Business and the diaspora: ‘We are in a battle for the brains’

Ahead of the Global Irish Economic Forum, we ask panellists for their views on how the diaspora can help Ireland, and how Ireland can attract emigrants back

Around 300 “key influencers” from the Irish diaspora will gather at Dublin Castle today for the fourth Global Irish Economic Forum.

Ahead of a discussion on business and the diaspora, The Irish Times asked panellists for their views on how the diaspora can help Irish business, and how Ireland can help to attract its emigrants home.

‘We are in a battle for the brains’: Norah Casey, broadcaster and chairwoman of Harmonia

“The first Global Irish Economic Forum in 2009 took place when Ireland was deep in recession, and the Government was calling on influential business leaders around the world who had Irish connections to help us to re-energise our economy. The ground has shifted quite considerably now; we are in what I call a ‘battle for the brains’.”

“We need to encourage our talent to come home. About half a million people left since 2008, mostly from outside Dublin. Our challenge now is to get them to move back to the areas where they grew up, to re-energise our rural communities.


"I left Ireland when I was 17, to go to Scotland to train as a nurse. I did a journalism course in my early 20s, before settling into a life in print in London. I didn't come back until 2003. My father had just died and I had recently had a son. I was at a transition point in my life, where it was then or never.

“The pull of home is very strong. I often say Ireland Inc should have an ad on pregnancy sticks abroad, because as soon as someone has a baby, they want to come home to raise their kids in the local area where they grew up.

“One of the biggest issues facing them is affordability - a potential drop in salary, increase in taxes, or having to pay more for education or healthcare are huge deterrents. In order to get that talent back, we need to incentivise them by giving them tax breaks… even if it is just six months to ease the pain.

“Up to now, the Government focus has been on job creation. But for many people who are looking to come home, employment is not the aim - they would rather start their own business. I strongly believe if we had taught all these kids entrepreneurship skills, they wouldn’t have gone in droves elsewhere, but would have been able to stay and play a role in revitalising rural Ireland. Irish people only know how to be employees.

"Ireland relies too heavily on multinationals, and it is very easy for them to leave us. We need to work harder on our indigenous industries, especially in rural areas. High potential start-ups with an ability to export are key, and there have been encouraging developments in this area. The Start-up Gathering was a great initiative. The banks have started to loan to small business at a local level. Enterprise Ireland has been doing a lot of work on bringing people to Ireland to start business.

“There’s a whole range of things people find difficult when they move back. The bureaucracy is a challenge when applying for health insurance, car insurance, taxes, getting their child into school. Broadband is a huge issue if you want to set up your own business. They are conscious that if they go back to visit their parents, they can’t get signal on their phone, not to mind start a business which relies heavily on broadband coverage.

"I'm filming a new RTÉ series called The Million Euro Start-up, which is targeted at returning emigrants. A select few with killer business ideas will be invited to come back to Ireland to work with me for a period of time, undertaking a series of challenges, and the winner will get €1 million to build their business in the area they grew up in.

“There is still a significant gap between recovery in the cities and rural areas. I spend a lot of time travelling around Ireland, and I can see the devastation which the recession has left behind, particularly in the midlands. Pockets of the country act like magnets, however, places like Westport, and we need to learn why their hotels are full and they attract tourism and business, when other towns are all shut up. There is huge potential for returners to reinvigorate these communities, but they need to be facilitated and supported when they move home.”

‘Irish emigrants are influential decision-makers in major companies all over the world’: Joanna Murphy, chief executive of ConnectIreland

“ConnectIreland has been harnessing the power of the diaspora since our launch in 2012 and through our work with 58,000-plus “connectors”, who are our eyes and ears around the globe, we’ve attracted 52 international companies to Ireland.

“To date, we’ve secured over 1,600 jobs across 12 counties, and each and every one of these jobs are here because of a conversation on a golf course, in a boardroom, or over a pint, which included the simple questions: “Are you expanding into Europe? Have you considered Ireland as your European base?”

“Generations of Irish emigrants hold key positions and are influential decision-makers in major companies all over the world. Tens of thousands who emigrated since 2007 are following in their footsteps, working their way up the career ladder across the globe.

"ConnectIreland is working hand in hand with IDA Ireland, with the GAA, the FAI, the IRFU and more to spread the word, to sell Ireland at each and every opportunity. We're in daily contact with many of our brightest and our best, so they can help us to generate leads, generate jobs in their home counties so emigrants can return home to rear a family surrounded by their grandparents, so their children can attend the schools they did.

"Among our most successful connectors is Meath-based auctioneer Hugh Morris, who has helped bring 150 jobs to Ireland. Because of connections the father of five forged, four companies have set up here, among them Mafic (70 jobs), Clearplas (40 jobs), and Deco and Ultramain (20 jobs each).

“Our target is to grow employment in ConnectIreland-assisted companies to 3,750 by 2020. Since the first Global Irish Economic Forum at Farmleigh in 2009, where the idea for ConnectIreland was born, we have helped to create jobs all over Ireland. The impact these jobs have had in major hubs and tiny communities has been nothing short of phenomenal. But we believe the very best is yet to come.

“All we require from our connectors is a name and some information. We follow the leads, we convince them that Ireland is the best small country in the world in which to do business, and we take matters from there. And every successful connector receives a cash reward of up to €1,500 per sustainable job created. It really is as simple as that.”

John Fitzpatrick, chairman of American Ireland Funds and chief executive of Fitzpatrick US Hotels

“I make a living from promoting the connection and bond between Ireland and America. As a hotelier living and operating in New York for more than 30 years, I have seen first-hand how powerful and strong that bond and connection is between the Irish diaspora in terms of connecting people with people, offering practical advice and general support and on the other side of the coin, being advocates for investment and tourism in Ireland, and in philanthropy.

“As chair of the American Ireland Funds, I have seen the huge generosity of the diaspora community here in the US, and indeed around the world, towards contributing to worthy causes in Ireland. The Worldwide Ireland Funds were founded in 1976 and since then have raised over half a billion dollars, and operate in 12 countries.

"In response to the economic downturn we launched our Promising Ireland Campaign with an initial goal of $100 million. We soon doubled this target to $200 million, requiring us to raise half a million dollars a week. I am proud to say that the total now, with six weeks to go to the end of the campaign, stands at $216 million. While the majority of this money was raised in America, we are seeing growth in all of our chapters. Only last week, we raised $1 million from events in China, Singapore and Australia, and another $1 million in individual gifts, reflecting the growing numbers of diaspora living and working in those countries.

“That said, the nature of the diaspora is changing, especially in Irish America. With every passing generation, naturally, it becomes one more generation further removed from the ‘homeland’.

“Equally, there are more young Irish Americans who are wealthier and more fully integrated into society than their parents. We cannot presume that these young people, with global careers and often with friends, spouses from other ethnicities, will remain as committed to Ireland as first or second generation Irish Americans.

“Within The Ireland Funds we have set up a Young Leaders programme specifically to cater for them. It offers a more modern engagement with Ireland, and also plenty of networking opportunities, which is so important to them at this stage of their lives and careers. What is heartening is that this questioning, curious and well educated group want to encounter modern Ireland in all its complexities. They are not interested in a romanticised view but in the true Ireland. In doing this, we hope to ensure their commitment into the future.”

‘People who have lived abroad have a broader perspective on what is needed to bring a company global’: Niamh Bushnell, Dublin’s Commissioner for Start-ups

“Innovation is a contact sport, and business success happens when people with diverse perspectives collaborate across different networks. With a diaspora like ours, which has so many successful people working across the world, there is huge potential there that we have yet to take full advantage of.

“Ireland is at a key moment when huge success is possible, where we have role models inspiring young entrepreneurs, where we have companies scaling globally already. I would like the conversation at the forum to be about how you, from where you are sitting in your market abroad, can help to accelerate that growth. Ireland is a small market, with a small pool of investors and mentors. We can’t grow big companies by relying only on our own, we need to be looking globally for new connections.

“There is often a direct correlation between how much time entrepreneurs spend on planes, and how successful their companies are. I think that is also true of people who have lived abroad, in somewhere like the US or China; they have a much broader perspective on what is needed to bring a company global.

“After 16 years of working in New York, coming back to Dublin I realised how connected the business world is, and how much expertise is here, but it also made me realise how small it is on scale. It is very easy for Irish entrepreneurs, even for people like me who have lived abroad for a long time and travelled a lot, to change their mindset when they get back to an almost exclusively local one again. We need to encourage those who come home to keep their international expectations, their big ideas and their global connections alive as they build their business.

“We need to get the word out there that Ireland is open for business and we have the infrastructure and the culture and the supports and the smarts and the international network to make it work. If I was thinking of coming home to build a company, I would want to know that. Otherwise I would just stay in New York and build my company there.”

‘Our ambition is to be the best bicultural and bilateral business network within the Irish business diaspora’: Clem Garvey, president of Network Irlande, Paris

"NetworkIrlande is the Paris-based association through which we seek to engage members of the Irish diaspora in the development of trade between Ireland and France. As a networking organisation, its mission is to build productive relationships and to support the work of State agencies in enhancing the value of the Ireland brand.

“While France has, for centuries, been a destination of Irish emigrants, the differences in language and culture are such that integration very closely resembles assimilation. The Irish-French community is, therefore, very different from that of the Irish-American or the Irish-in-Britain community. Biculturalism is our reality.

“Sustainable business can only exist where transactions represent a win for both parties. One country’s successful export development must equally represent another country’s successful accession to product or services at an attractive price, thereby permitting value-creation. NetworkIrlande’s role is to facilitate the development of such win-win relationships.

"Our ambition for NetworkIrlande is to be the best bicultural and bilateral business network within the Irish business diaspora. Our board of directors is composed of French and Irish nationals, and we are delighted to have the strong support of the Irish Embassy in Paris as well as the active participation of representatives from the state agencies.

“We work very closely with what we consider to be our sister organisation in Dublin - the Ireland-France Chamber of Commerce - with which we organise the annual Ireland-France Business Awards. These awards recognise the best-performing French companies in Ireland and the best-performing Irish companies in France.

“We are proud to count some of France’s and some of Ireland’s largest companies amongst our members while also creating a networking environment for small and medium-sized businesses, as well as individual professionals.

“Like any association, we rely heavily on the contributions of volunteers who give so much of their time and energy. Without their daily efforts, we would not be able to continue.”