Business Irish

Thursday 18 September 2014

What it means to be Irish in a global business world

An Irish identity can be a major advantage in corporate life

Ian Sanders

Published 13/07/2014 | 02:30

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Margaret Molloy

Earlier this year, in honour of Saint Patrick's Day, Margaret Molloy asked a sample of her Irish connections around the world a simple question: 'What does it mean to be Irish in business?' Ms Molloy has been based in the US since she graduated from Harvard in 1993. Today she lives and works in New York where she is global chief marketing officer at Siegel+Gale, a brand strategy firm.

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Ms Molloy felt there was more to the perception of Ireland overseas than the shamrock, that there was an untold story. So she conducted an experiment, documenting her survey on LinkedIn with a post that's been shared over 8,000 times.

So what was the overriding theme about being Irish in business? "The main message that came through was about hard work. It came back to those same values we hold dear. I talk about it as grit - being unstoppable, not giving up, working hard," she says.

Grit, combined with the other trait of gratitude, is a great factor for her personally; the grit translates into intellectual ability and the gratitude translates into being thankful. For her, it's all about getting the right combination of the two.

Ms Molloy's expertise is in marketing - so how does being Irish impact and inform her own role? "Irish people know how to tell a good story. As a marketer, that's a real asset to build and tell stories, bringing in the views of others," she says.

In addition to storytelling, she says another strong Irish characteristic is public speaking, a skill she developed at school. That's very much part of her role and life in NYC. "It's also about connecting with people in a very natural way, an Irish skill that is very useful in a sales and marketing role," she says.

One of Ms Molloy's contacts who responded to her survey is Una Fox, an executive at the Walt Disney Company in Los Angeles where she leads data technology for the entertainment firm. She told Ms Molloy that to be Irish in business is "to be authentic in all I do and draw from three traits I see as quintessentially Irish: passion, courage and faith".

A graduate of University College Cork, Ms Fox has been based in the US for over 10 years. Whilst the sprawling nature of LA can make it a harder place to network with fellow Irish expats, Ms Fox still finds it a very supportive community. "When you discover them, the diaspora who are here are warm and happy to connect with other Irish professionals. There is also a good circle of people who are committed to continuing to grow and expand the community," she says. With many expats working in and around LA's film industry, Ms Fox has also seen a new generation of Irish professionals coming to work at tech start-ups in places like Venice Beach and Santa Monica.

Although LA is now her adopted home, Ms Fox says she's always seen herself as Irish first and foremost. Being Irish she says is "part of my identity, I would not want it any other way, but now I consider myself a global Irish citizen".

Having been raised in a home with high standards, where the importance of hard work was always emphasised, those values still inform her working style today. "This is foundational to everything I do, helping me make daily decisions in the workplace, treating my colleagues and team with respect. That has not changed since I left Ireland years ago."

She's found that Irish sense of humility, of being respectful towards others, of not trampling over others as you climb the career ladder, is a real asset in business life. Back in New York at the Soho offices of Glenborn Corporation, a small executive search firm, company founder Feargall Kenny has found that Americans view the Irish as hardworking, honest and fun to be around.

"Americans are predisposed to a good impression of the Irish," he says. "They see us as people who can grease the skids and make things work."

Mr Kenny has been based in the United States for 20 years and now lives with his wife and children in the Upper East Side. He believes being Irish is a real benefit, most noticeably in his previous role working in sales. "With the Irish accent and name, I'm immediately far more noticeable than any of the other sales guys," he says.

Mr Kenny acknowledges that he founded his recruitment business five years ago on his Irishness. "We're all connectors. I'm good at relationships, at keeping in touch with people. The best way to monetise my talent was to launch a recruitment business. I guess my own business is a subtext of being Irish," he explains.

He finds Irish people do more to seek out networking opportunities, that they're more proactive at getting together. The New York Irish networking scene is an active one, with organisations like the Irish International Business Network and New York Digital Irish, a community Mr Kenny founded to give Irish entrepreneurs coming to the city a soft landing. NYDI is a group for Irish expats and Irish Americans who work in digital media; they regularly hold meet-up groups in the city to help Irish start-ups break into the US.

But it's having his foot in both US and Irish cultures that has been key to Mr Kenny's career success. "In my day job, knowing the culture of both sides is key, having one foot in both Ireland and the US," he says.

Over on the US west coast, one Irish expat has decided its time to come home. Brendan Lally is chief technology officer at a small technology company Cara Health. After more than 16 years away, he and his wife have decided to head home to Galway with their three children."America was never the final destination - Ireland beckons," he says of his decision.

Mr Lally says being Irish has helped his career in the US. "The Irish are always held in high regard. My actions, my persona and what I am has been shaped by Mother Eire. Being Irish personally comes with a sense of responsibility as an ambassador for Ireland. For most people you are 'Ireland' to them - whether it's your accent, your ideas, your stories," he says.

Having worked in many cities across the US, Mr Lally admits there are lots of things he'll miss about the country, such as cheap petrol prices and great customer service. "But there are other reasons that are bringing us home - family, great education for our kids, great food, a sense of belonging, Irishness," he says.

Back in New York, what is Ms Molloy's take as a marketer on Brand Ireland?

"It's a brand that has a lot of affinity with people. But like any brand, it needs constant nurturing. We need a richer, more textured narrative that needs to include the entrepreneurial and business successes of Irish people over here in the US," she says.

Ms Molloy believes there's an opportunity for Irish businesses here to benefit from the expertise of its expats around the world by appointing them to the boards of their companies.

"Irish companies haven't taken advantage of the diaspora to serve on their boards, contributing our intellectual capital to companies back home. That's a big missed opportunity," she says.

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