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'To sow the seeds of an entrepreneurial nation we need to start in the schools'

Microsoft's Paul Rellis says that building our indigenous industries should start early in life

Published 25/02/2010 | 09:00

THERE is something about the way Microsoft Ireland managing director Paul Rellis describes Ireland's way out of the economic morass that suggests while things aren't perfect, things aren't all bad either.

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His tone indicates urgency but also a kind of exasperation that, as a country, we need to select areas we're good at and, fundamentally, we need to start believing in ourselves.

"The appetite is large for entrepreneurship, it needs to be. There are only a couple of things that are going to create 100,000 jobs or 50,000 jobs for the country for the next 10 to 20 years. Entrepreneurship is one of those dynamics that can create that scale of jobs and business," he explains.

Rellis heads up Microsoft's Irish operations that have been in the country since 1985 and have evolved from packing boxes with software disks to today sophisticated software engineering, R&D, sales and marketing and internet divisions that employ 1,500 people. The Microsoft ecosystem is a business community that generated more than €989m in revenue in Ireland last year. For every euro that Microsoft made in Ireland in 2009, companies that are business partners in the ecosystem made €9.22.

These companies employ 41,000 people while IT-using organisations employ another 17,900 IT professionals who work with Microsoft software or the products and services that rely on it.

Looking ahead, an IDC study commissioned by Microsoft predicts that, globally, the IT industry will create 5.8 million new jobs and more than 75,000 new businesses over the next four years - three times the rate of employment in other industries. In Ireland, jobs by IT organisations here are set to increase by 8,000 over the next four years. IT spending in Ireland in 2009 was €2.9bn and is set to grow at a rate of 0.4pc a year, compared to GDP growth of -1.3pc a year.

At the spearhead of such an important economic movement, Rellis is passionate about two things: entrepreneurship and education. From an education perspective, he is chairing the Government's €150m Smarter Schools=Smarter Economy initiative that will kit out Irish schools with the latest computers, software and audio-visual equipment as part of a long-overdue injection of technology resources in classrooms across the country.

Rellis says Irish students will need to be equipped with 21st-century working skills, particularly IT literacy, to be relevant in the workplaces of the future. Microsoft has enlisted 20 graduates who will work at its Dublin headquarters and will support the National Centre for Technol-ogy in Education to develop digital content to support the curriculum in primary and post-primary schools.

He says that not only must technology be instilled early in the lives of youngsters, but so too must entrepreneurship and innovation if the country is to regenerate itself.

I put it to Rellis that we need to change our outlook on risk and how we view failure. He agrees, but cautions me that just as we must sow the seeds of entrepreneurship early on at school level, accountability and ethics must also be taught. He does not think much of revelations that employers in this country have held back PRSI payments as working capital, for example.

On the issue of start-ups, Microsoft's BizSpark initiative - which provides technology and business supports to companies under three years - has attracted a disproportionately high level of applicants here. Close to 400 Irish firms have entered the programme. Rellis says this signals a high degree of latent innovation potential in Ireland.

"There are many attributes of entrepreneurship, it isn't all about hi-tech stuff or people in white coats. Actually, it is less about the 'R' in R&D but more about the the 'D' in terms of development, about taking great ideas and what science has already discovered for us and developing business models, developing ways of selling but using great technology to do that. Hopefully, that's going to be the focus."

The issue of funding entrepreneurs is a thorny subject, whether it's banks lending to SMEs or venture capital coffers being opened, and while initiatives such as BizSpark give firms access to valuable technology and expertise they hitherto would not afford, Rellis believes the real battle is psychological.

"Before you get into funding entrepreneurs we need go back and reset how we educate people to be entrepreneurs, how we teach them to be entrepreneurs, ethically and morally, and how we teach them about working with people all over the world.

"There's a whole educational need around business and entrepreneurship that can be added to the natural flair that Irish people have for selling and connecting with people.

"I think if we did that and fund it in some way there is then the age-old problem of trying to give small business contracts in Ireland from Government and give them some kind of funding and leg-up to get into markets. There's no doubt that funding has to be looked at. What exactly is the right answer, I'm not sure yet because the amount of money that is being invested in the small-business area seems to be less and less from the private sector and from Government."

Returning to the Smart Schools=Smart Economy initiative, an example of how technology drives change can be best illustrated by that of Meath VEC's approach to technology which has placed Dunshaughlin Community College among one of only 12 mentor schools in the world under the Microsoft Innovative Schools Programme. In December 2009, Microsoft and Dell showed how St Fintina's Post Primary School, Longwood can now participate in a class that is being delivered in Dunshaughlin Community College.

The students in Longwood can all see, hear and interact with the teacher via a video link and are able to follow all teaching material shared from the teacher's tablet PC.

Rellis describes this as a powerful example of the efficiencies that can be gained, as it feeds into the young minds of future business leaders and innovators.

"This focus is about investing €150m over three years into ICT, into primary school and secondary school. We're going to start with primary schools and give every teacher a laptop, a projector and access to whiteboards. We want to create a virtual learning environment.

"If we start with the professional development of teachers, we have a great chance to make the investment as impactful as possible and the payback will be huge in years to come," affirms Rellis.

To watch a video interview with Paul Rellis, go to www.digital21.ie

© Silicon Republic Ltd

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