Gathering the diaspora

There was never a more important time for this country to tap into the reservoir of goodwill represented by the US diaspora. Philippa Maister reports from Atlanta on the ongoing initiatives to encourage just this.

By some estimates, there are 40 million men and women of Irish descent in the US. Now, more than ever, their ties to their distant homeland have become a strategic asset for Ireland  – one that diplomats here are actively working to exploit.

It’s not a very hard sell. As Ambassador Michael Collins noted recently in Atlanta, Georgia: “There’s a reservoir of goodwill that wants to be mobilised”.

Speaking to a crowded room exuding a spring-like feel on a winter’s day, with its splashes of green on ties, scarves and blouses, Collins reminded his audience that Irish-Americans have a unique asset – their culture. “Build on that, develop that, promote that,” he urged them.

To help them get in the spirit, the embassy is sponsoring a year-long ‘Imagine Ireland’ campaign that will bring Irish arts, theatre, literature and music to US cities. Kicked off by the actor Gabriel Byrne, the programme is intended to encourage not only those Irish-Americans who cherish their heritage, but those who need a reminder – as well as the thousands of Americans who turn Irish on St Patrick’s Day – to visit Ireland and spread their dollars around.

The ambassador was in Atlanta to preside over the official opening of a new Irish consulate in the southern city, a 4.1 million strong metropolitan area that is the business, financial and transportation hub of the burgeoning south-east. Georgia governor Nathan Deal and Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed were also in attendance.

The new consulate is Ireland’s first in the US since 1933, and opens the way to new business opportunities far from the Republic’s long-standing locations in the northern cities of Washington DC, Boston, Chicago and New York, and its western outpost in San Francisco.

Its arrival owes much to a decade of lobbying by prominent members of the city’s Irish-American community.

“This is the culmination of a lot of years of hard work by a lot of people,” said Kevin Conboy, president of the Irish Chamber – Atlanta and a partner in the law firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker. Among those involved in the effort he cited legendary figures like Donald Keough, non-executive chairman of the investment firm Allen & Co, who has been active in philanthropy in Ireland, and former Coca-Cola CEO, Neville Isdell.

The consulate, headed by consul Paul Gleeson, has a primary focus on strengthening commercial ties between Atlanta and the south-eastern US and Ireland. It aims to increases exports from Ireland, attract Irish companies seeking a base in the US, and work with the IDA – which has two representatives in Atlanta – to recruit businesses from the south-east to locate in Ireland.

Conboy says the Irish Chamber has stepped up its activities in the light of Ireland’s current difficulties, talking up tourism and encouraging American students to consider studying in Ireland. He himself is the proud father of a Trinity graduate.

Conboy is also a member of the Irish American Leadership Council, a group formed in 2009 to harness ideas on how to increase Ireland-US links and create jobs. Its inaugural meeting, held in New York, was chaired by former foreign minister Micheál Martin. The Council includes politicians, business people, charities, people involved in Irish arts, members of the clergy and educators, as well as representatives of Irish development agencies.

Similar patriotism stirs in virtually every city with a sizeable Irish community – not just those with the largest concentrations, like Boston, Chicago and New York. Small wonder then that Ireland is appealing to its far-flung diaspora to come to its aid.

Tech diaspora

In California’s Silicon Valley the call has been heard. In 2007 Limerick native John Hartnett founded the Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG) in San Jose. Composed of Irish and Irish-American senior executives in the IT sector, the ITLG helps promote the growth of Irish high-tech companies by linking them with the rich resources of knowledge, capital, technical assistance and business contacts of Silicon Valley.

Chaired by the former CEO and chairman of Intel, Craig Barrett, ITLG’s management team includes – in addition to Hartnett, a former senior vice-president with Palm – senior Irish-American executives with Intel, Cisco, Sling Media, Innovalight and Venrock, a venture capital firm. The organisation is backed by an impressive advisory board. Launched with 15 members, ITLG now has 1,500 in its network.

“I never believed how strong the organisation would be until I started this and discovered the goodwill that is there from people who are very busy,” Hartnett comments.

Each year, the ITLG arranges for Silicon Valley executives and venture capitalists to visit Ireland – at their own expense – and meet with start-up companies with promising technologies. The candidates are winnowed down to a dozen. The lucky few are invited to make presentations to an expert panel at Stanford University in Palo Alto the following spring, in an event co-sponsored by The Irish Times.

From this group, individual winners are selected in the categories of ‘Top technology’ and ‘Most promising technology company’. The winners are connected with Silicon Valley executives and venture capitalists able to help them develop and commercialise their product.

Academic institutions are not forgotten. ITLG also supports a university challenge, where Irish universities compete to win a cash prize for the best technology, along with an invitation to the Stanford event.

Two spin-offs have emerged from ITLG. The Irish Innovation Centre is an incubator that provides Irish or Irish-American start-ups with office space, legal and financial advice, administrative support and networking opportunities.

“Many Irish companies are not necessarily ready for prime time in terms of getting in front of top venture capitalists or of their strategy for going to market. We help them with that through the centre,” says Hartnett.

Hartnett has also launched another initiative, the Irish Technology Venture Fund. He and other investors, with the support of the Irish Government, have put in their own money to create a source of capital for young companies in need of investment. The fund currently stands at US$2m (€1.5m).

Currently a West Coast operation, ITLG plans to open a second office on the eastern seaboard of the US this summer. The kick-off event will be held at MIT in Boston.

Heart of Congress

Ireland also benefits from a powerful lobby in Congress. The late Senator Edward Kennedy was unquestionably its best known member, but the list of House members and senators with Irish surnames in both the Republican and Democratic parties is still long. Many are members of the bipartisan caucus, the Congressional Friends of Ireland.

In addition, there are innumerable charities dedicated to serving the cause of Ireland. Among the most powerful is the American Ireland Fund, which in 25 years has raised US$300m to support peace and reconciliation, arts and culture, community development and education in Ireland.

So strong is the support it enjoys that in 2009 – when charitable giving plunged across the board – the Fund was one of only 12pc of charities to enjoy a surplus. It makes awards of up to €25,000 to selected organisations in both the Republic and Northern Ireland that address a social need.

The men and women who, over the years, defied rough seas and worse to make their way to America in the hope of better luck, may have thought more of survival and a meagre remittance to send home than of a legacy. Yet they created one in a rich heritage that sustained their descendants and, in turn, drives their descendants to sustain their homeland.

This article first appeared in Irish Director magazine, Spring 2011