Stephanie O’Malley is the founder and CEO of Education DESTY, which offers a range of online training packages to support children build their self-confidence and emotional resilience. Stephanie is a qualified Educational Psychologist and has worked in educational and child psychology services for the past 15 years. She has built the online platform that is working with mentors across Ireland and the UK, supporting children’s social, emotional and mental health.

Interview by Talita Holzer

Talita: Can you tell us a little bit about your social enterprise and how you came up with the idea?

Stephanie: Yes, so DESTY is an online training and e-learning platform, and the aim is to support children and key adults in their life – those can be parents, carers and educators – to build better relationships and develop emotional resilience. It’s about children and parents, or children and educators, developing that relationship, and how this leads on to the developing of emotional resilience. This is the core of what we’re doing: building relationships to build emotional resilience. I trained to be an educational psychologist and during my training and my work, once I qualified, I found there was a huge focus on the academic achievement of children and I just found more and more in my work that the emotional needs were being neglected. I also found that a lot of the challenges related back to unmet emotional needs. So, many of the challenges both socially and academically seemed to link back to emotional needs, which was becoming a huge barrier in terms of children achieving their potential. It was about trying to develop something that was child-friendly, was interactive, that involved key adults in a child’s life, but also that helped children to process and understand feelings and build their emotional resilience.

One of the key aspects of the programme is the training and support of a child’s DESTY mentor – that’s the parent, the carer or the educator – who has signed up to work with the child at home or in school on the online DESTY Island programme.  We train and develop the mentor’s skills, and we support them throughout the journey working with the child. Once they’re trained, they can access the platform to work with the child on DESTY Island. That is where the child explores feelings, understands them and develops strategies with the supporting guidance of their mentor. Talking about feelings can be quite challenging for children and so the benefit of technology is that it can help to make the experience less threatening.  The fact that it’s online means it’s not as intense as answering direct questions about things. So, it’s a very non-directive and child-centered programme. That has been a really successful part of what we do.

Talita: So, particularly for the child, do they see DESTY as a game?

Stephanie: They probably do see it as a game in some ways, they certainly don’t associate it with school work which is really important. A lot of the work happens before the child goes on to the DESTY Island program, they have a little workbook, and they have a little DESTY puppet and a set of feeling cards to work through. So, we have offline materials that they work with first. The whole idea of that is that the child works with their mentor, talking about different topics and getting ready to go on the programme to meet our little character DESTY which stands for Discovering Exceptional Strengths and Talents in You. When they go onto DESTY Island then they’re engaging with this character and practicing their skills with this character as they’re going along but all of the work is always supported and facilitated by their DESTY Mentor. So, it is seen as a fun and engaging game, children don’t see it as work. The feedback one of the children gave us is that, because of the different ways that they can put in the information – they can draw pictures, find pictures, put in their own pictures, type text – it really helps them to express themselves without having to talk about it if they don’t want to. For some children that is a real bonus because talking can be difficult. So, until they trust the mentor, it’s an easy way for them to communicate what is going on for them, and it’s more nondirective than it would be if they were to have a direct conversation about these things.

Talita: What are the benefits for the children and for the DESTY mentors?

Stephanie: We did a pilot study in the UK with 18 schools, when we originally launched the beta version of the programme. We did a pre and post analysis on the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) and we got some feedback from the children and from the mentors as well. A lot of the children said that they liked that they now had somebody new to talk to, and they found it easier now to talk about their feelings. One child said ‘it helped me to think things through when I felt stressed’. Lots of other themes emerged such as report that children were calmer and less stressed. Some DESTY mentors reported that children might not feel comfortable talking to their teacher for example but that DESTY helped them talk about how they feel first so they then felt more confident talking to others in their lives about their feelings. It’s really a vehicle or platform for them to understand their feelings and then talk to others about that.

Stephanie O’Malley, showing the DESTY programme to a child.

We also get very detailed feedback from our mentors, and the main feedback that comes back from them is about the professional and personal impact the training has on them. As part of the training, all of them have to go through the DESTY Island programme themselves, to experience it before they start working with the child. The key feedback we get is that once mentors go through this process for themselves they feel more confident in supporting children to understand their feelings and in helping them through difficult times as a result.  We know that teachers and parents have access to lots of other resources and workbooks but DESTY is a wrap-around programme in that they are provided with the tools, the training and the on-going support from our team.  This full service helps them to feel more confident in what they are doing and they know if they ever feel like they need some guidance or back-up that they can always check in with us and we will offer them individual support.

Some quotes from mentors and children who have used DESTY:

“This course really shined a spotlight on what is going on behind the scenes in my child’s world while giving me the tools to help the situation. Now that I have the clarity I can deal with situations with a win-win outcome.”

– Parent, DESTY Mentor

“It’s fun and it helps you to express your feelings when you sometimes can’t.”

– Child

“The DESTY Mentor training course has provided me with unique insights into the work of equipping children with a level of self-knowledge and self-esteem which will empower them to grow and thrive in our 21st century world.”

– Educator, DESTY Mentor

Talita: Do you think your background as an educational psychologist has contributed to your success as a founder and CEO?

Stephanie: I’m still evolving into the role of CEO, particularly because for the training to become an educational psychologist has very little to do with a CEO role. In lots of ways my background in educational psychology has been really beneficial because it brought the importance of evidence-based practices very much to the fore for me and it was important that the programme we developed was research based. All of that certainly helped with going into business, and has given credibility to the work we are doing. In terms of developing the skills I need as a CEO, I have to admit it has been a very steep learning curve, particularly in the last couple of years. I have had to stretch way beyond my comfort zone at time and the role encompasses much more than I ever anticipated. I suppose having worked in the area of emotional resilience for as long as I have, that has certainly helped to guide me through challenging times and has often pulled me through. Understanding that there are always people to help, people to talk to, and my firm belief that there is always a solution in whatever you are facing, even if it is not clear at first has been crucial.  At the same time I’m still learning every single day but that’s part of my journey.

Talita: Did you find any barriers starting a new business, specifically in tech? How did you deal with them?

Stephanie: Absolutely. The key barrier for me was and still is to some degree that I didn’t have a tech background whatsoever. I’m still wondering what’s possessed me to develop a tech platform! It was actually because I knew this would work with children, I knew they would respond to it and it would be easier for them. Not having that tech background is a significant challenge, and again this is something I work on continuously, I keep educating myself. Dealing with developers, writing product specifications, understanding how the whole software development cycle works and understanding agile development practices have been real challenges along the way. Also, trying to find the right people to do the work has been a massive strain. We’re based in the west of Ireland, which we’re so lucky to be, but it can be really difficult to get the skillset that we need so we sometimes need to outsource to secure the specific skills we need. That in itsef can lead to a whole set of other problems, people who don’t stay, or they do a piece of work and somebody else has to follow-on and try and pick it up. The more I learn and the better the people we have on board, who know the product the easier it gets.  As a team we are much clearer about what we want and where we are going and we have learned a lot together which has made us very strong as a team.

Talita: What advice would you give for people getting into tech?

Stephanie: I would say it is essential to have some kind of tech advisor, who comes on their board or provides mentorship.  Especially in the early days, I would love to have had an experienced CTO working with the company, that would have been the ideal scenario, but it’s very difficult to source and to be able to afford one at the early stages, you don’t have the finance to secure somebody like that. I think one of the key things is that, at the very least, you have a trusted techy person that you can go to for advice and guidance. I didn’t have that in the early stages, but I do now. Having somebody that I can run things by, not necessarily an intense input, but just a bit of guidance, and making sure the developers you are employing are doing what they should be doing. I wish I had got that available to me earlier and I didn’t which certainly cost us dearly at various points in the very early stages.

Stephanie O’Malley pictured in her home town of westport, Co. Mayo. Pic; Michael Mc Laughlin

Talita: You mentioned you’ve done a considerable amount of research before coming up with Education DESTY. How do you think this has affected your solution?

Stephanie: It has affected it completely and it still does. Every week you’re learning from the DESTY mentors that are using the programme and who are going through the training. We also continuously learning from our own research and from what the market is telling us.  I have learned that if you don’t do the research you can make a lot of assumptions, and I know that in the early stages I was making assumptions about what would work which were completely wrong, so research has been absolutely critical. However, research will only get you so far, you still have to test the product, or a version of it, with users and in the market place to make sure you don’t go too far down the wrong road. It really helps if you want to get something off the ground to test it first. That’s another key piece of advice I would give – don’t spend too long trying to get things perfect. The more research you do the more you want to perfect things, but it’s really a combination of research and testing. Doing the research is important so you know that you’re hitting on the right things, but then, our beta test in 2015 was invaluable. We set that up with a group of mentors, we got the children feedback, and that has changed a lot of the direction in terms of how we progressed. Research has always played an important role in our team. Luckily, I love research, and I love reading. Although I can get too engrossed in the research at times so I have to pull back, but I do think some amount of it is absolutely critical. 

Talita: Did you have any mentors during your journey to become an entrepreneur? If yes, can you tell us a bit about your experience?

Stephanie: Yes, mentors have been key throughout my life and that’s why I think every child should have a mentor that guides them through difficult things. I’ve been so lucky, one of my key mentors over years and years has been Tom Murphy, he’s a local businessman, and I met him through family connections. He has been amazing, we were going through some difficult times just a few weeks ago, and just to have him on the end of the phone has been wonderful. Another key mentor in my life is Martin O’Connor, he’s a Clinical and Coaching Psychologist and he’s been a supervisor of mine for almost 14 years and I touch base with him in terms of the psychological aspects of my work.

I really believe that if you don’t have at least one or two mentors in the early days it can be much easier to crash because you can burn out more quickly.  A true mentor can sense where things are at for you, and they might say ‘look, you need to take a break from it for now, and then come back to this’ and that’s sometimes what you need to hear. I’m not talking about just a mentor from a mentoring programme when you are randomly assigned a person that you have no connection with and that comes in to help you on maybe a very specific task. I’m talking about lifelong mentorship with someone who knows what you’ve been through, the stage you’re at with your business and just knows you as a person and what you can do, and when you need to be challenged. These programmes where you’re set up with someone, and meet them once a month, they’re helpful to a point, but sometimes you need someone who knows you on a more personal level and who can offer that guidance and support especially during the really challenging times.