Time for Ireland to finally embrace its diaspora

6 Mar 2012

John Hartnett, president and founder of the Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG)

Unlike Israel, China and India, in the past couple of decades Ireland has continually failed to make use of its diaspora in the US and elsewhere to derive a viable future for its young technologists. That is changing, but can it change fast enough?

For the past three years, the Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG), led by former Palm SVP John Hartnett and former Intel CEO and chairman Craig Barrett, has done Trojan work in bringing together Ireland’s rich tapestry of expats and those of Irish descent and affiliation and has focused its attentions on three pillars of the US economy – Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Hollywood. It now boasts 3,000 members, including some of the most senior tech executives in the US.

In that time, the ITLG has established the Irish Innovation Center in the heart of Silicon Valley, in downtown San José, California, and has launched its own venture capital fund that has so far invested in eight Irish technology companies.

At the ITLG’s Silicon Valley Comes to Ireland gathering at Dublin City University last October, we were reminded constantly of the painfully long overdue need to harness the Irish diaspora to build Ireland’s economy. Kingsley Aitkins of Diaspora Matters said it best when he pointed out: “Countries all over the world are trying to figure out how they can connect with their diaspora. Israel is the second-largest home of venture capital in the world.”

Pointing to emerging tech hubs in China and Israel, he went on: “Those countries networked with their diaspora. It’s no longer about countries or regions, and Silicon Valley has more in common with Dublin than it has with Fresno, which is down the road. In the past, this country gained from remittances, but then you move to donations, business networks and venture capital. That’s why the ITLG is so important.”

But why hadn’t Ireland moved sooner to capitalize on the vast diaspora that has contributed so much to countries like the United States? Israel worked its diaspora and achieved so much and can count hundreds of technology firms listed on NASDAQ, while Ireland can only count a handful.

“We have watched Israel knock it out of the park in terms of what’s possible,” explained Hartnett. “They leveraged the venture-capital world, infrastructure and ecosystem – now it’s time for Ireland to get our fair share of that.”

To give you an indication of how successful Israel has been, some US$1.5 billion worth of venture capital has gone into Israeli technology companies compared with just US$300 million gone into Irish companies.

Diaspora 2016

In October, the ITLG announced a new initiative called the Diaspora 2016 initiative that will create a pool of global industry and technology leaders who will volunteer to serve on relevant Irish State boards until 2016 without renumeration.

The objective of the Diaspora 2016 initiative is to make available to the Irish government a list of, at least, 100 highly qualified business leaders from across the globe who want to contribute their experience and time to helping Ireland succeed and thrive as we head towards 2016. 

Speaking at the Global Irish Forum in October, Hartnett said: “We expect this group to cover many sectors of the economy, with particular focus on information technology, life sciences, innovation and entrepreneurship. It will be a seasoned group of leaders with a track record of achievement at a vice-president or C-suite level on the global stage.

“This group of volunteers will not expect any fees or expenses in return for this contribution, demonstrating the strong commitment the diaspora have to supporting our home country. We have discussed this informally with many of the participants at our Silicon Valley Comes to Ireland event and there is huge interest in volunteering.”

The list of executives who are willing to volunteer their time will be made available as it evolves, but today, the following leaders have pledged their commitment:  

·         John Hartnett, president and founder, ITLG

·         Tom McEnery, former mayor of San José, California

·         Rory McInerney, vice-president, Intel

·         Barry O’Sullivan, senior vice-president, Cisco

·         Conrad Burke, founder, Innovalight

It has been said that, for example, today half of the CEOs of the Fortune 500 leaders have Irish surnames and Bono wasn’t joking when he sang, “These are the hands that built America.” Why we have failed in the decades past to do as Israel so astutely did I’ll never know.

But it’s not my business to write about the past. Our business is with the future.

Silicon Republic has joined forces with the Irish Technology Leadership Group to bring you The Silicon Valley 50 most influential Irish-American people in the tech world ahead of the ITLG Innovation Summit in California on 12-13 March.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years