The Irish in Silicon Valley: How Connecting Cultures Helps Both Countries

In a three-part series, Dublin Globe speaks to a number of Irish entrepreneurs, financiers and techies driving change in Silicon Valley. We’ll explore their stories, lessons, advice and why these émigrés still watch what happens in Dublin so closely. You can read the previous two articles here and here.

As I eat lunch and chat with Paul Walsh, founder of the blockchain-based security company MetaCert Protocol, I asked about his meal.

Walsh ordered the fish and chips with tea at this restaurant in San Francisco. Was the choice a sign of homesickness for this Wexford-born entrepreneur?

No, he says. They are just the best fish and chips in the Bay Area.

“There are certainly things about home that I absolutely miss,” says Walsh. “I miss the Irish humour, the sarcasm and the friendliness.”

But, Walsh says, without being in San Francisco he could not have launched Metacert.

There are a lot of ways the cross-pollination of Irish and San Francisco cultures improve both communities. Like that fish and chips, a little Irish flavour enhances the entire community.

“If I could combine the aptitude of the American and Irish together, you’d get a really good combination,” says Walsh.

For Walsh, the Irish are honest and sometimes self-deprecating, a point Cathal Phelan of Rapt Touch Inc. echoed echoed last week. The level of honesty can either help or hurt an Irish entrepreneur in America. Walsh sees it as a plus.

Americans think big but aren’t grounded with the realism of Ireland. Walsh says if an Irish person offers help, they truly mean to help. He hasn’t experienced the same on America’s West Coast.

“People mean well, but there’s no follow-through.”

In that spirit, this week we’ll explore the reasons how and why some members of the Irish community in San Francisco still keep such a deep connection back home.

“I think my American dream is to hold onto my connection to Ireland while being here,” says Ashlinn Marron, creative services manager for Stitch Fix.

Marron, president of the Irish Network Bay Area, first moved to America in 2010. She says her ties back to Ireland grow stronger through the Irish community in San Francisco.

“I didn’t expect to love it as much as I do,” says Marron. “I always thought I would return to Ireland, but I actually feel so settled out here.”

She continues, “part of that is having an Irish community out here. We always have that connection to home. Even through the [Irish] network, I’ll always have that connection to home without being at home.

“Plug yourself into that,” says Barry O’Brien, managing director at Silicon Valley Bank. “Was there a guy you went to UCC with? Is there a girl you worked at Facebook with. Use that. Leverage it. Everyone else is doing it.”

O’Brien first moved to San Francisco as a diplomat with the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In that role, he saw how Irish-ness can be an effective tool for the state’s international affairs.

“Our greatest diplomatic weapon is our culture.”

That same diplomatic weapon can be useful for networking too. O’Brien specifically suggested sport.

“When I moved out here, I joined a rugby club,” says O’Brien. “Rugby throughout my career has been a good networking base. A lot of my good friends are guys I played in school with or in college with or whatever else back home.”

It is fairly easy to tap into that sporting network. There are 17 GAA clubs in the Bay Area for youth and adults, plus a half dozen or so Rugby clubs.

In fact, with Ireland’s strong sport culture, O’Brien sees many Irish entrepreneurs launch sport startups in America. With companies like Orreco, Shadowman Sports, StatSports, and Kitman Labs sport-tech become a bit of an Irish niche.

O’Brien says another diaspora provides a good model for the Irish community in San Francisco: the Israelis. O’Brien says expats from Israel rarely shy away from calling up old friends from school or the military. Their deep ties to Israel also has a benefit back home too. O’Brien recommends many Irish firms follow what’s known as the “Israeli model.”

“Keep your engineering and back-end staff in Ireland, but you need part of your business development in the market,” says O’Brien. “The hand shaking and baby kissing side of your business has to be here.”

According to O’Brien, hiring an engineer right out of college in the Valley costs significantly more  than a similarly trained engineer in Ireland, where access to higher education is much easier and less expensive than America.

That’s a benefit to both Irish businesses and the country as a whole, so long as Ireland continues to train the next generation.

Luckily, one entrepreneur from Galway sees that in action. John McGuire, CEO of Game Your Game Inc., says it would’ve been very difficult set up his company in Galway. With hardware, software, and the importance of a global reach, McGuire needed to be in San Francisco for the right financing and advice.

But he’s seen big changes back home. McGuire says Web Summit had a transformative effect on the country: showcasing Ireland even with the move to Lisbon.

Similarly, McGuire says groups like CoderDojo prepare young people like never before: teaching thousands of children across Ireland how to code. McGuire saw both organisations have a positive impact on his family back in Ireland.

“My nephew was going to Dublin to be in a CoderDojo camp at the Dublin WebSummit, says McGuire. “That was not around when I was doing this sort of stuff.”

For the last two centuries of Irish history, the most enduring image has been that of emigration. Decade after decade, young men and women set out for far corners of the globe, simply hoping to make a better life. They left behind mothers, fathers, friends, and neighbours likely never to return home.

This recent wave of Irish emigration to San Francisco is different, though. Entrepreneurs like Pamela Newenham of GirlCrew see expansion to America as a way to grow her business. San Francisco is the “Hollywood for entrepreneurs,” she told me.

Moving the business abroad is not about escaping to a better life. It’s about taking the next step to make their Irish dream come true. In the end, these entrepreneurs very likely will choose Ireland for expansion into the EMEA market. That creates jobs and forges deeper ties.

In the end, one word became the most telling parts of my conversation with all of these Irishmen and women in San Francisco. Whether they lived in the Bay Area for decades or just a few months, when they said the word “home,” they were all talking about one place – Ireland.

A special thanks to David Smith, managing director of First Capital, and Declan O’Leary of Media Mentor PR for helping Dublin Globe get in contact with these San Francisco-based Irish entrepreneurs, financiers, and techies.

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