‘Encouraging girls into IT is incredibly difficult and I still haven’t really figured out why’
NI fintech envoy and Allstate director Georgina O’Leary talks to Ryan McAleer about how she fell in love with computers as a teenager in Co Donegal
Mother knows best goes the well worn expression, but in Georgina O’Leary’s case it’s certainly true. Now one of the most prominent figures in Northern Ireland’s fast-growing fintech sector, the Londonderry-based Allstate director could easily have chosen a very different career save for the intervention of her mum Anne.
As a teenager raised in Donegal, Georgina had actually enrolled in Sligo IT to study psychology. An offer had been sent to study computing on the south coast of Ireland, at Waterford IT.
But by a twist of fate, a postal strike that year left her letter stuck in a logjam.
“I was about three weeks in and this offer came in,” she recalled.
“My mum said: ‘Look, the future is in computing.’ So she marched me into the careers teacher to try and get them to convince me to swap. So I did.”
It was a good move. At 44 Georgina’s career has taken her around Europe and to the United States. In May this year Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond named her as one of the UK Government’s new fintech envoys for Northern Ireland.
Born in Manchester in 1973 to Donegal parents Eamon and Anne McDaid, Georgina, who was the eldest of four siblings, spent her early years in the north west of England until a family illness brought them home.
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“My granny got ill when I was about five, so we all moved back to Donegal and we settled,” she said.
“We were all born in Manchester, there were four of us and just four-and-a-half years between us. But I really don’t remember much about it at all, apart from our house and back garden.”
Most childhood memories are rooted in Malin and Inishowen, just over the border and one of the island’s most northern points. While mother Anne was a nurse, the family business was a garage in the village of Clonmany.
Her formative years were spent in Carndonagh Community School, were an important purchase by Anne in 1987 sparked a fascination in technology in the then 14-year-old.
“My mum bought us this old Mitsubishi computer. We had games on it, but I used to sit at it with this book that taught you how to programme colours and stuff,” she explained.
“It would take hundreds of lines of code just to get some colours sparkling on the screen. I used to sit methodically and try and get it to work. That was where my interest in computing started.
“There wasn’t a single computer in the school. I absolutely loved maths, but I had no experience of computers through school, only at home.”
Georgina is still not entirely sure where her mum’s conviction on computers came from, but her vision played an important role again a few years later, helping her to switch courses from psychology to applied computing.
The switch meant a journey from one tip of the island to the other.
“I used to get the bus on a Sunday at four o’clock to Dublin and then swap over at about nine o’clock and get into Waterford at about 12 or 1am,” she said.
“But it was absolutely fantastic. Microsoft had moved to Ireland at that point, as had Logica and a couple of other big companies, so they were establishing relationships with them.
“They really saw the future and had talented lecturers who were highly experienced coders. It was a really good course.”
The four-year course included a placement with a small software firm in Swindon, which led to a move to London to work for Vodafone.
The next career step was a consultancy role in Germany, working with major firms like Siemens and Motorola. Along with the skills and some of the language, Georgina also managed to pick up a prospective husband in Wexford native Jamie O’Leary.
The German experience helped turn Georgina into an expert in computer telephony and she returned to London and eventually went out on her own.
The work largely involved programming call centre switches and developing interactive voice response (IVR) systems, essentially the voice systems callers regularly hear on telephones.
It eventually brought her into the sphere of Camelot, which in 1994 was awarded the contract to run the National Lottery.
“One assignment was to programme the IVR for the winning Lottery numbers as soon as they would come up. There would be volumes and volumes of calls to ask for the Lottery numbers.”
After seven years working across Europe, in 1999 Georgina and Jamie set course for Dublin, working for a number of organisations, including Dell and Bloomberg PolarLake.
In 2000 the couple were married and a year later their first child Conor was born. Grainne followed in January 2003 and Cian was born in 2007.
With no shortage of options, the couple decided they wanted to move closer to Georgina’s native Donegal and, in 2003, she joined US-owned insurance giant Allstate.
One of the first major foreign direct investors after the Good Friday Agreement, Allstate was in its early days of becoming a major employer in Northern Ireland.
But while she took the job to be closer to her parents, she ended up spending her first six months with the firm on the other side of the Atlantic, with two young children in tow.
“I joined in November 2003 and my first day was a flight to Chicago,” she recalled. “I didn’t even make the office in Belfast.”
Almost 15 years on she is now much closer to her native Inishowen as Allstate’s director of global composed labs and claims technology, and the most senior figure in its Derry base.
But with Allstate being a global organisation, she can be responsible for a staff of 800, with many located at various sites around the world.
In a career where she admits she was often the only woman in the room, she said gender has not really been on her radar.
“I’m really not a feminist at all, I’m an equalist. I just believe that if you’re the best person for the job, then you’ll get the job, that’s it, irrelevant of gender,” she said.
“I don’t even think about it and I know it’s a big topic, but it was never anything that was in my consciousness.
“I valued myself as an equal and I expected everyone else to value me as an equal, and that’s how I acted.”
However, she would still like to see more women pursue a career in computing and technology.
“What I do value now in a leadership position is the importance of diversity and the more diversity you have, the better team environment you create,” she said..
“But encouraging women and girls into IT is incredibly difficult, and I really haven’t figured out why. Because they really enjoy maths and the natural step would be technology, but it doesn’t seem to follow through.”
She suggested it could be a simple lack of understanding and a misguided notion that the career is boring.
“If I said fintech to a 17 or 18-year-old, I think I might get a blank look. But if they understood that their entire life is based on digital experiences, so when they want to buy something, they utilise Amazon.
“Well, if they don’t have a digital fintech experience, dealing with Amazon wouldn’t be so easy.”
Georgina’s working week now also incorporates her new role as Northern Ireland fintech envoy.
Appointed by Mr Hammond in May, she is responsible for advancing Northern Ireland’s position within a Government strategy to make the UK a premier fintech area.
“I’m just delighted with the challenge and pretty honoured to be asked,” she said. “I really do want to make a success of it.”
The 44-year-old believes there is no sense of a fintech bubble, but rather sees the sector as fast becoming a linchpin for the Northern Ireland economy.
“The way that we now interact with traditional financial services and insurance companies is now a much more digital experience.
“It’s a very innovative and fast-paced environment, so being able to keep on top of that and continue to create innovative solutions from here will just catapult us to be a really renown fintech region.
“Really, what’s important to me is creating economic wealth in this region, because it hasn’t had it in the past, and with that brings a lot of benefits.”
As a senior figure in Allstate, Georgina said, like many major international firms, Brexit is high on the agenda.
“Because we are in a service-driven industry, our worry and concern is around services and people movement. We’re looking at contingencies, different aspects of employment law, as well as free movement of people,” she added.
“We’re also doing some analysis on what mitigation plan we can put in place if a hard line is taken, and what a soft line would mean for the organisation.
“We are taking it very seriously.”
As for the future, Georgina admits that launching her own tech venture remains a dream.
“I’ve often thought about it, if the right idea came along.
“I’ve had a few ideas, but I was too slow off the mark and beaten to the marketplace. I’m always keeping an eye out.
“I just love being thrown in the deep end and learning how to swim. The bigger the challenge, the better.”