WOMEN OF THE IRISH FOOD – ERICA SHEEHAN, FOUNDER OF HOMESPUN
Erica Sheehan is the woman who created Homespun, a brand that started with a simply delicious quinoa-based granola.
Erica Sheehan has one of those stories, which I love to read, she went from a high powered HR role with Coca Cola to a market stall in Honest 2 Goodness to being the head of a company which distributes its (very wholesome) product internationally. Life is gas.
Erica has just launched Homespun‘s latest product which is a chicory root syrup, a naturally vegan alternative to honey which I am looking forward to trying soon. If you have let me know how you’ve used it for inspiration, please!
I’m talking to women in the food industry. How did your career path bring you here?
In a very Irish roundabout way but in hindsight I see it all makes perfect sense and early on there were the signs food would be on the horizon log run.
My parents were both foodies. My Dad was quite into self-sufficiency and he grew all our own vegetable and we used to put out fishing nets as kids to catch lobster and plaice – this was in Kerry where he lived and we spent a lot of time. Another early memory is being gloved up to gather and cut nettles for nettle soup. Nowadays nettles are de rigueur for their anti-inflammatory benefits, my Dad was ahead of his time! My Mum was a French teacher, is a lifelong Francophile, and an incredible cook. As kids, my sister Kate and I would be her sous chefs when she was preparing for dinner parties. Her chocolate mousse is legendary and I suspect we were more of a hindrance than a help when around.
Growing up and in my 20s, food was always something I loved in every guise – from browsing in food shops, reading cookbooks, experimenting in the kitchen, and tasting new things in other cities and places.
But in Ireland, going to college is everything and so I studied business and economics in Trinity and after that fell into a career in journalism and later in PR. I liked it and made great friends but my heart really wasn’t in it. I longed to set up my own business and it was only going to ever be in one area – food. So I decided to start a farmers market stall with my first concept, my Quinoa Crunch granolas. Brid Carter from Honest to Goodness farmers market loved the taste of them and gave me a stall and that was that. They sold out every week and I was bitten by the bug and it went from there. At the start, I was combining the farmers market with my day job which was hectic but when stores like Avoca started placing orders, I decided to take the plunge and make Homespun my full-time career.
How does your career fulfill you?
I’ve never regretted doing that as it totally fulfills me. Working in the food industry holds endless fascination for me. I always look forward to work – every part with maybe the exception of VAT returns! It’s not to say it isn’t stressful at times but there’s nothing I’d rather be doing. I’m in a state of flow when I’m working now and that wasn’t always the case.
What are your professional ambitions? What’s next for Erica Sheehan?
Homespun is about naturalness, innovation, taste. Creating more products that are wholesome, a little quirky and that taste great is my ambition. I’m not guided by financial metrics. Earning a good living is what I aspire to whilst nurturing a lifelong project.
In your opinion, what challenges women face in the food industry?
In my opinion, no particular challenges that are unique to the food industry but I’m happy to be corrected as it’s just my take. Female chefs for example might have a different view. But for me if anything, my experience of the industry has been really positive in this regard. I’ve had male and female mentors, support, guidance and I like to think people who like food are good people! Personally, I’ve got a good tribe around me and I’m grateful for it.
Tell us of one woman in the food industry who consistently inspire you and why?
The women I admire most were ones who achieved a lot when it wasn’t easy or necessarily fashionable. Myrtle Allen for example shone a spotlight on Irish food and ingredients and really championed local producers early on.
What do you think can be done to help raise the profile and visibility of women in the food industry?
The media has a role to play for sure but the supports need to be there in the first instance to enable women to get a start and thrive in any industry – girls everywhere need access to education, they need to be inspired and motivated just like boys, we need to make ambition and pursuing the career you want a good thing.
What was the proudest moment of your career so far?
There have been a few special milestones in the short journey so far. Certainly when Homespun launched in Selfridges Food Hall as part of the Bord Bia “Taste the Island” campaign highlighting the best of Irish food and drink was one. We have also won stars at the Great Taste awards for our Quinoa Crunches the last two years – the back and gold stamps on our packaging always make me smile inside!
What advice would you give your younger self?
Follow your instincts, do what you love and back yourself and help others as often as you can. If you love what you do, and you give back whilst you’re doing it, good things will happen. Trust the process.
What are the top skills required to do your job and why?
Communication is the most important skill. Every day I’m in contact with suppliers, customers, shoppers, collaborators, peers. There are always challenges but good communication keeps the show on the road!
What is the one ingredient you can’t do without?
Shameless plug here but nowadays it’s our Chicory Root syrup. I have a really sweet tooth and I love that it’s very low sugar. Other than that, I always have a few tins of coconut milk in the press, it brings such a luxurious fragrance and flavour to homemade curries and I make healthy “nice cream” for the kids by blending coconut milk with fresh fruit and they love it.