Last week, the Ludgate Digital Hub in Skibbereen revealed that it had scored something of a coup, as the government’s former data protection chief had just started in the role of chief executive.
Clontarf native Adrienne Harrington has succeeded the hub’s first CEO Grainne Dwyer, who left the post earlier this year after getting the digital project up and running.
The 1GB hub – with an impressive board of management which is basically a who’s who of Irish business – has been held up as a model for other towns to kick-start their online futures.
Adrienne worked as a principal officer at the Department of the Taoiseach for the past three years, and had responsibility for data protection and digital policy. Prior to that, she held roles as head of the Secretary General’s Office and head of ICT strategy at the Houses of the Oireachtas, as well as being chief executive of the Psychological Society of Ireland.
The Dublin woman holds a masters degree in Business Studies and a doctorate in Governance from Queen’s University Belfast.
‘Within the next three to four years, we will be well on the way to our target of creating 500 jobs,’ she told The Southern Star. ‘We have €500,000 in seed capital, and we have five start-ups on site at the moment, with offers for another four start-ups going out shortly. We will be making offers to another four by the end of the year,’ she added.
But how did a digital high-flyer find herself applying for a role in laidback West Cork?
‘I’ve been coming down here for what seems like forever,’ she told me, over a cup of coffee in the West Cork Hotel, just days after starting in her new role.
‘A couple of years ago I did a week’s cookery course with Carmel Somers in The Good Things café, when she was in Durrus. I made a couple of friends there and we came back the following year. I have been coming down for the last three to four years,’ she added.
‘I have been at the digital week for the last two years as well, and when I heard about Ludgate I thought it was a really interesting concept,’ she explained, pointing out that she had been invited to view it when it was just a ‘building site’ and has seen its progression into today’s busy workspace. ‘I had a lot of conversations with the board members, including Kevin Buckley, [of Spearline] who told me about the impact it has had on his business. What really struck me from the beginning was the passion that everybody had on the board and the optimism and sense of curiosity.’
As well as the start-ups on site currently, Adrienne says there are 11 other people running businesses from the hub. ‘They vary from luxury travel online to video content editing, a dietician running a Harley Street business, a guy from South Africa setting up a specialist tourism company, and we have graphic designers and marketing companies too, so there is huge diversity.’
Adrienne said she loves the spirit of ‘community’ in the hub. ‘There is a great sense of sharing of enterprises, and a lot of them have got work from each other and word-of-mouth is also working very well there. We also want to expand the number of incubation businesses. The companies have good support in there, and the board members are also mentors.’
The board members include such heavy hitters as Vodafone boss Anne O’Leary, Google’s Ireland boss Ronan Harris, Sean O’Driscoll of Glen Dimplex, Lord David Puttnam and RTE director general Dee Forbes.
‘There are other hubs in other towns, and while this is the fastest now, there are others catching up. But what I think is unique in terms of this hub is the quality and calibre of the mentors – I don’t think you will find that anywhere else,’ suggested Adrienne.
Many other towns have visited to see how Ludgate is working. ‘We have had 14 towns through already, and we also have a conference coming up shortly where we will be talking about our progress and sharing the experience.’
Adrienne will also be investigating how best to collaborate with other partners. ‘
‘We have arrangements in place already with other hubs whereby people can swap hot desks in Dublin and Cork.’ The hub also has has a partnership with Cork County Council to provide one of their e-centre hot-desking facilities in Skibbereen. ‘All our hot desks were full during the summer with people using them to extend their holidays and also using our video conferencing facilities. At other times, people may have had to go back to work early to attend meetings. But this facility now means that they can stay in West Cork and not have to travel back to Dublin or elsewhere.’
Ludgate has a vision to keep young people living locally. ‘I see a great desire to keep young people here and we are allowing that to happen, but people also want to return here later in life and some just want to come and live here, like myself. We can facilitate that,’ explained Adrienne, a woman who is most certainly practising what she preaches.
‘I also want to investigate what the future is and what to do next. Ludgate is like a start-up itself. We are here just over a year, and we have gotten over the teething problems, so now we want to look at who do we partner with next. We have some new applications for grant aid in the pipeline and that will dictate what happens next, and we also want to look at sustainability and corporate sponsorship so we can capitalise on what we have here.’
Adrienne’s background is 34 years in the public service, including the Revenue Commissioners, the Departments of Social Welfare, Health, the Taoiseach, and a spell in Leinster House, and The Psychological Society of Ireland.
But Adrienne has a track record in getting out of her comfort zone. Some years ago she took six months out to travel to Namibia with Voluntary Service Overseas to work on HIV and Aids programmes. ‘We were trying to work out how to put a system in place to reach out to the chiefs in the tribes and the villages, and how to advocate a healthier lifestyle. When you work on something like that, all your support systems are gone. You cannot rant about work at home, and you cannot go into work and rant about it there, because everybody is part of the local community. You’re dealing with extreme poverty, and extreme wealth, and then it is a relatively new country which has only had its independence for just over 21 years.’
Back in Ireland, Adrienne was involved – in her most recent role – with writing digital policy and data protection policy as part of the National Digital Strategy which she had been working on for some time.
So it’s a bit like the gamekeeper turned poacher. ‘I have gone from writing it, to helping implement it now,’ she smiles.
And she says that the move from city to country isn’t quite as drastic as it may seem at first glance. ‘I wasn’t really commuting in Dublin because I was on the Dart to the office and I also live near a beach, but the fact that this job was here – I wouldn’t really have taken it if it was anywhere else. But I know West Cork and I really love it here.’
Ms Harrington says that despite her surname she doesn’t think she has any West Cork links. ‘But I really must investigate that further,’ she agreed, ‘because every time I am here I feel so at home.’
And she’s very keen to get settled into the West Cork lifestyle. ‘West Cork appeals to me because I am interested in food and its production, so this is the perfect place for me. In Dublin I grow some vegetables and I have a polytunnel, but I really want to expand that here and have hens, and grow more vegetables ... maybe have an orchard.’
She also loves hillwalking and other activities in abundance here, and her partner just completed the Great North Run in Newcastle in the UK, the day before they moved to West Cork, so they are both looking forward to enjoying more of the outdoors.
But right now her priority is getting her feet firmly under the table in the CEO’s office in Ludgate, and her message is clear: ‘It’s not just about a building – it’s about the potential of digital just transform peoples lives.’