irish times

Start-ups look the business as graduates seek to make own way

It’s wise to say it quietly but one positive outcome of the recession is a growing shift in mindset amongst the country’s nascent generation of professionals.


No longer do college graduates automatically hone their CVs, trawl the classifieds and brush up on interview techniques. In the emerging 21st century economy, entrepreneurship is the new prosperity.

For many, the idea of traditional jobs has become insipid.

Neophyte business minds are instead dreaming of innovation, progressing industry, inspiring change and, paradoxically, becoming the ones who provide employment.


Entrepreneurship has become a byword for post-collapse recovery in the jobs market to such an extent it is increasingly embraced by third-level education, State agencies and even by a new era of established companies (overwhelmingly in the tech sector) eager to exploit the creative talents of those who can offer fresh thinking rather than merely fitting pre-ordained roles.

As awareness breeds enthusiasm, the movement continues to gain momentum.

Union of Students in Ireland (USI) president Laura Harmon believes it’s not necessarily a new ability, just an emerging appreciation of the possibilities. “Everybody is different but I would argue that everyone is an entrepreneur – we are built that way as humans to have the tools to survive,” she says. “Whether or not you tap into that that is your own choice.

“I definitely don’t think it’s something that will disappear and I don’t think it’s a fad. Because of the recession there was probably more of a focus on it.”

The increasing move towards start-ups – the risks, rewards and skills required to get going – has become the focal point of numerous programmes and events throughout the country.

One of these is the Student Summit, a USI initiative now in its second year, embracing the three pillars of entrepreneurship, innovation and rapidly advancing digital technologies (the latter by now the bedrock for the majority of student ventures).

“By empowering our membership with business acumen,” the USI declares, “we can help shape the future.

“Students are the energetic life force to preserve and power the future of Ireland’s economy.”

This is no mere rhetoric. The Student Summit incorporates established speakers in the start-up and business worlds as well as networking through which the next generation can seek guidance. It is growing and its organisers believe it will continue to do so.

“I would say there were 200 last year and 300 (in April) this year and hopefully there will be about 400 or 500 next year. The word is spreading and it’s about having that network there,” explains Greg O’Donohue, another member of the USI team.

“We found that there was an opportunity, a gap in the market to give students and entrepreneurs access to brands and key speakers and networking opportunities, all in the same place.”

This is important, he believes, because the summit is often about finding the right partners; a computer programmer might need someone with business skills or vice versa and here is a giant melting pot in which to find them. The key, though, is “to create a sense of community among likeminded individuals”. 

Ideas space

This concept, says Harmon, is simply one of “space” in which “students come together at a national level and discuss their ideas”.

She adds: “There is a huge scope to expand (the summit) in the coming years as well as huge interest.

“There is nothing really that exists like it specifically for students and it’s very important for student entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs to share ideas and discuss them. That’s how ideas get expanded.

“Students have always been entrepreneurial but I think they are hungry for these spaces to come together.”

To say the Irish entrepreneurial spirit has been born entirely of the recession is something of a misconception, although it has been a shot of adrenaline to the heart.

Another driving force is the shifting tectonic plates of technological and social enterprise. The internet is the obvious x-factor as the world finds new, diverse ways to offer products and services.

Personal motivation is crucial. One of the guest speakers at the 2015 Student Summit was Patrick Hamilton Walsh.

A native of Strabane, Co Tyrone, he spent several years travelling the world and documenting his trip with a mobile phone. That adventure eventually led him to Sweden where he has been helping develop the image-sharing platform PicHit, taking on the likes of Google Images and Getty.

When he was young he set himself three goals: to get a Manchester United season ticket, own a Porsche before he was 30 and see the world.

“Of course everyone laughed at me. I had never seen a Porsche in my life,” he jokes now in retrospect. But actually his bucket list represented a triumvirate of achievement: the Porsche was materialism, the season ticket was lifestyle and the travel was education. Each is an important pillar of motivation for future business leaders.

Self-drive, he says, “is a snowball and ultimately it can turn into an avalanche when you get that momentum going, it can be very hard to stop. It’s all about that first step”.

Hamilton Walsh adds: “There is no one going to knock on your door and say: ‘That dream life you are looking for, here it is on a plate.’”

Hard work, perpetual motion and grind, he stresses, are vital.

Perhaps a reflection of his current whereabouts, he likes the Björn Borg analogy: the Swedish tennis legend spent hours hitting a ball with a narrow stick so by the time he picked up a racket it came easy.  

Future prospects

Hamilton Walsh is a chartered accountant by profession but decided against returning to that work, convinced the role will inevitably be smothered by technology. Entrepreneurship is, he believes, a way of saying: if you’re not fixing things or creating sustainability you won’t have a job.

“In 10 years you (might) find there are no more jobs for you because your mobile phone has stolen your job,” he says. “Follow what you love to do and really, really go after that with all you have. ”

Think what you will about the entrepreneurial world, its potential and its limitations, but it is not going away. Every year, as the summit exemplifies, more and more graduates are thinking about doing things for themselves.

Tom Hayes, divisional manager for entrepreneurship and the regions at Enterprise Ireland, a man immersed in the start-up universe, says it all began about 20 years ago but with a “real acceleration” in the last 10.

With a recovering economy, will the spirit of entrepreneurship wither away in favour of traditional employment paths? “I would safely say it’s the opposite. Once you embed a culture of start-ups I would be very confident that, more and more, you will see the environment improving,” he says.

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