Bringing together the Northern Irish diaspora
After a career working with some of the best-known brands on the island of Ireland, Andrew Cowan’s attention has turned to connecting the people who love these brands, at home and abroad, in his role as CEO of NI Connections
It is clear from speaking to Andrew Cowan and from hearing him talk enthusiastically about the work NI Connections is doing that he has a passion for meeting and connecting people. As CEO, it is his goal to make NI Connections the established diaspora network for 150,000 friends of Northern Ireland globally, helping them connect with each other, exchange advice, pursue new opportunities and thrive.
"Diaspora engagement is not new, and we are not the first country to recognise the power of our diaspora," he says.
"For centuries, people have been connecting back and working to be at home abroad. In fact, there are now more than 450 diaspora initiatives happening around the globe.
"We live in a world that has never been more connected and that has brought new attention to how we engage with our diaspora. At the core, the processes have remained the same - telling stories, listening to each other and wanting to help as much as possible."
Andrew enjoyed a strong career in the marketing world before taking up the reins at NI Connections, in a little over a year driving it from a pilot project to the recognised diaspora initiative for Northern Ireland. Promoting all things Northern Irish is not new to him, however, having led marketing and commercial strategies for companies including Pernod Ricard, Kerry Foods, Coca-Cola, Britvic and Jacob Fruitfield, Jameson Irish Whiskey, Bushmills Irish Whiskey, Denny, Jacobs Biscuits and Ballygowan Water.
He also worked with Tourism Ireland's New York office to secure the contract for the Navy vs Notre Dame American football game played in Dublin in 2012, which was worth an estimated €50m (£36.7m) to the economy over one week.
Andrew has also applied his marketing nous to a key role delivering one of the largest and most successful diaspora concepts ever created, The Gathering. It brought 250,000 people with a connection to Ireland home for specially created events and festivals, and delivered a €170m (£125m) boost to the Irish economy, winning a host of awards in the process including the Spider Grand Prix award and AIM International marketing award.
"I think it opened a lot of people's eyes as to what can be achieved," Andrew says. "At NI Connections, we're not looking to replicate The Gathering, but that spirit of collaboration, of bringing people together, of getting people to think 'What more can I do for home?' is what we want to tap into.
"2015 has already been an exciting year for our organisation. There has been a step change in our focus and passion for connecting with our diaspora, and we have had the opportunity to see the appetite from friends of Northern Ireland around the globe to engage with us to benefit home."
NI Connections estimates there are 10 million first and second generation Northern Irish people living away from our region - a number that increases to 20 million if we look to those with third generation connections.
Most are in the US, Canada, Britain and Australia, but they are also scattered far beyond those countries.
Andrew has big ambitions to get as many of them involved with NI Connections as possible and will be hosting events in Toronto and Shanghai in the next few months.
"You'll find the Northern Irish diaspora in over 50 countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Tanzania, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Sri Lanka," he says.
"We want to attract just 1.5% of the 10 million strong diaspora to join NI Connections. When we listen to one another, collaborate and work together, the opportunities to raise the tide for everyone in Northern Ireland are vast.
"By engaging our diverse and influential diaspora, we can help reap business and cultural opportunities for our members, and for Northern Ireland."