Cliona Swan is married to Gianpiero “Piero” De Vallier and together they created, built up and run Pizza Da Piero, a successful business which creates and sells Ireland’s favourite pizza bases! It’s not often I open up a post in this series on the women of the food industry by referring to a woman’s marital status, but I hope that for this one time you will forgive me.

But more about Cliona Swan, this is her story, her adventures. What strikes me most reading this interview, is how many women have had very indirect paths to the careers and industry, I find them in when I interview them. I find it fascinating and it’s a great reminder that it’s never too late to veer paths and conquer new territories. Cliona went from psychology and teaching to running a busy, evolving and thriving business in some of the most difficult times the food industry has ever seen. Some woman for one woman!

So if you’re reading this wondering should you bother to learn that new skill, or apply for that new job, the one you’re mad passionate for but are not fully skilled for, then what I say to you is, just do it. Get that interview, lay it on the line. Bring your passion and your eagerness to learn. Stop waiting for it to land in your lap and take that leap.

I’m talking to women in the food industry. How did your career path bring you here?

I’ve been in teaching roles since my early twenties so running a business wasn’t something I had ever planned.

Our business was not an instant success. It grew organically and my role in that was to keep hold of a long-term vision while growing the brand and supporting Piero in building capacity with the production of our artisan pizza bases. From the beginning we worked as a team and in some areas where he might have initially been lacking in confidence, I would fill in, in whatever way I could.

Within 3 years of starting our business, I graduated with a Psychology B.Sc. at the Open University and a Postgraduate Diploma in teaching children with Special Educational Needs at UCD. A week later, our first daughter Julie arrived, followed closely over the next three years by her sisters Maria and Roisin. I continued teaching with maternity leave gaps but, on returning after my third maternity leave, I realised something had to give.

The girls and our business had to take priority at that point. I took a career break and found my role in the business becoming increasingly busy with social media now playing a stronger role in brand awareness as well as customer communications. I had to manage my time carefully, between family commitments and the demands of running and growing a business, with a business partner/husband who would work day and night to maintain the integrity of his product.

What I learned in secondary teaching in terms of communication, creativity, organisation and patience are without a doubt the most valuable skills to me in my career now. Coupling with a can-do attitude that I would have brought to my classroom, particularly when my students may have been struggling, I always try to be solution-focused and practically minded.

How does your career fulfil you? 

Every day is different and I love the variety that that gives my career now. The multiple facets of managing a business keep me on my toes but I consider myself a lifelong learner. I was able to take what I learned from doing a Plato course for Food business owners, provided by our Local Enterprise Office, and create training programmes for our staff. It’s a great feeling to be able to help others upskill.  I am lucky that much of what I need to do can be done from home, which is of course more important now since the schools have had to close.

What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Cliona Swan?

I’m looking forward to building the business and growing the brand so that we can start exporting to the UK and mainland Europe. We have been focused on Ireland only, so far, because we have had strong growth here. Working towards export is a challenge I’m excited to take on, working with the support of agencies like Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia.

Tell us of one woman in the food industry who consistently inspire you and why? 

I remember reading about Myrtle Allen after she passed away as Ballymaloe is very close to where my grandmother originally came from. My grandmother managed to raise seven children while working as the local Primary School teacher in the 1920s to 40s. She got a special dispensation from the rule to retire and continued there until she passed away. Similarly, Myrtle Allen was ahead of her time in that way. Managing to raise a family while building and running a successful business in 60’s and 70’s Ireland when women were expected to stay at home.

I was also very inspired by my own mum who was fascinated and excited by Italian food and culture well before Italy was a brand in itself.  She had lived in Italy as an au pair in the early 60s and brought home her love of Italian cooking along with the language. We were raised with home-made risotto and lasagne as a staple family meal. Growing up, anyone who set foot inside our house was given a job to do, whether it was stirring the pot or peeling the veg. Mum taught us to cook from scratch so that from the age of 13, I was cooking dinner and baking breads for our family of seven.

My mum’s obsession with all things Italian must have rubbed off on me, connecting me to Italy even before I met Piero. Naturally she was more than excited when I brought home a young Italian baker on our first visit home from London and with her fluent Italian, he instantly felt at home here.

What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry? 

More pages like this, Katia! Because my path has not been directly leading towards my present career, it has been a challenging (and enjoyable) exercise for me to take that step back and look at it in an objective way for this interview. I think it is more common for women to feel that imposter syndrome, though maybe we are just more honest and open about it.

The Women in Business Awards at LEOs has given great recognition to women in business in recent years but I feel we do need more of this.

What was the proudest moment of your career so far? 

While 2020 and 2021 have undoubtedly been tough in so many ways, it has been a time when our products and our business have been given a great deal of recognition. Our pizza bases were awarded a much sought-after Gold at Blas na hEireann Irish Food Awards in Dingle and a third star at the Great Taste Awards in the UK, officially making us Great Taste Producers.

Then in February of this year we were crowned overall winners of the Enterprise Awards in the Dublin region. This was the culmination of years of hard work by myself, Piero and our wonderful team and I am immensely proud of how far we have come from producing in a 25m² space in Spade Enterprise Centre in Dublin city centre back in 2007.

What advice would you give your younger self? 

Take up Business Studies! I think when I was young, I imagined the business world as predominantly male, in suits and working 9-5 in an office. How wrong I was.

There are so many opportunities and governmental supports out there now if you have a good concept or product. I think we need to work harder to empower girls from a younger age by showing them that running your own business is not only possible, but exciting, if challenging.

A very valuable programme now taught in Transition Year in many schools is where students create and run their own mini company. This is a great way for young people to explore their own business ideas and put into practise all the theory they learn in the classroom.

What are the top skills required to do your job and why?

While communication and good organisation are key skills, resilience and positivity in the face of adversity have to be the main qualities that have carried us through the past almost 14 years of business.

We are very lucky to have begun at a time when the Irish Food Industry was starting to really take off with food festivals, food markets and cookery tv programmes showcasing great Irish chefs, all of which encouraged home cooking, making our pizza bases more desirable.

However, it was not a common concept in those early years to buy a base and bring it home to top with your own additional ingredients. Some people really didn’t understand why you would bother buying a blank base when you could buy a topped pizza in the freezer two aisles over.

It took tenacity to keep pushing the concept and the quality of the product so that the wider pizza-loving public began to see that the value was in the quality of the pizza base, and this would then give them a superior (and fun) experience. It was essential for us to develop our brand in our early years and figure out how to get that message across.

Are you a savoury or sweet kind of person? Please tell us about a real treat. 

I love all good food whether sweet or savoury. But my guilty food pleasure is, without a doubt blue cheese, especially Cashel Blue especially because it balances with so many things – on its own, with fruit, crisp white wine, crackers or cooked on pizza!  

My favourite Friday night pizza is with a little pesto spread on the base, blue cheese scattered over that, coupled with caramelised pear slices and walnuts. This is my go-to Friday night pizza and luckily for me, I don’t have to share it with too many others in the house!

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