The Irish Echo Business Awards, held in Chicago, in May which will spotlight Irish American business leaders and companies building transatlantic bridges.

When Irish American bank robber Willie Sutton (not all those who traced their origins to the Emerald Isle were choirboys, you know) was asked why he robbed banks, he is reported to have responded, "because that's where the money is".
So when I'm asked why I'm heading to Chicago this St Patrick's season and not to D.C. with the rest of the gang, I'm obliged to respond, "because that's where the Irish — and the investors — are".

The Irish you know all about. Chicago was built by the Irish and is pretty much still run by them. Its St Patrick's Day parade is among the biggest in the United States and its river is famously turned green in a celebration where everyone is Irish for a day.

The investors, though, is a story not so well-known. However, over recent times, the Mid-West has been making its mark on Belfast and its environs, thanks to Invest NI and a cadre of visionary entrepreneurs and business leaders who saw the post-ceasefire potential of Belfast.

If, like me, you believe the next five years will usher in an economic lift not seen since the years immediately following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, then now is the time to go where the investors — and potential investors — are. Indeed, my trip to the City of Broad Shoulders later this month will be to tee things up for the Irish Echo Business Awards in May which will spotlight Irish American business leaders and companies building transatlantic bridges.

Some of the groundbreaking investment stories are well-known: Allstate of Northbrook, Illinois, was among the first US companies into Belfast, Derry and Strabane following the Agreement. Chicago Mercantile Exchange followed soon after, joining the New York Stock Exchange in Belfast — which is a peace process all of its own.

At the start of 2020, another Chicago institution, the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE), acquired a small but perfectly formed Belfast FinTech company called Hanweck Technologies which was founded by New Yorker Jerry Hanweck. 
But the story doesn't stop there. Flexera Software, headed by Jim Ryan, has a substantial presence in Belfast while tech company Olenick, founded by Chicago business legend Tom Olenick, boasts a highly-regarded European headquarters in the city.

Then there's the newly-minted Chicago billionaire Steve Sarawitz, a convert to the Bahaii faith and a fan of the Dala Lama, who is giving his fortune away to social justice enterprises. He made his money from payroll systems and has a sizeable footprint in the market town of Ballymoney (that's market as in cattle not as in stocks and shares).

And did I mention that legal behemoth Baker McKenzie is on course to employ 450 in its Belfast Harbour offices?

All of which makes Chicago and its Drake Hotel the perfect venue for the May 8 Irish Echo Business Awards which previously graced Philadelphia (2018) and Boston (2019).

In Chicago, our honorees will be led by transatlantic trailblazer Jim Clerkin, a legendary figure in the drinks trade both in Ireland and in the US, who has recently been promoted to the position of President of Strategic Development at Moët Hennessy. I have no doubt his story from humble beginnings in Rostrevor, Co Down, to the top of his industry will blow them away in the Windy City!

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