Expecting the unexpected in the Irish start-up scene

15 Aug 2017

Irene Dehaene, head of corporate affairs at NDRC. Image: NDRC

This week on Leaders’ Insights, we spoke to NDRC’s Irene Dehaene about how she keeps things ticking over in Ireland’s vibrant start-up scene.

Irene Dehaene is the head of corporate affairs at NDRC.

Educated at Dublin City University and Trinity College Dublin, Dehaene has an extensive background in marketing and business, previously leading teams at the Irish Internet Association and Each & Other.

In 2006, she set up her own consultancy firm, Incite Marketing, where she offered services such as event management to clients in the technology sector for almost a decade, before joining NDRC in 2015.

‘Digital is really now all-pervasive and I think people have a greater awareness of the revolution our working and personal lives are undergoing’

Describe your role and what you do.

I lead NDRC’s corporate affairs unit. I manage the company’s finances, operations and some of our key stakeholder relationships. As I often say, my role ranges from ensuring that we are on budget to making sure that everything in the building is working the way that it should. What I love about it is that it is a very broad role and brings me in touch with every member of our own team as well as the digital ventures that NDRC invests in.

At any point in time, we would have between 45 to 55 start-ups in the building so, although NDRC itself is a relatively small team of 17, we have well over 100 people in the building. So it is a very vibrant, energetic workplace where you literally learn something new every day.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

In finance, you are driven by certain data that has to be closed by a certain day in the month so that you can close the current period, report on it and move on to the next one. So, I try to perform regular tasks on specific days in the week or month. However, best intentions …

Part of what I really enjoy in my role is its variety so invariably, I expect the unexpected. I’d say a key part of my approach is to remain flexible, but to prioritise what absolutely has to be completed in any given week.

I am supported by a superb team; we each have our specific areas of responsibility and come together regularly to move projects along.

What are the biggest challenges facing your business and how are you tackling them?

There is a war for talent out there; we see our start-ups struggle to find the people they need to grow and scale. It’s not just tech talent but sales and marketing support, too. NDRC aims to support them by connecting people and teams across the industry, raising the profile of the start-ups we work with so as to enhance their employer brand etc. Start-ups are competing for talent along with the multinational brands here, so it is difficult.

What are the key industry opportunities youre capitalising on?

Compared to 10 years ago, when NDRC was set up, digital is really now all-pervasive and I think people have a greater awareness of the revolution our working and personal lives are undergoing, and the potential for the economy. NDRC’s deep knowledge of digital is really helpful and I think sets us apart.

What set you on the road to where you are in the technology industry?

I started in technology by chance straight out of college, working with a niche supplier of microelectronics to the aeronautical and telecoms industries based in France. I immediately loved the fast pace of the environment and the problems that we were able to solve for our customers.

Since then, I’ve had the privilege of working with both tech multinationals (such as Baltimore Technologies) and tech start-ups (I was the fifth employee in Jinny Software) as well as running my own business. When NDRC came calling, it was the perfect match for my entrepreneurial experience and the processes that I learnt in large organisations.

‘We want to knock on the head the many clichés out there – digital start-ups are diverse, people come from all backgrounds, genders and sectors of the economy’

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

Staying too long in a specific role rather than moving on to new opportunities. If the environment that you are working in makes it hard for you to have an impact, it can be incredibly frustrating. Sometimes we stay because we’re convinced that there’s more that we can achieve or sometimes it is because we are optimistic that change will happen. However, I know now that you always know in your gut when something is right, so I learned to listen to that and take the opportunities as they presented themselves.

How do you get the best out of your team?

By letting them get on with their roles and listening to them. I try to enable and encourage them to use their natural strengths and help them to upskill in any areas that they are interested in. We have regular touchpoints, both formally and informally, and use those to prioritise the workload and develop each person’s role.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to effect change?

In NDRC, we have worked with many female founders – in fact, our data over the last 10 years shows you are more likely to secure investment if you have a woman on the founding team. We see these entrepreneurs as important role models for women starting out. We also want to knock on the head the many clichés that can be out there – digital start-ups are diverse, people come from all backgrounds, genders and sectors of the economy.

More generally, I think education is key, so we need to be teaching STEM-related subjects at an early age to girls in schools. Projects such as CoderDojo are just superb in how they show children (girls and boys) what can be achieved through technology and how much fun it can be. I am also a big believer in co-education so that girls and boys learn to mix and work with one another right from the start. 

Who is your business hero and why?

Richard Branson – he’s constantly trying new things, new ideas and is not afraid to fail. He pushes the boundaries yet has great integrity and humanity in his approach. Not sure that I’ll go to outer space though!

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Originals by Adam Grant. I love that quote he cites from Larry Ellison at Oracle: “When people start telling you that you’re crazy, you just might be onto the most important innovation in your life.”

Every day in NDRC, we see our start-ups take risks and move out of their comfort zones – it is incredibly inspirational. I am inspired by those who have the courage to take risks and refuse to settle.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Box.com for collaboration, Trello for project management and Evernote for capturing notes and ideas across all my devices. In NDRC, we also use two Irish software solutions, which have made our day-to-day job much easier: Rubberstamp for purchase orders and HR Locker for tracking annual leave and HR documents. I couldn’t imagine working without either of them anymore.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.