Teaching nations how they can reap the dividends from their growing diasporas
Interview: Kingsley Aikins
Ex-Ireland Fund head uses networking expertise to connect SMEs with funders. He tells Sarah McCabe how to 'funnel serendipity'
'The richest people in the world look for networks. Everyone else looks for work." The quote (from US financial guru Richard Kiyosaki) might be cliched, but it's the perfect introduction for Kingsley Aikins – arguably Ireland's most effective networker.
Readers will probably know him best from his role as Tony O'Reilly's right-hand man at global philanthropic organisation the Ireland Funds, but since departing the Funds in 2009 Aikins had advised everyone from technology giants to governments about how to improve their networking skills and capitalise on contacts.
We meet to talk about Linked Finance, a new online lending platform for small businesses he is chairing, but it's clear he has bigger things on his mind.
He arrives carrying a thick volume he authored on how to capitalise on the diaspora. Actor Gabriel Byrne might have labelled Ireland's attitude to its diaspora as "a scam" and "a shakedown", but Aikins is living proof of just how commercially important ex-pats have become to their home countries. His consultancy business Diaspora Matters advises governments from Israel to Lithuania on how to emulate the Irish and make money from emigrants.
"There are 240 million people now living outside the country they were born in," says sharply-dressed Aikins over coffee at Dublin's Westbury Hotel. "That's tripled since 1990. This presents huge opportunities, and governments have suddenly copped."
His Rolodex, it's clear, includes the biggest of big names. Aikins has fingers in more pies than I could keep track of, but his career was dominated by the Ireland Funds, the second largest donor to Irish causes in the world after Chuck Feeney's Atlantic Philanthropy. He ran it for almost two decades. The Ireland Funds is essentially an international club of wealthy friends of Ireland – elite networking at its finest. Major donors include the late Lewis Glucksman, former chief executive of Lehman Brothers.
Ireland's charities and its beneficiaries should be thanking their lucky stars that rich Americans have taken such a liking to Irish causes – Ireland has a shockingly bad record when it comes to home-grown philanthropy.
"The country just has no history of wealth," explains Aikins, who received a CBE from Queen Elizabeth in 2008 for his charity work. "Foundations and benefactors come from dynastic wealth – your Carnegies, your Rockefellers – and we just don't have that."
But there's no doubt that philanthropy is becoming more fashionable, particularly among the young.
The biggest US donor last year was Facebook's twentysomething chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. And more and more big names are committing to the Billionaires Pledge, a commitment by the likes of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to give away the majority of their wealth during their lifetimes.
"It's definitely catching," says Aikins. "There are only three things you can do with wealth at the end of your life – give it to your children, give it to the government in tax, or give it away. Wealthy people are increasingly opting for the latter."
The tale of how he came to head up the Ireland Funds is proof of the importance of sticking your neck out. After moving to Australia in the '80s with CCT, the predecessor to IDA Ireland, he founded a networking group for Irish ex-pats called The Landsdowne Club. He wrote to Tony O'Reilly on a whim, seeking a patron for the club, and O'Reilly said yes. Thus began a long and fruitful business relationship.
Aikins was, controversially, paid very well for his Ireland Funds job. His annual salary towards the end of his time there has been estimated at around €780,000 a year. How can he justify this, I asked, especially in light of recent public outcry at the (smaller) salaries paid to the likes of Rehab's Angela Kerins?
"You have to remember I was paid in the US – but yes, it was a high salary even by US standards," he concedes.
"But I raised a quarter of a billion dollars for charitable purposes. Charity salaries do deserve scrutiny, but you have to look at the return on investment you're getting. You don't look at the salary of a football team's coach – you look at the results he gets."
He left the Ireland Funds in 2009, with a severance package in the region of half a million. He founded a networking coaching business after that, as well as Diaspora Matters, and recently became involved in an SME-orientated technology start-up called Linked Finance, where he's now the chairperson.
Linked Finance seeks to address a problem that lots of our readers will be familiar with, namely the acute shortage of lending available to the country's small businesses. It provides an online marketplace to match up small businesses seeking loans with individuals interested in providing them. Users offer loans in a kind of auction-style format, at whatever interest rate they are prepared to pay. The business then selects the best offer(s).
The company was founded by Peter O'Mahony, the man who returned from London to set up Dublin comedy club The Laughter Lounge ("A classic diaspora story," says Aikins). Other investors include Fergal Quinn and Bobby Kerr.
Linked Finance's profits come from charging both lenders and borrowers – the borrower pays 2.5pc of the total and lenders pay 1.2pc. Its investors have ploughed €550,000 into it, mostly to fund software development, but the business is not yet profitable. "We will probably have to expand outside Ireland," says Aikins. "We need big volumes to make it worth our while."
Is he not concerned about businesses defaulting on their loans? "The default rates in crowdfunding are actually very low, because there is so much accountability," he answers. "You are accountable to normal people, often people living nearby."
Dublin coffee shop chain Lolly and Cooks has sourced funding through the site. The companies it has helped so far – about 56 of them – have tended to sell tangible things. "We've literally done a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker," says Aikins.
On top of all this, Aikins is also the head of Trinity College Dublin's Business Alumni Association, whose members include Glen Dimplex deputy chief executive Fergal Naughton. Late last year he oversaw a hobnobbing event for 120 chief executives from all over the world, all TCD alumni.
It all sounds a bit American, this deliberate and organised networking lark. Aikins is quick to agree. "Americans, Indians and Israelis all approach networking as a means to an end, and that's no bad thing. Irish people are excellent networkers, but we need to be more purposeful about it – do it with a goal in mind. We tend to see it just as social interaction." The number one most important thing in networking, he says, is listening. He clearly knows what he's doing – he's the type who makes you feel like the most interesting person in the room, instantly at ease. "Most people only listen to prepare what they're going to say next," he says. "It's important to really try and erase that habit."
He's also a believer in what he calls "funnelling serendipity" – "Go to places and do things that will bring you in contact with the right people. Position yourself for luck."
There's one more thing Aikins is passionate about – oldies. "Longevity is the great phenomenon of our time," he says. "I'm in my third act now, which as Bill Gates says is your defining act."
Nobody, he points out, asks 58-year-olds what they're going to do when they retire – but these people have 40 years of living left, he says.
"Rupert Murdoch is planning his next 15 years," he says. "Baby boomers have plenty of money, and their number one interest in life is travel with meaning – for example, the European train company Interrail has just launched a ticket targeted at over 55s. This generation has been ignored by marketers, but people are beginning to come around. You have to go shooting where the ducks are, after all."
AIKINS IN BRIEF
Lives: Blackrock, Co Dublin
Family: Married with three children aged 20, 15 and 12
Education: Economics and politics degree from Trinity College Dublin, postgraduate diploma in international marketing
Hobbies: Rugby (played professionally in France for a year after college), swimming, reading
Thing you couldn’t do your job without: “A sense of humour – don’t take anything too seriously”