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

Laura O’Connell

Laura O’Connell


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.

“I stepped on to the platform at the Hong Kong metro station and saw nothing but Chinese symbols all around me, and had no idea what anything meant. I proceeded to look for the Chinese symbol for glasses – two circles – and I took it from there. I found English speakers in the sector and I managed to get very sensitive market information from them. Because I could introduce myself as an NTU student researching a business project, people were much more open with me than they would be with a business executive or consultant. I just asked people to describe their processes to me and they were very helpful.”

O’Connell went on to achieve success for her sponsor company in the Philippines and Australia and developed a business plan for Ocuco in the Asia Pacific region. She also earned an MSc in Asian Business from UCC and NTU. She has since gone on to work for Symrise, a leading global provider of flavours and nutrition based in Singapore.

Now in its third year, the Farmleigh Fellowship has brought 65 Irish graduates to Singapore. The programme has a 100 per cent completion rate to date. The Department of Foreign Affairs sponsors 30 per cent of the cost, while participating companies fund the remainder.

Fred Combe says it’s not hard to see why the Irish Government would support a scheme like this. Apart from the obvious advantage it confers on the graduates involved, there are collateral benefits, he says.

“The fact that UCC and NTU are now in dialogue is a very positive development,” says Combe. “NTU is a leading Asian university, where higher-education institutions are climbing international rankings at the moment, unlike in Ireland. Developing links with Asian education is very good for Ireland. Hopefully we will start to see some reciprocal activity from Asian graduates in the future.”

For the businesses that have chosen to get involved in the fellowship, of which 70 per cent are indigenous Irish companies, the return is measurable, says Combe. “We recently commissioned a study to ascertain the outcome for participating companies. The return on investment is coming in at about €70,000 per graduate.”

The business benefits accrue on three fronts: the chance to test-drive a potential business during a year’s internship; the connections made with senior executives in Asia through the Fellowship mentoring programme; and the final business-development project, which would cost a great deal more if acquired through an external consultant. The cost of sponsoring a graduate is €20,000.

At its broadest level, the programme is building bilateral ties between Ireland and Asia, says Combe.

“We are rapidly building a talent base of young Irish professionals in Asia. We have a tight budget and limited marketing, but the reputation of the programme is growing. Some people are afraid of Asia. They don’t know how to relate to a region that is growing so quickly. There is much more potential for this programme as we continue to build Irish networks in Asia. We have fellows now in China, Indonesia, Japan, Myanmar, Dubai, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. We also have a lot of repeat business from Irish companies, so it must be working for them.”

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