lives. I’m not being cheesy or dramatic by saying that but it’s so powerful when you’re in a room with a speaker who’s delivering an amazing presentation. There are days when I’m at an event and I get goose bumps because I know the room is really engaged, seeing things from a fresh perspective, learning more about themselves and getting something useful from their attendance.
Every year at Executive PA Forum I can see how much this means to the people in the room who have made the effort to be there. Quite often their role involves supporting someone else and their vision, but this is the one time of the year that the focus gets to be on them. They really deserve so much recognition for their role, and many executives would not be half as effective as leaders if it weren’t for the efficiency and skill of their assistant. That’s really what motivates me.
Also, I’m very motivated by doing a really good job.
What is your leadership style?
I would say I’m very much a democratic leader. I’m aware that at the end of the day I have to make a decision on something when it’s for my own business, but I do like to get people’s input before that. In other areas – say with my social media manager, I trust him to do the job he’s meant to do. My sister Aisling, who is also a business graduate, is the first port of call when I need to make some of the bigger business decisions.
I’m very aware that I don’t know everything, so I’ll always put it out there if I’m not quite sure what the right answer is. When I’m thinking of doing or implementing something new I’d certainly consult with people I trust. I like teamwork and different opinions and taking people’s ideas on board.
But if I know it’s something that won’t have a major impact on the business and it’s just down to me, I’ll make a decision quickly and get on with it.
Who or what has inspired or influence you?
I’ve always just done my own thing so, other than my parents and my family, there isn’t really anyone who has directly influenced me.
What’s your biggest achievement?
The Executive PA Forum has definitely been my biggest achievement so far because the community has grown so much and the APAI was born as a result of it. We’ve had some great highlights, including Nelson Mandela’s former PA speaking at the event in 2016 – it was amazing to hear her insights and about some of the lessons he taught her.
I also worked with Self Help Africa for three years and another career highlight was when I got to visit the projects and see the work they did.
What about failures?
I’ve learnt lessons over the years. Like, if something sounds dodgy or too good to be true, it probably is! I’ve taken on projects where a lot more was promised than I ended up getting from it. But I don’t see them as failures. They’re just lessons learnt and I firmly believe you can take positive learning from every experience you have.
What is your advice for success?
A lot of time when we think of success and reward, we tend to think financially. For me, success is not just about financial reward. You’re always going to learn and grow as a result of any experience you get. Some of my favourite projects earned me little or no money but I was really passionate about the cause or the objective. I felt much more rewarded personally than financially in those cases. I think everybody has to understand and be aware of their own barometer of success – certainly not what anyone else’s definition is. I define success as feeling rewarded emotionally and personally, as well as financially. If I’m working on something that ticks all those boxes, then that’s success for me.
Also, listen to your gut instinct, only work on projects and with partners that align with your values, don’t sweat the small stuff, get as much advice as you can and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
What are your plans for the future?
We’re about to launch a training manual that will involve delivering PA and EA training from the workshop facilitators we have had at the Executive PA Forum directly to organisations. A lot of companies can’t afford to have their assistants out of the office for more than a few hours, never mind two days. If we can bring our trainers in-house it makes sense, particularly for larger companies with 20 or 30 PAs.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I play tennis and love doing Zumba and getting out in the fresh air to hike when the summer hits. I really enjoy creative writing and have written a couple of plays. And I love acting on stage or screen when I get a chance. I like switching off and going into something completely different to the business in my spare time.
How has your degree benefited your career and personal life?
Firstly, I met two of my best friends for life while I was there. It also gave me the opportunity to get involved in clubs and societies, where I learned that I really enjoyed organising and producing events. It was instrumental in me choosing event management AND production as a career. I also volunteered with UCDVO where I travelled to India volunteering for a summer.
Everything I got involved in at UCD taught me that you can do anything you put your mind to.
What are your fondest memories from your time in UCD Quinn School?
There are many, but I would say representing UCD and Ireland at the first European Badminton Intervarsity Championships in Poland in 2004. I was UCD Badminton club captain that year. We had hosted and won the Irish Intervarsities (also great memories organising that!) and therefore got the chance to represent Ireland in Poland. I came home with a bronze medal for ladies doubles.
I was class rep for my BBLS class for a year, which was a lot of fun and allowed me to get involved in the student's union activities. In my final year at UCD, I was contracted as a residential assistant – it was my first year living on campus and I really enjoyed it.
How important is your UCD alumni network to you?
Very important - anyone in business knows how crucial a network of supportive people is when you need advice, and it is great when you know you can help each other out.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you
I'm a pretty decent ventriloquist. Some of my siblings, and probably my parents, don't even know this!
What piece of technology can you not live without?
What are your pet hates?
Rudeness and people who can only see the world from their point of view. Actually worse than that are people who then try to force their narrow views on others!
Who are your favourite writers and what’s your favourite book?
John MacKenna, Sharon Horgan, David Mamet and Paul Howard – I love the Ross O'Carroll Kelly series of books.
And what is your favourite band?
The Prodigy (this could also go under 'something people don't know about you'!).
What films or plays have seen recently that you loved?
Kodachrome – a moving story and beautifully shot film. A Mother Brings Her Son to Be Shot – a documentary set in Derry that showed The Troubles have not gone away completely. Glengarry Glen Ross, starring Christian Slater – a fantastic production that gripped me from the beginning.
What is your favourite dish to cook?
I love to do a great BBQ and it helps if the good weather comes with it.
What teams do you support?
Ireland playing anything!
What is your favourite place in the world to visit and why?
I love New York City and I would love to live there one day. A large part of my mum's side of the family live there so when I go I am treated to all sides of life in the city: the bright lights, the culture, the bay, the beach, the parks. It has it all and is relatively easy to get around. For me, you can find equal measures of positive energy and chilled out vibes that I have not felt anywhere else in the world.
Name three things on your bucket list
1. Visit the Galapagos Islands
2. Produce a feature film
3. Live in New York City
What charities or causes are closest to your heart?
Self Help Africa – a development charity I worked with for a number of years. The organisation trains up African farmers who train other local farmers so that the work has a domino effect. They work particularly hard to empower African women, and the focus is on sustainability – giving a hand up rather than a hand out.
Also, there is not a person I know who has not in some way been affected by cancer. I hope a cure is found within my lifetime.
The 2018 Executive PA Forum takes place on 17 and 18 May at the Radisson Blu Royal Dublin Hotel, Golden Lane.