September 21, 2009
Eight years ago while working for Jack Welch, the legendary chief executive of GE, we were chatting about his parents and upbringing in Salem, Massachusetts. His grandparents on both sides were from Cork and he was talking about how he loved coming ‘‘home’’ to Ireland. I asked whether his Irish ancestry might have been a factor in deciding to locate GE Capital in Ireland.
Welch – the man who single-handedly spearheaded the concept of shareholder value, and was known as Neutron Jack for firing so many people at the behemoth that was GE – got all dewy eyed. He looked and me and snapped: ‘‘Of course it bloody mattered, David,” as if I’d asked the most obvious question in the world. He continued: ‘‘Once Ireland got its act together, we were in as fast as we could.”
GE’s choices at the time were Ireland, Britain or France. ‘‘Where do you think I would put it?” he asked, and chuckled. This is the power of the diaspora. It is also the power of Ireland. If we can provide reasons for the great Irish Tribe to be involved economically here, they will come. It’s up to us towel come them back.
That was what the Global Irish Economic Forum at Dublin’s Farmleigh House this weekend was all about.
There are many reasons to be optimistic about the fusion of the emotional and commercial power of the diaspora with the realities of Irish recovery. There are two outstanding examples of countries which have economically used their diaspora to enhance the homeland, and also to give the diaspora a sense of greater belonging: the Israelis and the Indians.
Israel has built possibly the world’s finest high-tech industry by using its diaspora. In the early 1990s, the Israelis realised that, if the economy was to have a chance of surviving, it needed to start making its own technology, and keeping the intellectual capital. Up until then, they had been a bit like Ireland, happy to allow their engineers to be used by US companies to make good profits in Israel, which were then repatriated.
However, it dawned on the state that they should build their own companies. It all sounded good until they realised few Israelis had done this before. There was no template for taking an invention in Israel and commercialising it, so the invention was on the shelves for sale. They had the brains, but not the road map.
Then they realised that the people who had the know-how were their distant cousins in the US. American-Jewish entrepreneurs in the US who were American first, and Jewish second, were bringing companies in Silicon Valley to Wall Street and floating them.
So the Israelis wanted to bring them to the middle east. The vast majority of these venture capitalists were not religious Jews with a desire to live in Israel. But they did have one thing: an affinity with the country. During the middle of the Intifada, the Israeli state changed its tax laws and began to attract its American diaspora to Israel to build an industry.
Thus began the fusion of Israeli brains and American Jewish venture capitalism, which used its networks – Jewish and non-Jewish – in the US to make these companies world beaters. Now Israel is the third-biggest technological powerhouse in the world after the US and Canada. Today Israel has 4,000 high-tech companies and 100 fully-fledged venture capital companies.
The role of the Indian diaspora in creating the Indian high-tech industry follows a similar path. About 40 per cent of Silicon Valley start-ups in the past 15 years had at least one Indian founder. In the past few years, they have started to follow the Israeli lead and produce, create and locate their companies in India, learning the ropes from those who have gone before them.
We could – and, indeed – will do the same thing. Some 45 per cent of the chief executives of Fortune 500 companies worldwide have Irish surnames. The question is, how do you move from someone who is merely a St Patrick’s Day Paddy, to someone who is really involved with the country? The fact that the person is a St Patrick’s day Irishman or woman is a huge start. This is our in. This is our Jack Welch moment.
Now we need to create a twin-track strategy to maximise the opportunity given to us by our migrant history. One is based on pure self-interest, which is that we have to make it worth their while financially. The emotions of the shamrock need to be bolstered by the allure of the dollar.
Like the Israelis when they attracted the Jewish Americans, the Irish-American executives have to be able to tell investors they will make more money here than they would in the US. This is where the tax system comes in. We will make it as attractive as possible, so that we can create something out of nothing. This lights the fire.
The second is a subtler policy of cementing the bond between us and the diaspora, so that we never let this link slip again. This will take time and patience. We have to create a network whereby we make sure that the children of the diaspora come to Ireland – maybe to school or for a month in the summer, or to college.
The Israelis set up such a scheme, partly paid for by the government and partly by donations from philanthropic Jewish individuals. It brings Jewish teenagers to Israel for a few weeks, not unlike a big Gaeltacht, where teenagers from all over the world come to Israel to learn the language and experience the culture, the food, the history and generally have a laugh. This is precisely what thousands of Irish children do every year in Irish college. Bringing the diaspora children home is the same idea.
The Israelis are smart because they realise they are dealing in those most precious of commodities – memory, emotion and growing up. This teenage experience bonds the children to the country, and deracinated Jews from New Jersey become lifelong allies of the country. Thus it creates yet another resource for the country, an evergreen font of influence, networks and soft power.
This is our challenge. This present crisis is the opportunity we have to reinvent the country. Embracing the diaspora is part of the New Ireland’s foreign and industrial policy. It’s commonsense – and amazing we haven’t done it before.