With a cup of tea in one hand and a jar of Ballymaloe relish in the other while being warmly introduced to three men wearing bright green ties, my first five minutes at the fourth annual global conference of the Irish International Business Network (IIBN) in New York last week were distinctly Irish. Friendly faces, hearty laughs and firm handshakes created the unmistakable buzz of an Irish event, where excitement, energy and enthusiasm abound.
This year’s event, titled OpportUnity – the first time the IIBN conference took place in New York – presented an impressive program of panels, speakers and intriguing 60 second startup pitches, interspersed with purposeful networking breaks and copious amounts of tea. There was an overwhelming sense of community, encouragement and pride among the combination of entrepreneurs, investors and networkers alike, who were eager to make as many lasting and mutually beneficial connections as possible.
In his opening address, IIBN-NY chairman Sean Gaffey, described the Irish diaspora as “a living, breathing animal, the heart of which is Ireland.” The room lifted, business cards were shuffled, and that heartbeat resonated throughout the day.
There was much discussion of the Irish entrepreneurial spirit, the Irish ability to create something out of nothing, and the abundance of opportunity available from the deep global Irish. Gaffney remarked that Irish culture is about connecting people, not dividing them, and that the IIBN provides a platform on which these connections can begin to flourish.
Jimmy Deenihan, the recently appointed Minister for Diaspora Affairs, expressed his pride in the organization, and its influence on the changes happening for Ireland, both at home and abroad. He noted that in 2012, Ireland invited the diaspora to visit for The Gathering. Now, only two years later, Ireland is ready to start inviting them to come home and to work.
The first two panels discussed startups and the Irish film industry. Feargall Kenny (founder of New York Digital Irish) presented four Irish male entrepreneurs to discuss startups, and John Gleeson of Grant Thornton, one of the event’s sponsors, presented a discussion with three men from the Irish film industry.
Brown Bag Films CEO Cathal Gaffney won the hearts and minds of the audience with his insightful, smart and provocative talk on taking risks, the thrill of facilitating talent and “the entrepreneurial fire in our bellies after getting it right.” As chair of Animation Ireland, he also commented on the community of Ireland’s film and animation companies which are “genuinely supportive of each other’s friends who support each other’s businesses,” a distinctly Irish method of creating a support network.
The 60 second pitches showcased some of Ireland’s most innovative entrepreneurs. Presented by Niamh Bushnell, the commissioner for startups in Dublin, this section allowed startups to present their ideas to the investors in the room, and to demonstrate the wealth of talent and creativity that Ireland has to offer.
Benny Megennis of Whack Pack got down on his hands and needs to give a live demo of how simply his flat-pack furniture can be put together – like “famine style carpentry.” Melissa Curry’s Success jewelry line was the only female-centric pitch, focusing on bracelets that are given from one woman to another as a sign of support, inspiration and sisterhood – and with clients such as Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey, she’s certainly on the right track.
The dominant field was tech, and most of the pitches were app or website based. As the hugely successful Web Summit in Dublin also ran the same week, Bushnell often referenced Ireland’s burgeoning tech community.
“Are we going to be the next Silicon Valley?” she asked. “No. But we don’t want to be. We will be a brilliant startup city that ranks up there with the rest of them.” As the likes of Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and AirBnB still move into Dublin in droves, Bushnell assured us that it’s not just the tax credit attracting these big players to Ireland – it’s the talent too.
Having attended the Web Summit just before the IIBN, she spoke powerfully of Irish conference events and what sets them apart from those on the East or West Coast. “The difference is the people, and the sense of community. People like us. Everyone there was so insanely excited to be in Dublin.”
One of the most interesting tech pitches came from Ellevyn Irwin with Click Clinic – like Uber, but for patients seeking doctors to come to their homes. In her final year of physical therapy at Trinity, she came up with the idea in August and the development has already catapulted forwards with a huge interest from medical professionals at home. At only 25, Irwin is a prime example of the young Irish men and women bound for success in tech.
Youth is a crucial factor for the IIBN, and the Future Leaders Program was set in place to incorporate younger people into the organization. Co-chair Molly Dineen is determined to create diversity in age and gender in the project, and one of their primary goals is to create a professional Irish American network in New York as the social network is already so strong.
The Irish diaspora now amounts to an estimated 80 million people worldwide with 36 million in the U.S. As Andrew O’Brien, special representative for global partnerships in the State Department’s Office of Global Partnerships said, “Diasporans are Americans. We have a responsibility to them, and they have a responsibility to home, and we want to help them with that.”
IIBN board member Susan Hayes Culleton spoke with huge enthusiasm, and captured the essence of the event with these encouraging words: “It’s not difficult to make a startup when you have a business family waiting for you. We don’t all have to be in one place to get these opportunities, but today we are, so don’t waste a minute of it.”
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