Author Archives: Victoria O'Connor

1 Continent, 1 Billion+ People, Endless Opportunities – Maeve Rafferty, International Development in Africa Specialist

Think about the t-shirt you are wearing. Who sew it? What are their working conditions like? Where they paid a fair wage? The rhetoric of a global village means the habits of consumers of the Global North have wide-ranging ramifications, stretching from the factory floor to the price of your t-shirt on the high-street. However, student decisions as ethical industry leaders of tomorrow can break ground in new markets while leaving a positive footprint. As global business interest in Africa flourishes, I recently interviewed Maeve Rafferty, a Trinity College Business, Economics and Social Studies alumnus with a passion for international development, innovation, and identifying opportunities for entrepreneurship in the emerging African markets. She spotlights Africa’s underestimated potential as a market for innovation, investment, and social entrepreneurship for enterprising students. Maeve also discusses the interaction between social entrepreneurship and positive societal development.

Market Opportunities
As an MSc in Africa and International Development at the University of Edinburgh candidate, Maeve has extensive insight and practical experience in understanding how globalisation interlocks with policy, practice, and business strategy. Acknowledging the market reluctances on part of buyers and suppliers in the West towards doing business with companies in Africa, Maeve highlights two reasons driving opportunities in these markets for forward looking student entrepreneurs. Firstly, delineating the economic shift that is under way in the continent Maeve draws
parallels with development challenges experienced in the 1960’s Asian markets which turned into a rapid growth period for the Four Asian Tigers- Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea. Where is next? Maeve suggests “Africa, as it is far too big of a global player to ignore.” According to a recent United Nations Forecasts, the continent is expected to double its population by 2050, from 1 billion to nearly 2.4 billion inhabitants. The implications of this growth present high long-term rewards for entrepreneurs who unleash Africa’s strategic position and potential.

Trends indicate rising incomes across the continent presenting an “attractive market” for those who identify gaps in the consumer market and seize the opportunity before competitors do. Secondly, innovation is needed where there is a lack of infrastructure. According to Maeve “Africa presents underexploited potential for sustainable industrialisation and innovation.” A 2016 report by Afrobarometer indicated that only 63% of the African population has access to piped water, and half the population live in areas without paved roads. It is important to bridge the distorted historical perception gap of Africa as a disconnected continent, 93% of the population has access to mobile networks. This reflects a continent of innovators and digital adopters. Developing sustainable infrastructure is an important step towards increasing productivity and competitiveness.

Social Entrepreneurship
Social entrepreneurship can create value in societies while also assisting their development. This is particularly pertinent in “lower or middle income countries which have less employment provided by the public sector, making the private sector a crucial employer.” For example, 3% of Tanzania’s employment is in the public sector. The remaining 97% presents opportunities in the private sector for social entrepreneurs seeking to create benefits which can improve “living conditions, and ensure people can live a dignified and secure life”. The wider knock on effects of entrepreneurship enables society to benefit from “more expenditure and higher demand for consumer goods which increases the ability for to create the supply to meet consumer demands”.

What can students do to drive social entrepreneurship? From Maeve’s experience in the education sphere, she suggests that students are already empowered to know that “decoupling needs to occur”. We need to decouple the idea that in order to have “economic growth there also has to be negative ramifications for the environment
and wider society.” Maeve views students as “ethical industry leaders of tomorrow, if they acknowledge and work towards ensuring the organisations they lead are conscientious in how their decisions are made, they have the power to contribute to sustainable development or hinder it.” The challenge of the COVID-19 lockdown presents opportunities for students to “reflect on society’s needs and meet consumer demand.” Maeve sees the student generation as social innovators, intuitively possessing skills that organisations are now acquiring, she recommends “reaching out to these global players and applying those skills positively to have a powerful impact” not just locally, but globally.

“Be Brave, Be Bold and Take Risks” – Kate Simpson, President of the Irish Chamber of Commerce Singapore

‘Be brave, be bold and take risks’

Meet the Corporate Globetrotter, Kate Simpson, President of the Irish Chambers of Commerce Singapore speaks about the strategies students need to succeed in the global business playing field.

Grappling with virtual networking, applying for internships and preparing for dream job interviews in an increasingly competitive environment, students and graduates alike can feel overwhelmed by the pressure of the hunt. I recently interviewed Ms. Kate Simpson, to discuss a range of issues pertinent to students, including insights from her journey to corporate success, her thoughts on how students can utilise their professional connections and prospects, as well as the importance of achieving gender equality and greater diversity in the corporate world.

Kate graduated from University College Dublin in 2008 with a Bachelor of Commerce in International Commerce with Italian. Attributing her adventurous nature to her Erasmus year spent in Università Boconni, Milan, Kate went on to achieve a CEMS (Community of European Management School) Master’s degree from UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School in International Management and HEC Paris.

Graduating at the onset of the global financial crisis, Kate faced a challenging employment climate where “jobs were few on the ground”, exacerbated by a fragile economy similar to the pandora’s box 2020 has unleashed on “Covid graduates”. Before the pandemic shook the world and rocked the global economy, students expected to graduate into a landscape of fruitful employment opportunities and promising prospects. The hiring field has drastically changed.  However, as the world gains understanding into emerging economic trends, Kate remains optimistic for the prospects 2021 will offer graduates.

Drawn to Singapore as a fast paced city and global financial hub, Kate and her husband relocated there in 2014 from Paris. With an Irish diaspora of approximately five thousand people, Kate describes how the Irish community has been supporting each other on a commercial as well as a personal level throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

As an investment banker at J.P. Morgan Singapore, Kate’s role focuses on new markets and product access of derivative products in the Asia-Pacific region. Kate became the President of the Irish Chambers of Commerce Singapore in September 2020 having served as Vice President since 2017. The organisation aims to create networks and connections of business leaders and, support Irish companies and professionals seeking exposure and launching into the South East Asia region. From a practical perspective, companies that would have traditionally visited Singapore to scope out a market or business opportunity are currently unable to do so given travel restrictions. This is where the Irish Chamber of Commerce Singapore steps in to be the sounding board for prospective companies who wish to expand their business East. 

The Global Irish – Insights for Students Planning to Emigrate

Kate invited me to join the Chambers of Commerce first virtual event, “An Evening with An Taoiseach” which she hosted. The event was truly international with opening words from the Irish Ambassador to Singapore His Excellency Pat Bourne, alongside ambassadors representing APAC countries and guests from every corner of the globe. Discussion revolved around the gateway the Irish Diaspora Strategy 2020-2025 offers to expand cultural innovation as well as foster dynamic commercial relationships for Irish entrepreneurs and businesses abroad.

Expanding the cohort of the Irish diaspora, driving growth, and promoting international networks, the strategy is ground breaking for both students and graduates. Embracing a vision that reflects the flexibility and adaptability of the Irish abroad, students planning ventures overseas can be assured that they will be supported by the Emerald isle.

Key to Success

Persistence, drive and vision are key components to success. I asked Kate what she did differently to excel in the corporate sector. Kate pin points her success to “remaining humble and hungry combined with a little luck”. She advises students not to be “deterred by rejection in the context of a job or internship interview since a greater opportunity is always around the corner”.

The job market in 2021 is going to be more competitive than ever before so positioning is key. Going into an interview “up to speed on the latest news pertaining to that company, being ready with meaningful questions and sending a follow up note after the interview will help you stand out”. Trusting your gut feeling, taking opportunities as they come, and maintaining a “say yes” frame of mind are inroads to success. 

Integral to success is the ability to network effectively. According to Kate the best place for students to start is “joining a University society that reflects a keen interest and passion”. This provides you with the opportunity to meet friends outside of your course and also adds another “feather to your hat” when interviewing for roles.

Diversity and Inclusion

How does the financial services sector fare when it comes to gender equality? According to a 2019 Deloitte report the proportion of women in leadership roles within financial services firms stands at 21.9%. In order to stop the permeation of gender related roadblocks in the financial industry some firms have taken strides to empower, encourage and energize women to progress in the corporate sector.

As co-chair of JP Morgan’s Women on the Move Initiative Kate is committed towards ensuring both men and women receive equal opportunities and career advice. Kate hosts a range of events for women to advance in the business world ranging from “coaching, presentation and technical skills and financial education with a role on financial independence”. Her motto is “you can’t be what you can’t see,” it is imperative for a firm to have both gender diversity in a management team as well as cultural diversity where everyone can voice their opinions openly.  

Graduate careers are affected by a firms commitment to gender equality and diversity in more ways than one. A diverse company will attract the most talented graduates and often “forms a priority for millennials selecting a job”. Kate views company culture as crucial in “promoting and valuing diverse teams,” it is well known that a diverse workforce leads to smarter, stronger and innovative decisions, “contributing positively to financial performance”. Diversity makes sense both socially and commercially. Graduates are central players in accelerating positive change by forcing companies to refocus and rethink their inclusion and diversity policies. Embrace the opportunity to “ask about your perspective firm’s diversity and inclusion policies and initiatives”.

Making a Positive First Impression in the Corporate World

A flawless application, a distinct LinkedIn profile and a bulletproof CV undoubtedly  plagues the conversation of students as the season of internship applications approaches. Reminiscing on her first-hand experience as a marketing intern at the New York Stock Exchange Euronext’s European headquarters in Paris, Kate elucidates how this sowed the seeds to securing a full time contract with the company for six years. Kate prospered in an environment where she was “thrown in the deep end” and faced the challenge of conducting business through French head on. Describing the cultural difference alongside the initiative linguistic challenges, Kate embraced the experience as a “firm believer in what doesn’t kill you makes your stronger”. One of the key lessons from Kate’s experience in Paris was to be empathetic when people are studying or working in a second language.

Those fortunate enough to secure an internship often mention how a coffee meet up with a senior member of a firm sets the tone of the much anticipated agenda. I asked Kate her opinion on how students can develop a relationship beyond a “one-off coffee”- here’s what you can do. According to Kate “first impressions count”. It is important to make a lasting impact on a prospective employer. Kate advises to “think big and beyond the scope of your internship.” Finding common ground is essential, it is human nature to connect through shared passions and experiences. Asking “questions about the long term strategy of the company, challenges ahead and always sending a thank you note can go a long way in ensuring [a partner] remembers you and demonstrates a genuine appreciation for their time and advice”.

Students working as interns or graduates entering the corporate world aim to portray an image that is confident, intelligible and driven. To reflect these traits Kate recommends to start by “removing these words from your vocabulary”. The first word is “sorry” – a series of studies found that women apologise more than men. Over apologising can have a negative effect on your career by “undercutting professionalism” and “diminishing credibility”. Next, eliminate the words “just” , “like” and “think,” using phrases such as “I just want to ask” or “I think” implies a “degree of doubt” and has the potential to create a “weak impression of yourself where there need not be”. You can replace these words with “I suggest,” which reflects confidence and authority. Establishing credibility and professionalism from the outset of your career is an invaluable asset.

“Be brave, be bold and take risks” is the advice Kate advocates to aspiring business leaders reading this article. Living in the “digital age anything is possible,” Kate encourages students to connect with a strong sponsor to share ideas and confide in – a process which can be an invaluable “two-way learning curve”.  There is a large difference between a mentor and a sponsor, you need both according to Kate. A sponsor will be someone who has clout and vouches for you when you are not in the room, while a mentor can provide guidance and support through their career path.

Simultaneously, Kate points to the trend of employers researching candidates to screen CVs, being social media savvy is more important than ever, as future employers can obtain their “first digital impression” of employment candidates with just one click. She advises to be cautious with what you post online as it will be picked up as part of the initial CV screening process.  Post graduating, keep connected with your local alumni association,  this also provides an opportunity to give back to the current student base in the form of speaking at career meetings or mentorship. Kate maintains that Ireland has an incredible education system that allows us to work globally. 

Message from Kate –

If you are reading this and are based in Singapore or are considering a move, please feel free to reach out to the Irish Chamber of Commerce Singapore to help you hit the ground running –

Interview with Mr. Conor O’Kelly – CEO of the NTMA

By Victoria O’Connor

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the global community on the broadest of spectrums. One area that has increasingly been overlooked is the impact the crisis is having on student entrepreneurs, their motivations to launch businesses and their ability to establish new enterprises. I recently interviewed Mr. Conor O’Kelly to discuss how new and evolving hurdles have challenged youth-led enterprises as they learn to sink or swim.

Conor, a proud Trinity alumni, is the Chief Executive of the National Treasury Management Agency. He has an extensive range of experience ranging from former Chairman of Investec Holdings (Ireland) Ltd to Chief Executive of NCB Group. He is also a former director of the Irish Stock Exchange. Conor studied ESS (today’s BESS) in Trinity. During his college years, Conor embraced student life representing Trinity in both rugby and golf, two passions which he still holds today. He graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1982 and the first student to be awarded a prestigious scholarship to Senshu University in Tokyo, Japan, where he completed a master’s degree.

The outbreak of COVID-19 is having a profound impact on the global economy, commercial markets and consumer behaviour. I asked Conor his thoughts on the repercussions of lockdowns and if we’re moving towards a society where the average consumer will no longer shop on the high street. He sees the issue as two fold, firstly, the pandemic’s role in shifting consumer behaviour and secondly, the trends that are developing from the global remote working experience.

It is important for young entrepreneurs to separate and identify the short-term repercussions of the pandemic from the permanent trends that are materialising. Businesses are either on the “right side or wrong side of the digital divide”. Conor sees the challenge for businesses as keeping up with the acceleration of the market shift from “bricks” to “clicks”.  As the pandemic unfolds, existing trends in the market have been accelerated dramatically, Conor describes it as “time traveling forward to 2030”.  Young entrepreneurs must respond and be experimental and innovative in not only with what their enterprise can offer the consumer but also how they can connect, engage and sustain a customer base.

Shifts in Consumer Spending and Attitudes

The pandemic is changing city centres around the world in irreversible ways. The global “working-from-home experiment” has meant consumer spending has shifted from city centres to local communities. City centre businesses whose success is based on a commuter workforce are going to be adversely impacted by this crisis. One strategy for centrally located enterprises is to focus less on their traditional presence and increase efforts towards driving consumers towards their online channels.

Young entrepreneurs aspiring to operate in retail outlets, must take steps to build consumer trust by adapting to the new health and safety expectations in the community. It is both a responsibility as well as an opportunity for business owners to provide a “safe environment” where consumers are comfortable with the risk, thereby encouraging shoppers to return. Conor opines that emerging technology is likely to be a prominent method in which business owners can confidently deliver on this. Scientists at Oxford University have developed a COVID-19 test that can produce a result in less than 5 minutes. While logistically implementing this at scale may be difficult, it demonstrates the potential for businesses to establish COVID-free spaces.

Opportunities and Challenges Facing Young Entrepreneurs

As the pandemic increasingly pushes consumers towards the world of e-commerce, Conor considers this as a golden opportunity for young entrepreneurs to maximize the opportunity presented by changing consumer behaviours.  A report by Digital Business Ireland found that 74 per cent of shoppers surveyed have been put off by the queues, capacity limits and social distancing requirements in stores. Most young entrepreneurs form the large part of the digital generation, Conor sees them as possessing an “intuitive sense” of how to understand the online spending pattern and behaviours of today’s consumer.

Overall, the pandemic has had a tremendously adverse impact on SME’s who face a unique and difficult challenge for survival. In spite of the turbulence caused by the crisis, a number of companies have improvised, adapted and thrived. Conor provides insight into the ways in which student enterprises can mirror the resilience and success of global companies – “if a business has a good product, they will be able to access distribution channels and will be encouraged to do so”.  Amazons “shop local scheme” is just one example of a global platform opening up access to local businesses.

Reimagining Business – The Role of Technology

Young entrepreneurs must seek opportunity for reinvention and differentiation in times of market disruption. Zoom, an app that was available 9 years ago and largely unknown, has emerged as one of the leading platforms for businesses to ensure their teams can function and communicate effectively and is now worth approximately €25bn.

Encouraging consumers to adopt new products is one of the most challenging obstacles for new businesses to overcome according to Conor. The world has experienced a simultaneous collective grief like no other, and consumer behaviour has changed as a result of it.  We’re living through “seismic societal change “, and the opportunities are endless for the entrepreneurs who successfully identify opportunities and react to consumer demands and expectations living in the “new normal”.

Technology is playing a key role in reducing barriers to business entry for young entrepreneurs launching businesses, it opens a window towards perpetual innovation. Before the internet, start-ups faced costly processes of finding and operating a premise, ordering stock and paying for licenses etc. Now, with an ability to eliminate the majority of traditional overhead costs, online opportunities are increasingly available and more accessible than ever.

Risks Facing Young Entrepreneurs

The short-comings of e-commerce are exposing the difficulties many entrepreneurs face in connecting emotionally with their consumer base to establish loyalty. One recommendation Conor offers is for young entrepreneurs to enhance, augment and personalize the online shopping experience for their consumers.

Providing consumers with an enriched experience by connecting with them is likely to establish both brand loyalty and brand awareness, these can be developed as competitive tools for new and adapting enterprises.

Creativity, imagination and innovative marketing ideas can be driving factors that enable organisations to connect with their target market, and are crucial constituents for young entrepreneurs in 2020.  In the dawn of the internet, any brand can instantly become a viral sensation or a viral nightmare. Companies must prioritise developing and protecting their online reputation as the image of an enterprise is more pertinent than ever before. Citing being on the “wrong side” of a sustainability issue or exercising “greenwashing” as examples,  Conor explains how reputational risk can threaten the survival of the business itself. With a global audience comes a global risk. Money talks, but it’s the consumer who decides where that money goes. In an increasingly cashless society,  a transaction is only a click away with the consumer in ultimate control – that’s a powerful concept at scale.


Most young entrepreneurs with innovative business concepts face obstacles without the benefit of having a lived experience. Against the backdrop of the current pandemic, youth-led enterprises should adapt and find experience and partners that can help. Conor advises them to take advantage of opportunities to learn from others, whether it’s through a mentor, alumni or listening to podcasts from industry leaders. The perspective and insight of others added to the imagination and creativity of student entrepreneurs is a powerful combination.

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