Ireland’s technology sector is increasingly led by women. Sean Pollock and Fearghal O’Connor profile 30 top executives leading tech giants, innovative startups and more
Despite announcing plans to retire later this year, Cathriona Hallahan, MD of Microsoft Ireland, has a goal to keep putting her decades of experience to good use.
Hallahan joined Microsoft in Ireland over three decades ago, describing it then as being a “small, unknown entity based in Leopardstown”. Then an accounts clerk, she was employee 24 of a company that now employs 2,800 people in Ireland.
“Today’s technology industry is unrecognisable from the one I first entered,” says Hallahan. “There is much greater awareness and appreciation of the importance of diversity and embedding an inclusive culture within business. Today’s young women have strong female role models who have blazed a trail and shattered lingering perceptions that once limited them in building successful careers within the technology sector.”
Nora Khaldi works at the intersection of maths, computer science and life science. Nuritas uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning to discover health promoting molecules in nature to bring them to consumers.
“I have a masters in mathematics and computer science and a PhD in Bioinformatics. It was during my PhD in Trinity College that I saw the unique benefits that nature has to offer and set about working on a way to unlock them,” she says.
She believes Nuritas ingredients will be in every home by 2030 – in food, beverages, dietary supplements and even pet food. In 2018 it secured a €30m investment from the European Investment Bank.
Technology is slowly becoming a more diverse, less male dominated sector: “I see a bit more change in the US but it is starting to filter down through Europe. I would advise young women to just go for it. Basic degrees in maths, computer science, engineering, any of the STEM subjects, are an amazing foundation that will set you up for life, no matter what career you wind up going into.”
Dubliner Adrienne Gormley went to Berlin-based digital bank N26 last year with 20 years of tech industry experience at Google, Microsoft and Dropbox and an appetite for scaling a disruptive firm.
“My goal is to realise the challenge of transforming the retail banking experience for customers. And of course as a fintech COO, I want to do it at scale, across the globe.”
N26 is Europe’s largest, fully licensed digital bank with over 7m customers globally, 200,000 in Ireland.
What attracted her to the tech sector originally was its ability to disrupt the status quo. So a move into banking was not necessarily obvious: “But in many ways, moving into the disruptive field of fintech was a very natural progression for me.”
Nova Leah develops cybersecurity software for connected medical devices such as insulin pumps, pacemakers and imaging devices.
“So many of these devices are now connected to wireless or IT networks compared to a decade ago. Connectivity brings many benefits for patients in terms of healthcare delivery but unfortunately, connectivity also introduces potential fatal risks to those patients,” says Finnegan.
She worked for 20 years in tech before doing a PhD in medical device cybersecurity at Dundalk IT. In 2016 she licensed IP she developed, spinning out Nova Leah. Covid has underlined the need for the AI and machine learning powered security it is developing because of increasing reliance on the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT) and telehealth.
Lizzy Hayashida is co-founder of Dublin-based Change Donations, which helps nonprofits fundraise by allowing donors round up debit card transactions to the next euro.
“We feel very fortunate to be in a position to help charities with the transition to a cashless society,” says Hayashida, who grew up in Palo Alto, California, surrounded by tech and startups.
“It was probably a natural career choice, but after working at my first startup, I was sure the tech space was where I wanted to be.”
After a decade working at both early-stage startups and large tech companies, she moved to Ireland to do her MBA at Trinity College.
“I chose Ireland and Trinity because I wanted to gain an international perspective, while still staying close to the tech industry, so Ireland was the perfect choice,” she says.
At Trinity she met co-founder William Conaghan and they started Change Donations as a class project.
Ríona Ní Ghriallais is a biomedical engineer with experience in early-stage medical device concept design.
At Proverum, she combines her interest in both science and healthcare. It is developing innovative medical device technology to treat Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH) that could help millions of men. During 2020 it was awarded €2.5m from the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme and also raised €4m in equity funding.
“We believe our technology will be a real ‘game-changer’. Getting sufficient capital for these future development years is crucial. That said, Ireland is incredibly well set up for MedTech so many venture capital groups are positively predisposed to Irish companies,” she says.
“I’ve always wanted to do something purposeful and creative – engineering and medical device development are a perfect match for that. Technology is an exciting, inspiring career for smart women who love challenges, problem solving, and creating the future.”
After a varied research and industry career, Shona D’Arcy brought together her two main areas of expertise, speech recognition technology and digital health.
“We’re disrupting how children’s speech and language development is managed, using data and technology to support parents, children, speech therapists and healthcare systems.”
The pandemic means the clinical community is now more open to technical innovation, says D’Arcy.
“My goal is to build Kids Speech Labs into an industry leading company that will set the standards in children’s language development.”
For D’Arcy, engineering was a natural choice: “I’m wired this way so there was never an option not to be in tech. I’d no female role models in my career but now I’m seeing many woman in senior positions reaching out to the generation below them. Women are as technically capable as men but bring a different dynamic to technology teams, which only makes the whole team more productive.”
Cerebreon has developed an intelligent data extraction and analytics platform for the insolvency and debt recovery industry that has processed 15 million documents.
“Cerebreon brings deep learning and data to support the professionals that work with the most financially vulnerable people in society,” says Doyle. “We started the business because I worked in consumer debt recovery and knew there was an opportunity to improve the industry to get better outcomes for everyone.”
Last year, the Donegal fintech software startup closed a €1.69m seed round led by Delta Partners.
Doyle is a physicist by education who “ended up in data science because I needed a job. But I’m extremely curious and I like reimagining how things work and so data, analytics, AI suits my nature”.
Tech is part of every industry now: “It is such a varied discipline and its applications are endless.”
Jade O’Connor is a world champion kitesurfer based in Achill who has helped shape the digital transformation of Irish businesses for over 15 years, building and implementing programmes for the likes of Dublin Airport, TV3 and Guinness.
She has a wealth of experience as a web developer, user experience designer, co-founder of a tech startup – and as a professional athlete. Her first job was demonstrating PCs in Mulvey’s Hardware in Dundrum in the 1980s. At the time she learned the computer language Basic and has focused on front-end engineering and UX (user experience) ever since.
“Technology is fascinating as it never stands still. In college, I studied anthropology and psychotherapy. I often think it’s the human studies that have helped me most in tech.”
FCR has had a roller coaster year: “From the beginning of the pandemic, we focused on how to support our customers. Their sheer determination to survive, find new ways to sell and keep fighting for survival has been astonishing. It’s fantastic to see many of them transition into digital businesses and flourish using eCommerce and other online tools.”
Dorothy Creaven leads Rent The Runway’s EMEA HQ in Galway. The US clothing rental service has built a complex tech and logistics platform to become a fashion sensation.
A qualified electronic engineer, she was headhunted for the role due to 20 years of varied experience at Google, Abbott Vascular and listed US firm EPAM Systems. She had also co-founded her own tech startup, enterprise marketing automation company Element Wave.
She believes that gender diversity in the tech sector starts with “parents encouraging their children to think outside the stereotype box”.
“Unconscious limitations are set very early on with many little girls learning that pink dresses, staying quiet and polite smiles get rewarded. Encouraging all young people, especially girls, to speak their minds is incredibly important. Learning that their opinions are valid, and that they can excel at maths or science will go a long way in creating our strong, capable leaders of tomorrow.”
Rent the Runway’s Ireland office will continue to grow through 2021 and beyond: “We’re excited to expand on our rapid growth plans and build out the Galway site even more.”
A 20-year career across international leadership positions gifted Fidelma McGuirk, the founder and CEO of Payslip, with the idea for her own business.
McGuirk, who had already founded Sprintax, a SaaS-based platform for the international student tax market and headed up Taxback.com, decided to come up with a solution to help companies manage their global payroll.
In 2015, she developed Westport, Co Mayo-based Payslip, which provides software that simplifies and reduces the costs of managing a global payroll for businesses with employees in multiple jurisdictions.
The company has gone from strength to strength. In 2020, it raised €2.7m in a Series A funding round led by Frontline Ventures, having raised €1m two years earlier.
McGuirk isn’t quite done yet. Payslip has big plans for the future with plans to grow across its markets.
“Due to high customer growth, we are currently in talent acquisition mode across product, sales, engineering and customer success,” she says.
“We have an aggressive product roadmap and we aim to deliver even stronger payroll automation, standardisation and reporting.”
There is a bit of a buzz around ApisProtect, a Cork-based tech firm which has developed a tech system that helps to remotely extract data from hives in the commercial beekeeping sector.
Fiona Edwards Murphy got a taste for the sector following the completion of an Electrical and Electronic Engineering degree at UCC where she developed a passion for sensor technology. At the time, there was widespread reporting of large losses of honey bees around the world.
Having focused on the issue for her PhD, she set up ApisProtect with her co-founders in 2017.
Edwards Murphy is set for the sweet taste of success, with a plan to expand in Europe and the US. The company is scaling up its sales team in North Dakota in the US and has launched its hobbyist product in Ireland.
The Irish-headquartered fund has over €1bn in assets under management with a global presence in US, Europe and China. There are over 80 companies in the Atlantic Bridge portfolio and they employ over 3,000 people in many sectors including cyber security, semiconductors, software, cloud and Medtech.
Despite a tough year for all in business, Coughlan is confident of a bright future for women in tech.
“The reality is technology is crossing over rapidly into many industries such as food tech, health tech, agritech etc,” she says. “The entry point into the technology industry for women is improving for sure.”
Since 2017, Equal1.labs has been developing silicon-based quantum computer technology in collaboration with University College Dublin. Elena Blokhina, its chief technology officer, has been with the Dublin-based company since 2017, having also worked at the college.
In 2020, Equal1.labs, which has received backing from both Enterprise Ireland and Atlantic Bridge, was named one of 32 companies around the world to watch by Nature Research, as part of its inaugural Spinoff Prize in collaboration with German tech company Merck.
Experience is one thing Amelia Kelly can count on. The vice president of Speech Technology at Soapbox Labs has not only been coding from a very young age, but she also has experience of working in the tech mecca of Silicon Valley with IBM Watson.
Kelly started in Soapbox, which was founded by Patricia Scanlon, in 2015 and was tasked with building a speech recognition system for children. Six years later, she’s now VP of Speech Tech in a rapidly scaling company with world-renowned technology and a series of high-profile large-scale international clients.
“One thing that’s remained constant about my job is that I get to solve big problems from scratch – how do we process thousands of hours of data at scale? How do we prove our speech recognition technology is the best in class?”
Since Altify, the company Áine Denn co-founded in 2005 with Donal Daly, was sold in 2019 for $84m to Upland Software, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Denn would have relaxed and put her feet up.
Not so. At the beginning of 2020, Denn exited Altify and later focused on starting her new venture Tap Into Curiosity, which helps organisations reach their potential. Denn came into the tech space by chance.
With a love for computers, her first career leanings were in the architecture space. In the 1980s Computer Science emerged in importance and it ticked all the boxes.
The serial entrepreneur believes the male-dominance of tech is beginning to change.
“I embrace the differences my point of view and perspective bring. I know the value I add and now it is more widely recognised that different backgrounds, perspectives and experiences help with problem-solving.
"In turn, it is my responsibility to support the smart women around me.”
From an early age, Triona Mullane wanted to start her own business.
Having worked as chief technology officer for several companies, it was her role with NewBay Software, sold to Blackberry for $100m in 2011, which pushed her to take the plunge and start her venture.
In 2013, mAdme Technologies, which provides a digital customer engagement platform to mobile operators all over the world, was born. Mullane, whose company supplies operators including Digicel and Celcom, hasn’t looked back since.
“We want to continue to grow and expand our customer base,” she says of the company’s future plans. “We have offices in India, USA and Europe and we have just set up a new office in South Africa as we recently launched in an additional five African countries.”
Having found a gap in the parental control market, she founded Cilter Technologies, a start-up developing child-protection software for smartphones that detects/blocks harmful user-generated content through messaging apps.
Maycock says Cilter is looking to close its funding round in time to capitalise on the harmful content regulations as they become law.
The founder says she had been welcomed into the sector, despite her background outside of technology. One difficulty for woman in tech is fundraising and getting VCs to “focus on the opportunity instead of zeroing in on the risk”.
“There are investors and funds out there that don’t make decisions on the basis of gender but on the soundness of your proposition and these are the ones to target,” says Maycock.
Over 30 years ago, Cathy Kearney, who had trained as a chartered accountant, joined Apple.
From those early days as a contractor, Kearney has thrived with the tech giant and is now the Vice President of European Operations, and Site Director for Apple.
The company is now Cork’s largest private employer, with more than 6,000 on the team, working on everything from manufacturing and logistics, to customer care and sales.
“Over the years, the company has evolved and the Cork site has grown to be an incredibly vibrant campus,” she says. “I’ve been lucky, there were so many opportunities at Apple over the years that allowed me to grow and develop my career.”
She hopes to build on efforts in Ireland to diversify the workforce and encourage an inclusive environment.
Sinéad McSweeney is living proof that the tech industry is for everyone, even lawyers. A qualified barrister, McSweeney took a circuitous route into one of Ireland’s top tech jobs.
After working as a political adviser to Michael McDowell she became head of communications with the PSNI before taking up a similar role with An Garda Síochána.
She moved to a public policy role at Twitter’s European HQ in Dublin in 2012, becoming managing director there in 2016.
Coding may not be her thing but she deals with big numbers: the Dublin office accounted for 35pc of Twitter’s $3.46 bn global revenues in 2019.
In her role, she deals with endless regulatory threats and the massive focus on the policing of sometimes deeply unsavoury content that face a social media giant that serves, for better or worse, as the world’s unofficial water cooler.
For Sharon McCooey, head of LinkedIn Ireland, an interest in technology can be traced back to a secondary school teacher, Mr Brophy, who introduced the class to computers.
That early introduction stood McCooey well. In 1993, she joined a then startup called Informix Software, which was later acquired by IBM. Over 25 years, McCooey has worked in five different tech companies and now heads up the Irish operation of one of the world’s largest – LinkedIn.
McCooey joined LinkedIn’s operations in Ireland in 2010. From a team of three, it now has a presence of over 1,700 people.
“Early in my career I didn’t see women in the sector, so there were not many role models to aspire to,” says McCooey.
“The industry has really changed and I now have female role models, peers, colleagues and friends at every level.”
There’s already been some big announcements, and valuations, for Eileen O’Mara, head of EMEA revenue and growth at Stripe. The $95bn-valued firm is set to add at least 1,000 jobs here over the next five years.
O’Mara, who has over 20 years’ experience in the sector, specialises in building and scaling go-to-market functions for Stripe globally.
O’Mara is an admirer of many Irish female-led tech companies, including some not mentioned on this list like Talivest, led by Jayne Ronanye, and Lios led by Rhona Togher and Eimear O’Carroll.
“The technology industry should reflect our society and offer an equal opportunity for men and women to have an exciting and fulfilling career – we need more women to make that a reality,” she says.
From the Tyrone village of Sion Mills to the bright lights of San Francisco, it’s been an incredible journey for Sarah Friar. In a recent article with The Wall Street Journal, Friar is said to have expected her stay in Silicon Valley to be a temporary one.
Around 20 years later, she is still there running Nextdoor, a social media network used by one in four US households.
The pandemic has been an incredibly busy time for Nextdoor. During its peak, global daily active members grew 80pc month over month.
“To achieve something big, at some point, you have to take a big risk – but make it a principled one,” says Friar. “Spend time on your strengths, not your weaknesses, become really good at a few things, not mostly good at everything.”
Kinesense specialises in developing algorithms and solutions to manage and search video automatically. The UK police use it to search CCTV content for criminal investigations.
“We focus on helping police find suspects in video by searching for a variety of things like blue motorbikes or people with bags,” says Sarah Doyle.
Doyle grew up on a farm: “There was little talk about technology, so it was not until I graduated college that I ended up in France working for a company that was in the tech space, researching emerging technologies.”
In 2009 Doyle set up Kinesense with Dr Mark Sugrue, who has a PhD in video analytics: “He focused on the core tech and I focused on how to get it to market. It was a natural fit.”
Vela Games is an independent video game developer founded in Ireland in 2018 that creates cooperative multiplayer games.
“I’ve been a gamer my whole life, but most of my professional background is in academia, where I studied Anthropology and specialised in digital communities, communication, and identity,” says the LA native.
While working on her PhD at UCLA, researching communication and global gaming communities, she decided to move into applied industry research, leading to a role at the Dublin office of Riot Games. She subsequently co-founded Vela.
“I’ve always loved digital games. But growing up I didn’t have a lot of visibility around all the different types of roles that exist in the games industry – or the roads to get there.”
Now though she is entirely focused on the release of Vela’s first game, codenamed Project-V.
As a trained accountant specialising in international audits in the UK, Sinead Fitzmaurice saw a job with Terry Clune’s Taxback Group – now Clune Technology Group – as a way back to Ireland.
Fifteen years later she is CEO of Transfermate, a company she helped start originally as a way to reconcile the growing Taxback Group’s own cross-border payments. Now one of the world’s leading fintechs, it provides international payments technology to leading software companies and banks, including Wells Fargo, SAP, and ING, employing 300.
“Global payments is a huge industry, and technology companies like TransferMate are really only getting started,” she says.
Four of the six companies at Clune Technology Group are led by women. “But young women can have a tendency to second guess their ability, so we should all play an encouraging role and help mentor girls to embrace technology.”
In 2014 Sandra Whelan and husband David set up Immersive VR Education to bring virtual reality to education. HTC is now a strategic investor in the Waterford firm and in 2018 it was the first tech listing on the Irish Stock Exchange in 17 years.
Its proprietary ENGAGE advanced communications platform is used by 500 companies as an alternative to video communications.
“We want to change the narrative from ‘I’ll Zoom you later’ to ‘I’ll ENGAGE with you later’. It’s an ambitious goal but one that we are confident we can achieve,” she says.
She believes the tech industry still has a male domination problem: “Working in the office I was addressed more than once as the receptionist and asked when the ‘boss’ was due to arrive.”
Speaking to young women in transition year she found they saw tech as an uninviting world just for coders: “They weren’t aware of other numerous roles within the industry such as animation, sound engineering, UI/UX design, technical project management or 3D artistry.”
Paula Guimarães, along with business partner Kris Karazissis, moved to Dublin from Italy in 2017 after founding Antikytera, their Enterprise Ireland backed augmented reality company.
The technology developed by the firm allows information to be overlaid on live video streams, opening up new forms of collaboration in engineering and other sectors.
“I am self taught person since the age of 12,” she says. “My passion in computer graphics made me realise the importance of visualisation in our world. When we started we were pioneers of this industry. We had to imagine the future and build technology from out of our imagination.”
In August the firm secured a €15m investment from an unnamed German venture capital fund.
Having researched early childhood education, Wendy Oke dreamt of making a difference. She found teachers were spending up to four hours on paperwork per day and living in fear of unannounced inspections.
Armed with those findings, Oke founded Teachkloud, a platform which helps preschool owners communicate with parents and manage records such as attendance and learning records as well as access on-demand professional development.
The last year has been difficult, but Oke hasn’t stood still. She developed an e-learning platform with the help of Enterprise Ireland to support parents with home-schooling.
“The overall goal is to enable every teacher to provide quality early childhood education for all children, no matter who they are or where they come from,” says Oke.
Vanessa Tierney, CEO of remote working platform Abodoo, has always gravitated toward tech.
The Wexford company, which matches workers with firms supporting remote working, was established in 2017 and has been backed by Enterprise Ireland.
Tierney has plans to keep growing Abodoo internationally with governments, investment agencies and third level institutions to support sustainable job creation and add value wherever they operate.
“Technology for good is my passion,” she says.