Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

‘Their advice is worth a lot to people they mentor’

Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce teams seasoned business people with young Irish professionals

Guiding hands: young Irish professionals at an event hosted by the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce during last year’s Lions rugby tour

Sat, Apr 26, 2014, 01:00


Ciara Kenny

Even seasoned businesspeople could feel out of their depth trying to carve out a career in a new country, but for young professionals and recent graduates, it can seem an insurmountable challenge at first. With no experience of the way things are done in workplaces there, and few contacts, where’s the best place to start?

One of the positive outcomes of the exponential rise in the number of highly qualified young people emigrating from Ireland to English-speaking countries like the UK, Canada and Australia in recent years has been the growth of Irish business networks abroad, set up not only to foster economic ties between likeminded individuals and organisations with Irish connections, but also to assist new arrivals find their feet.

The Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce (IACC) has transformed to meet the needs of the rising number of young professionals arriving in the country’s big cities. Since Northern Irish businessman Barry Corr took over as chief executive four years ago, the 25-year-old organisation has seen a “ten-fold increase” in membership as more and more highly educated young Irish join up, with 2,000 new members in the past year alone.

“A few years ago, Irish immigration in Australia was driven more by the trades,” he explains.

“The growth in our membership, which reflects the change in demographic of immigrants towards white collar, is among young professionals, like chartered accountants, engineers or lawyers.”


To advise young people about the culture of the Australian workplace, and to help them network with their peers and potential employers, the chamber arranges a range of events throughout the year from breakfast briefings to business presentations, panel discussions and social gatherings.

The chamber’s mentorship programme, which pairs recently arrived young Irish professionals with seasoned Irish-Australian businesspeople, has been a particular success. Now in its third year, some 126 pairings have been made for the 2014 round.

“The mentors who sign up to take part are very senior business people, many of them operating at CEO or COO levels in financial services, construction, technology, healthcare or manufacturing, from high-growth entrepreneurial local businesses right up to the big global brands like Mondelez, KPMG,” Corr explains.

“Some of them would charge hundreds of dollars for an hour of their time to anyone else, so their advice is worth a lot to the people they mentor.”

Most of the young workers are matched with mentors in their industry, who they can ask for guidance about career advancement, or advice when they face a particular challenge at work. They come together at specific events organised by the chamber several times a year, but often meet between times, or chat by phone or email.


The success of the mentorship programme is apparent in the number of past participants reporting promotions and other advancements already, Corr says. With news of the programme spreading, the competition among new arrivals for a place is tough, but more and more mentors are signing up to take part too.

“They are motivated by the desire to give something back after doing so well here themselves,” he explains. “They get a real kick out of it, and enjoy the opportunity to connect with the new generation of Irish Australian professionals.”

The opportunity to network among their peers provides the mentors with a business incentive, too. “We organise lunches just for them, to give them a platform for peer interaction in small groups. They find that very valuable, to be able to bounce ideas off others and share successes, frustrations and challenges.”

The chamber’s main base is in Melbourne, with regular events also held in Sydney, but there are plans to expand as interest grows in Queensland and Western Australia, reflecting the increasing number of Irish professionals turning up there too.

The Department of Foreign Affairs’ Emigrant Support Programme has provided some funding in recent years, and Grant Thornton have come on board as sponsor for the mentorship programme.

These young professionals are investing a lot in their future careers in Australia, and the business leaders involved in the chamber are investing a lot in them too. Will their efforts be wasted if the tide turns and they all decide to go back to Ireland?

“We are aware that not everyone coming over here is doing so by choice, and we are sensitive to that. But the airplane goes both ways,” Corr says.

“If we can look after that next generation of leaders and nurture their potential while they are here, if they decide to return to Ireland down the line that’s a good job done. The global Irish diaspora has some great assets for Ireland, and if we can play a small role in developing some future business leaders, for the Australian market or the Irish, we’ll be pleased to have been part of that.”

Aoife Kealy: ‘My network is the best I could have asked for’

With her contract for work on the Grand Canal Theatre development complete and opportunities in the construction industry in Dublin scarce, project manager Aoife Kealy moved to Melbourne in search of work in 2010.

Not knowing many other Irish people in Australia, she attended her first event with the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce as a social opportunity, but soon recognised the career benefits. She signed up to take part in the organisation’s mentorship programme last year.

“My confidence was a bit low, and I needed someone to bounce some ideas off who worked in my industry and would know what I was talking about,” says the 34-year-old, who was mentored by founding director of Fugen Construction Tim Murphy, a second generation Irishman with roots in Co Kerry.

“The market is very competitive here in Australia, and contacts are so important because jobs often aren’t advertised. Tim has introduced me to other big property developers in Melbourne, and the network I have met through him is the best I could have asked for.”

Although Kealy’s mentorship year is now over, herself and Murphy are still in regular contact. She remains very involved with the chamber through their Horizons programme for former mentees.

“I have met people I never would have met at home, many of whom are now my good friends,” she says. “It has taken me out of my professional bubble of just property and construction, and introduced me to accountants, engineers, writers, travel agents and entrepreneurs, which has helped me to think in a different way.”