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Complacency and poor service have damaged Irish business, but successful entrepreneurs can help out.

So said Jerry Kennelly, a millionaire businessman from Tralee, speaking in New York Tuesday. Kennelly has spearheaded the Young Entrepreneur Programme for high school and college students in Ireland, and a scheme called Endeavour, in which Irish multimillionaires choose 12 promising entrepreneurs and advise them on setting up business.

“We’ve been through ten years of complacency where the customer came second and lifestyle came first, and we need to shape up and to provide better service,” Kennelly said, in an interview with IrishCentral. “There’s a new era of realism where people need to be more honest about the value that they can add for customers.

“We believe that entrepreneurs can be just as valuable in government as they are in private enterprise,” he added.

Kennelly is a photographer by training, and he recently set up an online archive of images of Ireland taken by his parents between 1953 and 1973. A book of the images, called “Eyewitness,” is coming out next week.

He was in New York addressing a group of Irish businesspeople at a joint gathering of the Irish International Business Network and Irish Network NYC at the Deutsche Bank building on Wall Street. About 130 top businesspeople were at the event, which was entitled, “No Time to be Average.”

“Everyone has a role to play. Everyone, whether they’re in a job or in a position where they’re employing people, needs to get a better grip on the service culture and to respect customers,” Kennelly said. “It’s up to people to man up to the task.”

A dark-haired Kerryman, Kennelly inherited a passion for photography from his parents. He became a freelance photographer in 1981, working for Irish and international papers. With the arrival of the Apple Mac and the growth of the web, he saw his opportunity, setting up Stockbyte, a company that sold high quality royalty-free images to customers. In 2006, Getty bought Stockbyte and Kennelly’s other company Stockdisc, for $135 million. Two years later, the market crashed.

This wasn’t luck, Kennelly explained in his talk. He had studied the market. “We rode the best part of the wave and we were smart enough to get out on time,” he said.

The new market-place is hypercompetitive, and less forgiving than before. People can’t afford mistakes, Kennelly said. Yet the business plans that hopeful entrepreneurs present to him in Ireland are sometimes “appalling.”

For Kennelly, Ireland’s future is in the information business – web-based ventures and intellectual property. The most valuable thing successful members of the diaspora can do is share their knowledge. “Irish entrepreneurs have a lot to learn,” he said.

Other businesspeople were pessimistic about the Irish economy and critical of the government’s handling of the crisis, but said they were willing to help out. “I believe there’s an obligation on successful Irish business professionals and entrepreneurs to give something back to an economy that’s clearly struggling,” said Conor Foley, CEO of Worldspreads, a markets trading company which recently sold its Irish division for just over 11 million euro.

Foley is also the founder of the Irish International Business Network and a mentor in the Endeavour programme.

“The country could be bankrupt in two years time. The 70 million plus diaspora can assist Ireland get out of what could be an irrevocable position.”

Endeavour should be replicated in Ireland and internationally, wherever there are Irish entrepreneurs, Foley suggested. And although the starter-businesses have most to learn from the experience, mentors can gain too. “With every single entrepreneur or businessperson that you meet you get new ideas,” Foley said. “None of us are closed to the idea of learning, even from people coming behind us.”