The alumni making their mark on the Asian business scene
Expats in Singapore have created the Farmleigh Fellowship: a scholarship programme that helps Irish graduates establish themselves in Asia
Four years have passed since Bill Clinton, Denis O’Brien and Bono sang Ireland’s praises at the first Global Irish Economic Forum. This assembly of policymakers and influential Irish diaspora at Farmleigh, in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, was sold as a shot in the arm for our ailing island, but did the forum amount to anything more than a cheerleading exercise?
This weekend the forum meets for the fourth time and one of the speakers, Laura O’Connell, has had a life-changing experience as a result of an initiative that grew from Farmleigh. It came not from Willie Walsh, nor O’Brien, but from a small group of Irish expats based in Singapore which has created a graduate scholarship programme that has since swelled the ranks of the Irish business community in Asia by 65, and counting.
At the inaugural forum, Bill Clinton said the only real cloud hanging over Ireland was our continuing reliance on exports to Europe. With this in mind the Farmleigh Fellowship was devised by a group led by Fred Combe, the founder and managing director of Natus Pte Ltd, a corporate management consultancy based in Singapore since 2005. Natus helps clients develop their business in Asia.
Along with a small group of Irish business people based in Singapore, Combe devised a mechanism by which Irish graduates could make their mark on the Asian business scene.
One of the first Farmleigh fellows was Laura O’Connell who will tell the fourth forum, which will be held in Dublin Castle, about how she was fast-tracked to a career in Asia through the fellowship.
“I always had an interest in languages and travelling. Working in Asia was a big ambition but not something I ever thought I could afford to do,” says O’Connell, who is originally from Killarney but has been based in Singapore since 2011 when she stumbled across the Farmleigh Fellowship on the Enterprise Ireland website while looking for work.
“I had just graduated from a business masters in TCD, with a focus on Asia. There was a lot of media discussion about rapidly growing markets in the region and it struck me as an area of great opportunity,” she says.
O’Connell applied for the fellowship and was interviewed by Ocuco, an optical software company based in Ireland, which appointed her and made her responsible for the company’s business development and marketing in Asia in which, at the time, it had no presence.
Once she was accepted on to the scheme, O’Connell became a masters student again, with modules to complete in two partner universities: University College Cork and the National Technical University (NTU) in Singapore. After six months of study at the two campuses she was ready to start her job, assessing business opportunities for Ocuco in Asia.
“I was based in an office in Singapore, and through the fellowship I got lots of support and mentoring from the Irish business community there,” she says. “It was a great work environment and, using Singapore as a base, I travelled all over Asia investigating the market for optical software.”
O’Connell says that the most challenging aspect of the task was arriving in Hong Kong with no Chinese and a very specific research brief.