Immediately apparent from the din of voices chatting and greeting each other at the Sheraton Hotel conference center in Austin, Texas on Saturday morning, is that the Irish Network USA appeals equally to Irish immigrants and Irish Americans alike.
INUSA – 19 chapters strong across the US after only four years – is a shining example of what can be achieved when the larger Irish diaspora bands together.
The network is dedicated to fostering professional, economic, cultural and social connections between Ireland and the US, and has grown dramatically since its founding four years ago in the midst of Ireland’s economic crisis. In the last year alone, its membership has nearly doubled in size to 3,500 and counting.
INUSA has tapped into the established Irish professional networks in New York, Boston and Chicago, but the organization is also at the forefront in cities and states where the larger Irish communities are still in the process of connecting and growing – such as the Bay Area, with its many Irish entrepreneurs and start-ups; New Orleans, with its rich Irish cultural history just waiting to be further explored; and Austin, with its booming tech and innovation scene that’s drawing Irish transplants.
The Irish government sees this trend too. Just two weeks before INSUA’s second-ever annual conference, which spanned four days in Austin and drew delegates, members, government officials and an array of speakers, the Texan city heralded the opening of the first Ireland House in the South West.
There, the newly established Consulate General of Ireland in Austin, helmed by Consul General Adrian Farrell, joins Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland.
Both Farrell and Anne Anderson, Ireland’s Ambassador to the US, attended the INUSA conference. They praised Austin’s tech and entrepreneurial achievements, including SXSW, as reasons behind the decision to open a consulate there, in addition to the growing Irish population in the area.
“We don’t open new consulates easily,” the Ambassador said, pointing to the fact that from the 1930s until 2010, with the opening of the Atlanta consulate, there were only three Irish consulates for the entire US.
Amb Anderson becomes Honorary Citizen of Austin.Receives key to city from Mayor Leffingwell. pic.twitter.com/DcMtEZ8dlv— Ireland CG Austin (@IrelandCGAustin) September 13, 2014
In her keynote address, Ambassador Anderson praised INUSA’s inclusivity and flexibility as two of its greatest strengths and paths to continued success. On the heels of this, she announced the Irish government’s continued support of INUSA’s mission with a grant of $55,000, just approved by Ireland’s new Minister for the Diaspora, Jimmy Deenihan.
Later in the day, she met with Austin's Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who granted her honorary citizenship of Austin and presented her with a key to the city.
Some of Austin’s most influential business people shared strategies for engaging the city and revving up interest far beyond. Hugh Forrest, Director of SXSW Interactive the tech and networking component of the city’s world-famous festival, provided perspective on the SXSW’s phenomenal growth and draw. SXSW brought $315 million to the local economy in 2014, but Forrest emphasized that the festival’s progress has been slow and organic over the course of 30 years.
Dean McBeth and Edgar Farrera of Circuit of the Americas, Austin’s racing track and host of the Formula One US Grand Prix, discussed their team’s innovation and sustainability practices, and there was even some talk of working with Austin’s GAA teams to host future matches.
Steve Lennox, co-president of INUSA, sung Austin’s praises and called it the perfect location for the conference. “Austin is a vibrant city, known for its appreciation of the arts and great respect for entrepreneurial spirit. This is partially what makes it such a key part of Ireland’s strategic outreach to Irish abroad and Irish Americans, and we believe that as a whole Irish Network USA also embodies these ideals, which is why we selected Austin.”
Speakers from Tourism Ireland, Northern Ireland Bureau, IrishCentral, the Irish Times, University College Dublin, Blackrock Consulting Group, Lenovo, Indeed.com and Livestrong rounded out the day with views from the tourism, media, education, business and non-profit sectors.
American tourists to Ireland spent $1 billion in 2013, and the tourism industry is seeing a rise in interest from younger visitors, whom they call “social energizers.” Even better, 96% of tourists traveling to Ireland report that their trips exceeded expectations.
The perspective was bright from Northern Ireland, with a look at the re-birth of the Belfast economy thanks to the city’s appeal to a younger population, tourists and its tech hub. Just one surprising fact? One in five computer drives has a part made in Belfast thanks to Seagate Technology.
Neil Sands, head of innovation at cloud customer relations software giant Salesforce, delivered a specially tailored version of his dynamic (and in demand) 90-minute workshop designed to help companies and organizations confront obstacles and work through challenges. Sands, from Drogheda by way of San Francisco, where he heads the IN Bay Area chapter, has conducted the workshop with numerous high-profile and Fortune 500 companies.
Then it was off on a boat cruise around Austin on the Colorado River, where the stormy weather cleared just in time to offer a view of the famous fleet of bats make their nightly flight from the Congress Bridge.
A not insubstantial amount of rain didn’t faze the Celtic Cowboys, Austin’s GAA team, during their Saturday morning GAA exhibition. The Celtic Cowboys Sports & Social Club was founded 10 years ago by IN-Austin president and chapter founder Pat Doab, who co-owns the Austin-based construction industry distributor Crushing Tigers.
Safe from the rain at the original Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, INUSA’s inaugural film festival kicked off with “The Irish Pub,” director Alex Fegan’s ode to Ireland’s idiosyncratic pubs and the characters who run them, and Marcus Robinson’s “Rebuilding the World Trade Center,” an eight-year-long (and counting) close-up of the World Trade Center’s rise from the ashes of 9/11 and the construction workers, engineers and designers behind the effort.
Reflecting on the weekend, INUSA co-president Steve Lennox told IrishCentral, “INUSA continues to actively engage our members, and the diaspora at large, across the USA in ways that will encourage them to ‘invest’ in Ireland. True to our mission statement, this investment is not just about business but extends to supporting Irish artists and filmmakers, expanding the footprint of Irish sports in the USA, and helping newly arrived immigrants adjust to their new surroundings.
“Our diverse agenda this past weekend reflected all of that, and sets us on the course for another successful year of growth.