Ashoka Fellow

With an eye to the future, Inspirefest 2017 was bolder than ever

“Inspirefest unapologetically has diversity and inclusion at its core,” said founder Ann O’Dea while onstage at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre on July 6, delivering the opening to Dublin’s Inspirefest. Billed as “a unique international festival of technology, science, design and the arts,” the festival's programme boasted three days of fascinating speeches, panels, presentations, and workshops.

The festival, held from 6-8th July, boasted a colourful programme of STEM- and creativity-focused topics

The festival, held from 6-8th July, boasted a colourful programme of STEM- and creativity-focused topics

The festival brings together founders, innovators, educators, investors, and techies, mostly within STEM but also in business and the arts, and its central mission champions diversity and inclusion in a sector that is famously scant on those values. In his welcoming address, An Taoiseach, Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, praised Inspirefest for its emphasis on equality and on the fusion of arts and science to create change.

“Inspirefest unapologetically has diversity and inclusion at its core.” - Ann O'Dea, Editor-at-Large of Silicon Republic & Founder of Inspirefest

These proclamations were borne out in Inspirefest’s programming, which included 75% female speakers. Many of the speakers--both men and women--discussed gender equality in the workplace and in STEM, as well as equality and diversity of race, age, and ability. Dr. Anita Sands, a Board Director of three Silicon Valley public companies, discussed the jarring absence of women as leaders in business, and Colin Graham, Director of International Compensation and Benefits at Facebook, talked about the need for new technologies like facial recognition to include people of color and reflect the diversity of their users. Ana Matronic, author of Robot Takeover, went beyond the human realm, discussing the importance of accepting not only transgender people but also transhuman cyborgs, a technological certainty of the future. Young entrepreneurs Ailbhe and Izzy Keane talked about their business, Izzy Wheels, which sells beautifully designed and decorated wheelchair spoke-guards.

Inspirefest speakers made sure to keep the discussion nuanced and honest, balancing their praise and excitement around technological innovation with discussion about the dangers that technology can pose, especially in today’s global political climate. Despite covering  serious topics, the speakers were not pessimistic. Rather, they gave the audience calls to action--read an article before you post, for example--in the hopes of a better future.

Ashoka Fellow Matt Flannery is the founder of Kiva and Branch, two fintech social enterprises that are empowering those who are underserved by banks.

Ashoka Fellow Matt Flannery is the founder of Kiva and Branch, two fintech social enterprises that are empowering those who are underserved by banks.

Two Ashoka Fellows, Matt Flannery and Bart Weetjens, took the stage to highlight the intersection of social enterprise and STEM. Matt talked about his journey to founding the microfinance nonprofit Kiva, and the digital loaning platform Branch, both of which serve entrepreneurs in developing countries. His three main lessons: work in the field first, do what you love, and get started fast. Bart Weetjens, whose Tanzania-based organisation, APOPO, trains African giant pouched rats to detect landmines in post-conflict areas, and to sniff out tuberculosis infections in health centres, spoke about the importance of innovative thinking in solving global health challenges. Bart’s talk included video clips showing how the rats are trained by experts, and revealed that more than 900,000 landmines and 82,000 TB infections have been detected by APOPO since 2000.

Ashoka Fellow Bart Weetjens is the founder of APOPO, which trains rats to sniff out landmines and tuberculosis infections

Ashoka Fellow Bart Weetjens is the founder of APOPO, which trains rats to sniff out landmines and tuberculosis infections

All of Inspirefest’s speakers envisioned a bright future for humanity and for STEM. As Marcus Weldon, president of Bell Labs and corporate CTO of Nokia, said, machines will take over but only “over the mundane things, freeing humans up to do cognitive, aesthetic, creative things.” Indeed, the Inspirefest speakers showed that these aesthetic and creative pursuits were already happening, and in new and exciting ways, as many of them discussed the convergence of STEM and the arts. Several gaming experts discussed the importance of art and design in creating a powerful and beautiful gaming experience. Keri Krukal, first a dancer, then a biochemist, and now the founder and CEO of Raw Science TV, told of how she had blended art and STEM in her career because “technology alone is not enough.”

More of Inspirefest’s wonderful programme is available on Silicon Republic’s coverage of the festival, live social media (follow #Inspirefest on Twitter or Facebook), or the InspirefestHQ Youtube account. Cheers to the inspiration gathered and lessons learned from the strong and diverse stories, speakers, and ideas of Inspirefest! Let the countdown for next year’s festival begin.

This post was written by Aviva Klein Meyers, Programme Intern at Ashoka Ireland, Stanford University Class of 2019.

Read Matt Flannery's interview with Silicon Republic here. Find out more about Bart Weetjens in Fiona Koch's profile on APOPO here.

Spring is here! And so is our new #AIQ

With apologies for the radio silence... 

The first few months of 2017 have been busy in our office, with a lot of behind-the-scenes work on our Fellow nomination process. We are also getting ready to announce two new partnerships and a campaign later this year - so watch this space!

In the meantime, we are delighted to share our quarterly round-up of news from the Ashoka Ireland community, in our spring #AIQ newsletter, below. 

You can read about a system-changing collaboration between Fellows Neil McCabe and Mike Feerick, and learn about leading global Fellows in our #GlobalChangemakers campaign. Changemaker Schools got a big feature in The Irish Times this month. And we celebrate the work of Jacqueline Williamson, who is our first Fellow to join the network from Northern Ireland!

Read on at the link:

#FridayPhilosophy: What is a changemaker?

A remarkable thing happened last week at the United States Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia: Bill Clinton chose to encapsulate Hillary’s public service career with one description: "She is the best darn changemaker I have ever known." News outlets around the world carried headlines about the speech, with some wondering, what is a changemaker?

For us at Ashoka—a network that has been dedicated to building an "Everyone A Changemaker" world for more than a decade—it’s an exciting moment to witness changemaking become part of our collective consciousness. And it's even better when it prompts a debate about who might qualify as the most effective changemaker. But the moment comes with trepidation, too. It’s imperative that the term doesn’t become partisan. The complexity of societal challenges are too great for any one party to lay claim to an identity as uplifting as changemaker.

Changemakers are school children in Haiti creating new traffic safety systems, American truckers preventing human trafficking, and Nobel Peace Prize winnersbringing banking to Bangladesh and fighting for child rights in India. They can come from anywhere in the world, they can come from any sector, and most importantly, they can have any political leaning. 

So if we shouldn’t gauge a changemaker by their shade of blue or red, what qualities do they exhibit? Three qualities stand out:


They use a deep-rooted sense of empathy for others, identify a specific problem or opportunity to tackle, and give themselves permission to do something about it. But it doesn’t stop there. Changemakers are relentless. Picture a child who wants to recycle plastic to protect local wildlife. By doing so, she has taken her first steps in changemaking. But when recycling becomes commonplace, she’ll graduate to the next major challenge in managing resources (a scenario that is already becoming true in some places). 


Changemakers cannot just parachute into a community as an outsider who has come to save the day. They must be personally connected to the issue they want to solve. Take the example of Khalid al-Khudair, a social entrepreneur who focuses on creating jobs for women in Saudi Arabia. He is passionate about women’s empowerment in the Middle East not as a theoretical development professional from abroad, but as someone born and raised within Saudi Arabia, and having witnessed the struggle of his sisters search for employment firsthand.

Further, changemaking is not just the domain of a privileged few. People seen as being "in need" often create and drive their own solutions, many addressing the most pressing issues of our time. For example, street children in India are running their own helpline to quickly reach other children in distress, women in Nigeria are incorporating technology to build wealth beyond subsistence farming, and ex-gang members are leading efforts to reduce gun violence by more than 75% in American inner cities or mentoring other youth for tech careers in South Africa.


Not every changemaker launches their own startup. Sometimes it is the changemaker within an existing institution that’s most powerful. For instance, a cell-phone company employee worked to help informal businesses in slum areas function by giving them mailing addresses through mobile phones, or a pharmaceutical company employee began working on cheap, accurate, paper-based diagnostic kits for anemia after a family friend died without being diagnosed. Known as social "intrapreneurs," these are people—like many of us—who understand the mechanics of their own firms and are in a great position to innovate for the greater good.

We live in a rapidly transforming, increasingly interconnected world. The size and complexity of global challenges needs changemakers of every shape and size. And while the Clintons were among the first politicians to publicly embrace the association, our country—and our future—depends upon changemakers across the political spectrum.

As Engineers Without Borders founder and inspiring changemaker George Roter says, "Everyone has changemaking in their DNA; it’s just a matter of unlocking it."

Reem Rahman is the director of the Ashoka Changemakers Learning Lab and coauthor of recently published report: "More than Simply 'Doing Good': Defining Changemaker."

Kris Herbst is the chief editor on the Ashoka Framework Change Team. 

Tim Scheu is the director of engagement management at Ashoka Changemakers.

This article originally appeared on Fast Company.

Empowering diverse voices in STEM: Inspirefest conference lives up to its name

How many tech conferences place diversity and inclusion at the heart of their programme?

Last week, Dublin’s Inspirefest - “a unique international festival of technology, science, design and the arts” - brought a packed, two-day schedule of keynote speeches, talks and panels to Ireland’s ‘Silicon Docks.’ With a lineup of over 70% female founders, creators, coders, venture capitalists and leaders, Inspirefest managed turned the traditional 9:1 male-to-female tech conference ratio on its head, and lived up to its mission.

Ashoka Fellow Jamila Abass (founder of M-Farm) addresses an audience of over 1,500 at Inspirefest

Ashoka Fellow Jamila Abass (founder of M-Farm) addresses an audience of over 1,500 at Inspirefest

Speaking to The Irish Times in advance of the festival, founder Ann O’Dea cited the social benefits of challenging traditional spaces and workplaces. “It just so happens that men and women tend to have quite different backgrounds but it’s the same thing with people of different ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientation, you name it. Often their circles are a little bit different and you just end up with a conversation that’s a little bit richer,” she said.

In a welcoming address on June 30th, An Taoiseach, the Prime Minister Enda Kenny, praised O’Dea’s commitment to celebrating STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills and jobs, citing that, “the world needs curiosity, understanding, innovation and knowledge. A scientifically-educated society is essential to solving the challenges we face now and in the future.” He also extolled the crucial importance of diverse perspectives in tackling social challenges, saying that, “if we can for an instant see the world through others’ eyes, we have the opportunity to change things.”

Ashoka Fellow Alex Bernadotte (founder of Beyond12) speaks at Inspirefest

Ashoka Fellow Alex Bernadotte (founder of Beyond12) speaks at Inspirefest

Much of Inspirefest’s programme highlighted companies and leaders from the STEM sectors, with a mix of executives from major global companies joining founders from smaller startups, to provide insights on trends. Judith Williams, (Dropbox), gave an electrifying talk on the economic benefits of a diverse workforce, while Claire Calmejane, (Lloyds Bank) emphasised the importance of innovative thinking in the financial sector. Ashoka Fellow and founder of the Kenya-based tech company M-Farm, Jamila Abass, described how her mobile app helps farmers across Africa access new markets, share information on price transparency, and collaborate together via a simple tech platform. Scientist and founder of Nuritas, Nora Khaldi, spoke about the challenges and rewards of running a business in a sector “with very few women.”

Other speakers shared perspectives from the intersection at which STEM, social enterprise and the arts collide. Ashoka Fellow and founder of Beyond 12, Alexandra Bernadotte, told the story of how, “born in the wrong zip code to achieve higher education,” her experience of gaining two degrees motivated her to build a data-driven tech platform that empowers first-generation college students to complete their degrees, creating a more inclusive education system and workforce. Blogger and academic Sinead Burke shared her story of forging a path in the fashion world: She founded fashion website Minnie Melange to document the ‘sartorial challenge’ of finding fashionable outfits for her 3’5” frame, and with it, has created a community of diverse voices, fashion-lovers and activists alike.

Blogger Sinead Burke (Minnie Melange) tells her story at Inspirefest

Blogger Sinead Burke (Minnie Melange) tells her story at Inspirefest

Many more examples of Inspirefest’s stellar programme can be found in Silicon Republic’s coverage of the conference, and one need only glance through the live social media feeds (follow #Inspirefest on Twitter and Facebook) to see that the conference left many audience members not only inspired, but actively motivated, by the stories, role models and ideas that were shared at Inspirefest.

Ultra-earlybird tickets for Inspirefest 2017 are now available at www.inspirefest.comRead special feature profiles on Ashoka Fellow & Inspirefest speakers Alexandra Bernadotte and Jamila Abass on Silicon Republic.

Interview with Senior Fellow Jerry White

Green Couch Series: Wisdom from Global Fellows

Source: Celina Hu | The Cavalier Daily

Source: Celina Hu | The Cavalier Daily

Activist and social entrepreneur Jerry White stopped by Ashoka Ireland on a sunny Friday to talk about Irish resilience and his future plans for peace. A Senior Ashoka Fellow, Jerry previously served three years as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, launching the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operation created by former Secretary Hillary Clinton. He co-founded Landmine Survivors Network, later Survivor Corps, which led the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize for Peace.

A self-proclaimed “Impact Fundamentalist,” Jerry has made it his life’s work to push for levels of systemic transformation that promote more peace and justice in the world. Though he admits he does not quite know what peace looks like yet, he has always been drawn like a moth to the flame when it comes to conflict mitigation. He shared his current professional projects, why Ireland is special to him, and what it takes for social entrepreneurs to make lasting change.

What is it about Ireland that makes social entrepreneurs thrive here?

Ireland has energy, and a little bit of fight in it, along with good humor and good stories. There’s the literature, the poetry, and the history. I think Ireland, because it has suffered and secretly likes some of its suffering, is a contradiction. That is where creativity comes in, when you have a paradox. The best of times, the worst of times. It’s very difficult but we have our music and we have our poetry and we have our community.

When you detect humor even in darker times, that is a clear hallmark of resilience. Entrepreneurship is about innovative ways for turning problems around. Entrepreneurs make up stories, imagine possibilities. They’re creative, which often comes from suffering and scar tissue, and understanding history. They take risks sometimes for survival’s sake.
I have a bias, since my mother was half Irish and my father was half Irish. Americans think of themselves as pie charts, and that makes me 50% Irish. Ireland was my first international trip when I was 9 years old and I had a lot of firsts here. I milked my first cow, I rode my first horse. I played grass tennis and got eggs out of a hen house. Some girl kissed me for the first time and chased me around with a broom. It was all fun and magic on this island where we spent a whole month.  I also had my first fight with two farm boys. We threw stones at each other while they yelled at us that they couldn’t understand our accents and we yelled at them that we didn’t understand theirs. I think Ireland helped me become an entrepreneur because I took risks here.

You have three jobs right now: Teaching a class on religion and violence at University of Virginia, running the non-profit Global Covenant Partners, and getting a predictive analytics company, Global Impact Strategies, off the ground. How do these intersect?

When I was invited into government four years ago, I thought that it was my time to serve. I was appointed by the Obama administration as a Deputy Assistant Secretary to set up a new Conflict and Stabilization Operation Bureau. This was happening at the time of the Arab spring, the Middle East was falling apart, Putin in Ukraine, Boko Haram in Nigeria. There was no end to the conflicts we were trying to stabilize. My time in government was one of the most entrepreneurial times I faced and I have deep respect for government work.

The social entrepreneurs in Ashoka may not have understood how you can be creative inside government... it was almost like I had gone off and entered a vortex of the U.S. government and there was this “we’ll talk to Jerry when he gets out” feeling. Government was restricting, but not uncreative. We created a new bureau, engaging religious leaders around the world, introducing the use of advanced analytics in the State Department to do predictive analysis to prevent disaster. By the time I left the government, I didn’t want to go to an office in the morning until 8 at night. I wanted to stretch my neck and figure out what my vision for the future was.

How did you refocus and decide your next move?

 A friend told me take out a blank sheet of paper and ask yourself what is your next contribution to the world, your next service, your passion? Where is your energy and thinking moving?  I took out a blank sheet of paper and drew three overlapping circles that were an “.org,” an “.edu,” and a “.com.” I put an “I” in the middle of the diagram, not for me, but for impact. I’m getting older and life has so many problems that if you aren’t going to have impact, you’re just doing projects, programs, and activities that will burn you out without effect.

Global Covenant Partners looks at one of the biggest challenges of our day: preventing and inhibiting religion related violence. It is so urgent because it is the most virulent type of violent cancer spreading fastest in the Middle East and South Asia. We see it not exclusively with ISIS and we see it spreading to Europe with questions of migration and competition among Abrahamic cousins. GCP involves religious leaders, government actors, policy makers, and civil society to do something creatively, almost like a campaign to stop killing in the name of God. What would an inter-religious peace treaty look like? We’re working with an amazing group of leaders around the world on ways to protect narrative, heritage and communities at risk.

The work I am doing with GCP feeds into teaching. I teach about religion, violence, and strategy and how to stop killing in the name of God. We built up a network at UVA that is becoming a hub for this type of problem, looking at data driven research on the science of religion and violence not just interfaith meeting or dialogue.

The third piece is, giStrat, or Global Impact Strategies. GiStrat applies decision science and advanced predictive analytics to the biggest problems of our day like conflict and cooperation, energy and the environment, and health and society. If we could use our own software we’re developing to predict with high speed and high accuracy the dangers we’re facing, we can game out alternative models and strategies and optimize outcomes and bring better futures. I wanted these three jobs to enforce each other and be linked.

Speaking as an expert on conflict mitigation, is there something to be learned from Ireland in terms of their reconciliation process?

Absolutely. Ireland has this experience of sectarian divides and trying to weed through the political as well as the religious. It keeps haunting us to this day, flaring up in current day politics or memories depending on the enabling conditions that bring conflict into the forefront. The people who were involved in the peace process have looked at questions of restorative justice, and they have a lot to teach the rest of the world. No conflict is the same but there are lessons to be learned from the Irish experience. The Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, one of our partners in the Global Covenant, has a beautiful space in Wicklow where you can convene people and have difficult conversations. Not just to talk about what happened in Ireland, but to host people from Palestine and Israel and Libya. It comes alive as a place to share meals and build dialogue in what I call “hospitality de-friction.” Speaking on the migration crisis, I believe Ireland has the confidence, resilience, humor, and hospitality in its own DNA to host not just a handful of refugees, but really role model for Europe how to bring people in and work on their English, integrating them into the community. Many other countries are much more afraid and their culture is not helpful in this case.

What is your advice for new social entrepreneurs who want to make a lasting difference in the world?

Realize it’s not about you. You are not Mandela. You are not Mother Teresa. Collective wisdom and leadership, “Mini-delas” coming together for a coalition for impact is the way. It is crucial to balance ego with a passion for change. Know your strength. I know that in an organization, a little of Jerry goes a long way. I don’t need to hire another Jerry. I need to balance with a really strong super analytic, CFO or COO. On a team you want the elements of fire, air, earth, and water. Develop a spiritual discipline for your health and to keep your center and balance. That may be marathons, it may be yoga, silent meditation, or learning to breathe in practice. I thought it was silly when I first started “breathing.” I was so out of shape spiritually; it was like going to the gym for the first time in a long time. I could not sit still for a minute and meditate without grabbing my phone or coffee. Don’t be afraid of inner space and taking care of that space. Pace yourself over time because these issues are enormous and they are demanding.

This post was written by Quincy White, Intern at Ashoka Ireland.

Celebrating Women's Day: Inspiration from Leading Social Innovators

Clockwise from left: Ashoka Fellows Mairead Healy, Mary Nally and Caroline Casey

Clockwise from left: Ashoka Fellows Mairead Healy, Mary Nally and Caroline Casey

International Women’s Day is upon us!  Events are held worldwide on this day to highlight the importance of women and their influence on the modern world.  At various events women recognised for excellence will speak about equal opportunity and the potential each woman has to make her voice heard.  

Ashoka has a long history of supporting social entrepreneurs (‘Ashoka Fellows’) who are breaking down barriers. Ashoka Fellows build strong organizations and networks that tackle global challenges like education, disability access, and elderly inclusion.  Mairead Healy (founder of Future Voices), Caroline Casey (Inclusion Advocate, TED talk speaker and founder of The Ability Awards), and Mary Nally (founder of Third Age and Fáilte Isteach) are all leaders positively transforming society, encouraging every individual, no matter the circumstance, to reach his or her full potential as changemakers. These remarkable women blend innovation, humour and intelligence, and share their experiences with honesty.  We chatted with these Ashoka Fellows about female solidarity, dealing with criticism, and the lessons amassed on their journey to success.

Do women need to work harder to receive the same recognition in the workplace?  The answer to that universal question is dependent on several factors.  Caroline Casey experienced that her gender was less significant that perhaps that of other women doing this work. Because of her vision impairment, she worked harder to overcompensate and make everything look easy, her gender taking a backseat to her disability.  That identity was what people tended to focus on.

Mairead Healy and Mary Nally had different experiences. In previous political positions before setting up Future Voices, Mairead spoke of instances when she knew if she put forward an idea it would not be taken as seriously as a male colleague’s contribution. “I knew male coworkers in similar positions received preferential salary. I recognized that this may be because I did not have the confidence to negotiate a higher salary for myself.” Now a leader in the social sector, Mairead sees more leadership roles for women, as more women gravitate to this field and its supportive atmosphere.  Mary recounted starting her organization, Third Age, 28 years ago.  She agreed women needed to be very ambitious to get ahead. “It was very much a man’s world. Looking at the politicians and ministry positions held at that time you can see that.  The tide has since changed but there is still room for improvement.”

Caroline discovered when she was beginning to establish herself professionally that her gender became more relevant doing media work. “The media element made me much more conscious of my femininity and its importance.  People would remark on how much I moved my hands!  I was worried about what people were going to think of me.”  As a society we often stress how people look physically.  Caroline remarked women have a tougher time when it comes to criticism and it is important to support and relate to each other through this.

Solidarity was a big part of each woman’s professional journey.  For all three, having a mentor and being able to mentor someone in return is a part of the cycle of solidarity.  Mairead hesitated to seek a mentor, thinking she would be a bother.  But, once she reached out, she found many women who wanted to help her and share their wisdom.  “One mentor told me to surround myself with people who have your back.  These people can be your eyes and ears. They should be encouraging but not afraid to call you out as well.”  Mairead now mentors people herself and finds it highly rewarding.

Mary found being a mentor “absolutely brilliant. She also recognized the importance of having a female mentor who understands your experiences.  She realized a different pair of eyes help you see things in a new way, making you better at what you do.  “Though I’ve worked extremely hard at building up the organization, I have received as much and more as I give. Surround yourself with really good people who help you in your journey.”

Caroline relayed one piece of advice she gives to the young women she mentors. “Learn to say no and ask for help if you need it. I think a lot of women can relate to this idea that we need to be superwoman. We try to take on so much and we don’t reach out to others for support.” She thinks women are very hard on themselves.  She tries to reassure them that, as they get older, they won’t invest so much of their opinion of themselves in what other people think.

Mary, Caroline, and Mairead are powerhouses of innovation and change.  They are also women who share parallel experiences across three different generations, and three different specialized fields.  Regardless of age and profession, women face a lot of scrutiny.  All three Fellows expressed having, at one time or another, felt this pressure.  Their approach to dealing with the pressure and criticism of being a female leader was a solid recipe of knowing one’s self and one’s principles.  Women must surround themselves with positive mentors and honest supporters.

This year’s International Women’s Day campaign is #PledgeForParity, a commitment from men and women to stand up and fight for gender equality. The pledge urges action over talk, and calls for gender-balanced leadership across the world to develop more respectful, inclusive cultures.  If you are interested in helping women achieve their goals and accelerating gender parity, you can #PledgeForParity here.  

This post was written by Quincy White, Intern at Ashoka Ireland.

It’s good to be green

Small changes saved big money in a Dublin fire station, showing how green principles make good business sense.

Kilbarrack Fire Station in Dublin 5 is considered to be the first carbon neutral fire station in the world.

Kilbarrack Fire Station in Dublin 5 is considered to be the first carbon neutral fire station in the world.

Being able to boast solid green credentials is no longer just a nice thing for companies to be able to use in marketing campaigns. Environmental consciousness also makes a positive contribution to the bottom line in terms of reduced waste, energy savings, and other cost reductions.

As GreenPlan founder and Ashoka Ireland fellow Neil McCabe puts it: “If you say something can help save the planet, that’s one thing. But if you say it will save money and decarbonise at the same time, it’s a no-brainer for businesses.”

Ashoka is a global organisation which supports social entrepreneurs in the creation of solutions to some of the most pressing problems facing society today. Rather than leave problems like climate change to governments and politicians to solve, Ashoka fellows develop innovative and sustainable responses which deliver real results for people around the world.

“At its best, going green means a commitment to social and ecological sustainability”, says Ashoka Ireland advisory board chair Bride Rosney. “In my experience, Ashoka fellows are all, consciously or not, on a green journey – and they have integrated social and ecological sustainability into their businesses. Some do so in a very direct and comprehensive way, such asMichael Kelly of GIY and Neil McCabe of GreenPlan, but others do so in a less obvious way. For example, Mary Nally of Third Age builds structures that keep older people engaged in their communities and place them as advocates to build communities of healthier older people who are a willing and able part of society. This is social sustainability in action.”

McCabe’s green journey began in 2008 with some major changes in his workplace, Kilbarrack Fire Station. “We lost 50 percent of our crew back then”, he recalls. “They went to a new fire station in Swords. Morale and motivation of the remaining crew went through the floor as a result.”

McCabe decided to do something about it. “I’m a doer”, he says. “I came up with the crazy idea of battery recycling. I put a cardboard box out with a sign on it saying ‘used batteries here’ and we soon had the box filled with batteries. We didn’t have anywhere to put the batteries; there wasn’t even an EU directive covering batteries at the time. I was hiding cardboard boxes full of used batteries around the station. I found I had started something unwittingly.”

Fire station

He began thinking about the financial benefits of recycling and waste reduction. “Within a month we had firefighters using their own cars to bring waste to bring-banks in the area,” he says. “That waste would normally have gone to landfill. I put up a scorecard to keep track of the savings we were making. Within 12 months we had saved €2,064. GreenPlan was the result of having idea after idea. It became a step-by-step process dealing with waste, energy, water, and so on. I developed it into a certifiable approach to sustainability.”

As a result, Kilbarrack became the world’s first carbon neutral fire station in 2012. “One of the things I did after that first year was to crowd-fund €44,000 from my fellow firefighters to set up a start-up company to manufacture thermo-dynamic solar collectors to make hot water for the station from wind and rain. Despite the fact that they are facing east and we are surrounded by trees they are making 80 percent of the hot water for the station generating €6,000 in savings. That gave them a 2.5 year payback.”

As a result, Kilbarrack became the world’s first carbon neutral fire station in 2012. “One of the things I did after that first year was to crowd-fund €44,000 from my fellow firefighters to set up a start-up company to manufacture thermo-dynamic solar collectors to make hot water for the station from wind and rain. Despite the fact that they are facing east and we are surrounded by trees they are making 80 percent of the hot water for the station generating €6,000 in savings. That gave them a 2.5 year payback."

Kilbarrack station has since reduced its energy consumption by 90 per cent, water intake by 92 per cent, gas consumption by 97 per cent. Seventy percent of station waste is recycled and 100 percent of organic waste is composted. By applying the GreenPlan accreditation more widely Dublin Fire Brigade has saved more than €11 million in operation and procurement costs and reduced its energy spend by 44 per cent as of October 2014.

“GreenPlan saves money, reduces carbon emissions, and helps society”, McCabe points out. “It is now out there in the business market and companies are all over it.”

GIY may not have quite the same impact on the bottom line but it is making a very positive contribution to businesses in Ireland and the UK. Founded inWaterford in 2009 by local man Michael Kelly, GIY is a movement of people who grow some of their own food.

“The reason for doing it was to help people reconnect with food and get healthier,” Kelly explains. “It’s not really about self-sufficiency, the aim is to help understand about where food comes from and how it works, to teach people about food empathy.”

GIY works in four main areas – home, school, work, and in the community. It started out with what Kelly describes as “a road to Damascus moment”. “I was in the supermarket one day when I was buying some garlic, looked at the label and saw that it was from China. I decided to grow my own garlic and I was really bad at it. There was no network or group out there to help me so I set up the first GIY group in 2009 as a hobby. Within a year we had 10-12 groups set up in the south-east of the country.”

Social enterprise

It then morphed into a social enterprise. “This year we will support more than 150,000 people in Ireland and the UK to grow their own food for the first time. The challenge for us now is how to meet the demand. We now have an income of €450,000 and employ eight full and part-time staff.”

Entry to the corporate sector came about almost by accident. “Diageo were making changes to the staff garden in St James’s Gate and we came up with the idea of turning it into a food garden. It’s still an aesthetically beautiful place but it is being used to grow food. We started a programme to get people out from behind their desks and learning a life skill. It’s a great leveller between different employees. You get people from all sections and all levels of the organisation mixing together.”

No need for expensive corporate bonding weekends – just get out into the garden.

GIY now offers a service where workplace programmes are designed to meet the specific needs of individual organisations.

“It’s not one size fits all”, Kelly points out. “In some cases we have kits where people can grow food on their desks. In other cases we offer volunteering opportunities for staff to work on community gardens. We work with a lot of different companies including BNY Mellon, Deloitte, and Genzyme and we will start working with Google shortly.”

And the benefits are considerable. “There is lots of research to show that any interaction with nature is a very positive thing,” Kelly says. “There are no downsides to it. The demographics of the people taking part are quite interesting as well – it’s everyone, not just older people. We have found that younger employees are particularly motivated by it.”

The next step for GIY is the development of a food education centre in Waterford.

“This is a €1.4 million project and we are at the final stage of financing for it. We are looking for 20 companies to get involved by investing €10,000 each in it. This is not a donation, we will run programmes for them for three years in return.”


This article was written by Barry McCall in February 2016. Read the original article on