Global graduates at Enterprise Ireland get a taste of start-up life

16 Aug 2018

Hannah Dobson (second from left) visits The Jim Henson Company as part of her Enterprise Ireland graduate programme experience. Image: Enterprise Ireland

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When you think ‘graduate programme’, your mind might automatically go to one of the Big Four or other major multinational company. While these programmes are well regarded, that’s not to say they are suited to all graduates. But graduate opportunities with smaller companies come few and far between. And, while the start-up world is attractive to many a budding young upstart, getting a foot in the door of a company working on minimum staff can be a big ask.

But there is an option that combines work at an international agency with engagement with scaling companies. Enterprise Ireland runs both national and international graduate programmes, and Conor Fahy, regional director for Latin America and Central Europe, said they offer immediate hands-on experience on small teams with an international mindset.

“I think the difference between us and a multinational is because of the nature of our structure. [Our graduates] get thrown in at the deep end very quickly and they are treated as a marketing executive from day one,” he said.

And Fahy should know. He was one of the first graduates to complete the international Enterprise Ireland programme and celebrated the 30th anniversary of the scheme in 2016.

“It’s grown to be a programme, on the international side, where we get around 1,000 applicants per year. We select 16 who then are immediately sent out to our international offices around the world, which can be everywhere from Amsterdam to Beijing.”

Fahy can rattle off a number of successes produced by the programme. In Enterprise Ireland, communications lead Conor O’Donovan, regional director Aidan McKenna and himself are all former participants. Then there’s Laura Egan, brand manager for Dubarry; Rod Baldwin, international sales director at Glen Dimplex; Padraic Ward, head of commercial operations for pharma in Europe at Roche; Paul O’Dwyer, head of corporate communications at Bostik; and Dalton Philips, the former CEO of Morrisons in the UK, who is now the chief executive of the Dublin Airport Authority.

This network – which is estimated at more than 400 people – continues to support its members and new entrants to the programme. “I’m still in contact with people that were on my programme in ’86,” said Fahy. “I often say to [graduates] when they come into us, this is a huge opportunity for you to network with the people in the room because in a number of years they’ll all be in different roles around the world and you have a chance to build connections that will be mutually beneficial.”

‘On the international side, we get around 1,000 applicants per year. We select 16 who then are immediately sent out to our international offices around the world’

Fahy said the type of graduates they seek and who excel in the programme are hardworking and adaptable. “It’s not necessarily about the academic achievement. For me, it’s quite often about their maturity, their ability to think on their feet, their ability to work with others.” What they also share is an interest in business, both big and small.

Take Katie Moyna, for example, who grew up in a family business. “The business was central to my day-to-day life and something I was very passionate about and always enjoyed. I studied organisational psychology in university and had a keen interest in people, specifically the role work plays in people’s lives and how organisations can benefit from making work enjoyable for their employees,” she said.

Moyna took up a graduate position in the learning and organisation development team in Enterprise Ireland and she said, “[It] merged my passion and education perfectly.”

While Fahy said graduates from business, commerce and management are common to the programme, Moyna had no formal business education. She benefited from Enterprise Ireland’s introduction to core business strands such as finance, marketing and project management.

“My skills have evolved drastically. I was continuously learning in Enterprise Ireland. As someone who is not innately conscientious, the most significant skills I feel I have developed are project management and organisation skills. These skills are essential to my career,” she said.

‘There is no other job in the world where you are working with data centre industry representatives in Ireland one week, meeting with a VP of Nickelodeon in LA the next week and gathering for a team conference in New York the following week’

Hannah Dobson had dreams of working and living abroad after graduation, and the Enterprise Ireland programme appealed to her because it would maintain a “strong connection to Ireland”. She studied marketing, innovation and technology at Dublin City University and her heart was set on the Silicon Valley office. “It felt like a natural fit, being able to put everything I’d learned about tech and innovation into practice in the biggest tech hub in the world.”

Still participating in the programme, Dobson is working as a trade development executive in Enterprise Ireland’s San Francisco office. “My role involves everything from supporting an Irish start-up to find an office space, to carrying out lead generation, to organising and executing large-scale Enterprise Ireland events and trade shows.”

One such project, in June this year, was a trade mission to Los Angeles led by Minister Heather Humphreys, TD. Dobson arranged for 15 Irish companies working across animation, visual effects, gaming, music and the broader entertainment space to join high-profile meetings with some of the top names in entertainment, such as Disney, The Jim Henson Company, Nickelodeon, Netflix and Paramount.

“There is no other job in the world where you are working with data centre industry representatives in Ireland one week, meeting with a VP of Nickelodeon in LA the next week and gathering for a team conference in New York the following week. All while managing to cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge, eat some delicious Mexican food and hang out in San Francisco, the incredible city I now call home.”

Leo Varadkar stands at the centre of a row of people in business attire, standing in front of an Enterprise Ireland backdrop.

An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, TD,with Enterprise Ireland’s Silicon Valley team in San Francisco, November 2017. Image: Enterprise Ireland

Ciaran O’Keeffe joined the international programme when he realised how perfectly it chimed with his aim of “working hands-on with innovative companies in an overseas environment and being able to put to work the business and language skills” he gained in college.

A big event for O’Keeffe – who is based in the Singapore office serving a south-east Asia region of 10 countries – was a 2016 Vietnam State visit, which involved organising signing ceremonies between Irish and Vietnamese companies.

“This required getting up to speed with the client’s business and products/solutions, understanding the local market environment and trends, building a network of industry contacts and, ultimately, supporting clients to enter and scale their business in the region by introducing them to potential buyers, advising on company set-up and assisting with partner selection among many other areas.”

Coming straight out of his undergraduate degree into the two-year programme, O’Keeffe said his skillset “developed greatly” through working with a variety of Irish companies across a range of sectors, from telecoms, aviation and engineering to fintech and financial services, which is big business in the Asian market. “Working in such a diverse region as south-east Asia has also strengthened my communication and intercultural skills,” he added.

O’Keeffe plans to stay in Singapore with a company that supports international software and technology providers to enter and scale in the Asia Pacific region. “Hopefully I’ll continue working with Irish companies in this new role. I don’t want to stray too far from the motherland!” he said.

Moyna has since left Enterprise Ireland to work as a learning and development specialist in a leading law firm in Dublin, working in the area she is “extremely passionate about”.

“I hope to continue to grow in this area – at some point I would love the chance to develop in this industry further by working in the United States,” she said.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.