Galway woman in San Francisco: 'It has the highest rent in the world'
‘Silicon Valley is like a bunch of ducks: on the surface people appear chill, but they’re paddling like crazy underwater’
Eva-Marie Costello is originally from Galway, but now lives in San Francisco, where she works in an education technology startup
Working Abroad Q&A: Each week, Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas. This week, Eva-Marie Costello, who is originally from Galway but now lives in San Francisco, where she works in an education technology startup Springboard as an operations team lead.
When did you leave Ireland, and why?
I left Ireland in September 2014 to move to Silicon Valley with the Enterprise Ireland International Graduate Programme.
Did you study in Ireland? Where?
I studied a Bachelor of Science in Physics at the National University of Ireland in Galway
What was studying at the University of Notre Dame in the US like? What did you do there and did being Irish make a difference?
I studied a Master’s in Tech Entrepreneurship (Esteem) at the University of Notre Dame. The University of Notre Dame offers an Irish Fellowship and every year they admit six Irish students. For Stem (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) graduates in Ireland I would highly recommend applying to this. Notre Dame connected me to resources and capital to launch my own edtech startup, Marty, after I graduated. Marty aimed to improve people’s digital skills to allow access to gig-economy employment opportunities. Together, with my cofounder, we succeeded in partnering with the City of Berkeley on a citywide initiative to improve the digital literacy of low-income residents. The experience with Marty was invaluable to me as it taught me how to develop an early-stage idea into a business.
It was a truly unique experience to be Irish at Notre Dame, especially during the year of the election of Donald Trump (Mike Pence was our graduation speaker) as US president. During my time there I had a part-time job at the Hesburgh Library front desk and was daily told about each student’s purported Irish heritage and connections.
Tell us about the ed-tech start up scene in San Francisco
I have always been passionate about the intersection of social impact and business, and edtech is a perfect meeting of the two. I previously ran an education and skills training non-profit in Northeast India and was interested in learning how to scale such training online. Springboard, the startup where I work currently, has allowed me to achieve that goal. It has developed a digital platform which essentially unlocks the sharing economy for education. What makes Springboard’s model unique is that it matches every online student with an industry expert, or "mentor," to guide them toward a career switch.
Is living in Silicon Valley interesting?
Silicon Valley is like a bunch of ducks: on the surface people appear chill, but they’re paddling like crazy underwater. Everyone seems to be working on an AI, cryptocurrency - or (insert tech trend here) - startup and spending their evenings building out their side-hustle. The ethos of constantly challenging the way things are done is intellectually stimulating as is being surrounded by people who continue to surprise me. I’ve had the chance to work with incredible people who are a combination of smart, crazy ambitious, and altruistic.
What does an average day look like for you at the moment?
I currently lead the Mentor Operations team at Springboard. Springboard’s education marketplace has a supply side, consisting of industry-expert mentors, and demand side, with online adult learners. My team works on sourcing, retaining, and rewarding the supply side: the mentor community of 500 plus experts.
At a startup this size (with 120 people) no two days are the same. My day can include working on longer term strategic projects, meetings with my direct reports and other team leads, and generally putting out fires that come our way. Being faced with new business and user problems every day keeps me on my feet.
San Francisco has the highest rent in the world and house hunting is known as a competitive sport
If you wanted to come and work in Ireland, what are the opportunities like in the education technology sector?
There are a few interesting edtech companies based in Ireland such as Udemy, Pluralsight and Allison. However, if I did move back to Ireland the plan would be to start my own company. Ireland is a great place for startups due to the access to government early stage investment and a tight-knit network.
Do the Irish fit in well in San Francisco?
Our natural Irish entrepreneurial streak allows us to adapt and thrive in the Silicon Valley ecosystem. In addition, our charm and wit (and to be honest, accent) never hurt in terms of building business relationships either. I’ve met some of the most ambitious and successful Irish people out here.
Where else have you lived outside Ireland and what did you do there?
Instead of going the J1 route I spent my undergrad summers on the foothills of the Himalayas in India. There I had a nonprofit (in conjunction with the Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny) focused on education and skill building programs for children who had been freed from child labour. It was the most amazing and formative time of my life. At that time (age 18) I didn’t realise I was being entrepreneurial. In my mind I identified a problem and was privileged enough to have the opportunity to work on improving it as well as raise money to support it. Looking back now, I can see that here in Silicon Valley we would have called it my “side-hustle”.
What advice would you give to someone interested in working abroad?
Networking, particularly when you don’t need to, is key. Skills are important but without a network it’s hard to expand and grow. The opportunities that have opened up to me (Notre Dame, Springboard, as well as others) have all come through my network.
Are there any other Irish people in your circles?
I have a great group of Irish friends who were in my master’s class in Notre Dame. We are scattered all over the US, but make time to see each other for our annual “Immigrant Thanksgiving” among other trips. In addition, I recently joined the board of the Irish Network Bay Area after attending their events for the past few years, and it’s been a great way to stay connected to my roots.
What is it like living in San Francisco in terms of accommodation, transport, social life and so on?
San Francisco has the highest rent in the world and house hunting is known as a competitive sport, which is always challenging to navigate. I live in the Mission neighborhood, which is fun to socialise in and has great food, theatre, and music. Transport in San Francisco is dependent on which mobility startup is targeting you - it can be a choice between scooters, ride-sharing or e-bikes.
Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?
I miss the blunt Irish sense of humour, the casual way Irish people get to know each other, and the willingness to have craic (here the craic competes and loses against the 7am yoga class). The eight hour time difference is difficult with family and friends, but we make it work with early morning calls.
If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email firstname.lastname@example.org with a little information about you and what you do.