White House

Good Things Can Happen if you only say Yes!

Two recent trigger events prompted me to write this blog. The first was this tweet last week from Sam Missingham (@samatlounge) “Women of the world, if you are asked to speak at an event or appear on a panel say Yes (especially if you don’t really want to)”. The second was seeing Carey Lohrenz speak at Dellworld 2015 & listening to her talk in depth about (generally) how women don’t put up their hands until they’re sure they can do 120% of what’s being asked of them. Carey (& I) think you should put up your hand when you can do 75 or 80% & figure the rest out from there.

Badass Carey Lohrenz addressing the Women in IT lunch at DellWorld 2015

I know this topic has been done to death a bit in recent years but I’ve never written about this from my own personal perspective so I thought I’d do that in case anyone finds it interesting & maybe it will encourage a few more people to be brave.

It’s about 2 years since I made the decision to exit from my startup/scaleup Learning Pool, sell my half of the business & go & do something else. As CEO of a small growing business your default position when presented with most decisions is No. It has to be. In order to focus on growing your business, meeting payroll every month & moving the needle significantly in the right direction you need to eliminate as much distraction as you possibly can from your business & your life.

You say No to most conference attendance opportunities, most business social and networking events (especially if they involve travel or an overnight stay) and most requests for you to speak at other organisations’ events. Unfortunately, when you’re in a place where you sometimes wonder if you could function with one or two hours less sleep at night, you don’t have a lot of time to mentor people inside or outside of your organisation either – the smart ones learn by running along beside you.

One thing I did manage to make time for as Learning Pool grew was speaking to students at local schools about careers in STEM, usually through Young Enterprise NI. As entrepreneurs, business owners or people with careers in STEM we all need to do a bit more of this.  The other was chatting to other entrepreneurs who were a few steps behind where we were – I knew from experience how useful this had been to us when we were in startup mode.

I guess the most extreme example of me saying No was the night (it was International Women’s Day 2011 – the 100th anniversary of IWD) when I received a late call from someone in government inviting me to join the Northern Irish delegation to the White House to meet President Obama on St Patrick’s Day. What was my response? I said “I can’t possibly – our year end is end of March & I’m too busy”. There was a brief silence at the other end of the line & then the very sensible person said – Mary – when someone asks you in 5 or 10 years time, what were you doing on St Patrick’s Day 2011 which would you rather say – that you met the President of the United States or that you were doing spreadsheets… I made the right decision in the end!

So – for the last 2 years I’ve been running my own private social experiment in which I try to say Yes to most things that are presented to me – within reason of course. Below are some of the positive things that have happened as a result (to date there have been no negative outcomes).

Sam Sparrow & me (& the Mannequin Pis) in Brussels May 2014 for the final of the European Social Innovation Competition

Sam Sparrow & me (& the Mannequin Pis) in Brussels May 2014 for the final of the European Social Innovation Competition

I said Yes to Terry Ryall, vInspired’s founding CEO when she asked me to help the charity launch Task Squad. This gave me the opportunity to work in a charity for the first time in my career & the insights that gave me have allowed me to since make a contribution in a number of different ways to how charities and not for profits can better benefit from technology. I also connected with an entire new network of people (including the fabulous Sam Sparrow), charities and funders and learned all about social impact investment. This eventually led to me meeting Sally Higham and angel investing in her software platform business for youth & sports clubs, Run A Club.

I said Yes to John Knapton when he asked me to join Northern Ireland Science Park in Belfast as one of their Entrepreneurs in Residence. As well as being a lot of fun, this has led to me formally mentoring one young entrepreneur for the past 6 months and offering advice & help to a number of other startups. Best of all, I got to meet Her Majesty the Queen in Buckingham Palace in June 2014 and on the same evening met Norwegian entrepreneur Ollie Gardener & 8 months later angel invested in her social learning platform, Noddlepod.

Meeting Her Majesty the Queen in Buckingham Palace June 2014

Meeting Her Majesty the Queen in Buckingham Palace June 2014

I said Yes when my colleagues at the Irish International Business Network asked me to run the SharkTank at our November 2014 conference in New York City and by doing so met wonderful Canadian entrepreneur & angel investor Kelly Hoey.

With my favourite co-conspirator Kelly Hoey before our SharkTank in NYC

With my favourite co-conspirator Kelly Hoey before our SharkTank in NYC

We had a lot of laughs on the day, found we have a lot in common & since then we’ve helped each other on a number of things and are on the road to becoming firm friends.

I said Yes when the Research & Educational Network Norge asked me to deliver a talk on the Future of Learning to 200 people in Oslo, even though I can’t speak a word of Norwegian and the prospect of doing something like this was terrifying. You can read more about my Oslo experience in a previous blog here if you’re interested. Suffice to say it turned out well despite my fears!

Prized selfie with Michael Dell taken at DellWorld 2015

Prized selfie with Michael Dell taken at DellWorld 2015

More recently I said Yes when Will Pritchard of AxiCom PR asked me to follow him back on Twitter so that he could DM me about something. Before starting my Yes experiment I could possibly have responded quite rudely to Will’s request. This led to me attending DellWorld 2015 as a guest of Dell, meeting tons of fabulous people, meeting Michael Dell who’s one of my all time top business champions and finally realising my dream of visiting Austin, Texas after 15 years of being too busy to attend SXSW. Michael Dell doesn’t really do selfies so I had to trade him a story. I told him how my friend Tim Ramsdale persuaded our employer CIPFA to buy a Dell server back in 1989, shortly after Dell had started up in London. Michael loved the story & the selfie speaks for itself. I later told another story to the Dell senior team. It was how when Learning Pool was 6 months old we were evicted from the flat in London that we were secretly using as an office. The final straw was when our nosy neighbour opened the door to a courier who was delivering 6 large Dell boxes to us. She rang our landlord to report us & we were immediately evicted. The guys agreed I should have told Michael that story too because he would’ve loved it!

I said Yes a couple of weeks ago when Dee Forbes rang me & asked me to speak at the Digital Week Ireland event that’s happening in Skibbereen 3-8 Nov – more details here. November’s pretty busy so I was tempted for just a moment to say No – but I thought to myself, why not. I haven’t been to West Cork for years & years & it will be so much fun and a good thing to do. Watch this space or come & join us.

Our wedding, July 2014 photograph taken in Glencoe

Our wedding, July 2014 photograph taken in Glencoe

Finally, on a personal note I said Yes when my partner of 23 years asked me to marry him in June 2014. We were married 6 weeks later in Fort William, Scotland on 21 July 2014, a joyous & sunny day.

I have literally hundreds of other examples, big & small. In the past two years my life has been enriched by the people I’ve met, the places I’ve been, the experiences I’ve had and the tons of new stuff that I’ve learned.

Not everyone has the same luxury of time that I do right now but I urge you to try this too, even if it’s just in some small way and especially if it’s something that takes you out of your comfort zone. Next time an opportunity presents itself to you & you find yourself about to say No, pause for a moment and ask yourself if you could say Yes instead. I promise you it’s worth it & I look forward to hearing about your experiences in the comments below.

I’ll leave you with a food-for-thought quote from Carey Lohrenz: “Too comfortable is a heartbeat away from being complacent, and complacent is a heartbeat away from being irrelevant”.  Take action & don’t let yourself become irrelevant!

Growing old can still be a lot of fun


The photo above is one of our neighbours here at the Ocotillo Lodge in Palm Springs, Ed Rooney.  Yep – Ed’s part of our Irish diaspora & when he isn’t sunning himself over the winter in Palm Springs he lives up in Portland, Oregon – which as everyone knows is more like Ireland than Ireland itself – even the weather is the same.  Ed visited Ireland a year or two ago with his son, Ted Rooney.  Ted’s an actor (isn’t everyone in southern California?) who’s been hampered throughout his acting career by simply being too tall – all the romantic leads are automatically snapped up by short men because all of the Hollywood starlets are tiny.

Ed is exactly how I hope I’ll be when I’m in my mid 80s and he’s a shining example of how a person can still have a lot of fun, even when they’re getting a bit older.  He’s independent, keeps himself active, he’s out & about every day, has loads of friends and he’s always got plenty of stories to tell which I love to listen to.  I snapped the pic yesterday just before Ed was going for a swim.  He’d just been telling me about how his brother Art used to try & pass himself off as THE Art Rooney when they were young, growing up in Pittsburgh.  I’d been telling him about how I was next to Art’s famous son, Dan Rooney, in the White House last month on St Patrick’s night – Ed wasn’t too impressed by the whole White House thing but he was impressed that I’d met Dan Rooney.

I wonder to myself why it is that Ed’s the way he is – so positive and so cheerful.  Is the answer as straightforward as having been born with a sunny disposition or is there something more that we can do to as we get older to make sure we maintain a positive outlook.  Ed has a computer & keeps up to date with what’s happening in the world.  He uses skype to keep in touch with his family & many grandchildren.  He was a schoolteacher & reads more than most people I seem to meet these days.  So is that his secret?  Remaining plugged in & up to date with current affairs?  Look forward to your thoughts on this subject.

There’s a big outcry in the US at the moment re the price of petrol – it’s $4.50 a gallon in Palm Springs (it must surely be 3 x as much as that in the UK).  Everyone’s baying for blood on this – especially as the oil companies’ (massive & obscene) profits were announced this morning.  Ed’s talking about trading in his big saloon car for a Mini Cooper – someone’s told him they’re perfectly comfortable for guys 6’3” & taller – I’m only sorry to be leaving Tuesday & missing out on going out for a spin in it.  I hear someone in the desert is selling Mini Coopers that have been “Kiss” customised – gonna see if I can persuade Ed to get one of those before I leave…


The night I met Barack Obama…

Sam Barbee & I were in Cardiff getting ready for a Learning Pool customer event the night President Barack Obama was elected.  Sam Barbee is American and I’ve always wished I was – although being Irish is almost the same thing.  It’s certainly closer to being American than any other nationality.  Our Irish diaspora numbers 45m in the USA.  As a child I listened to the stories my great aunts and uncles in Donegal told us about Amerikay – they’d all been to the US many times although they’d never been to Belfast or Dublin & certainly not to the GB mainland.  At the Northern Ireland Bureau St Patrick’s Day breakfast, Martin McGuinness recited a 2 line poem to illustrate our unique relationship with our cousins across the water – I can’t remember it exactly but it was something like this:

Have you been on your holidays yet this year?

No we’ve just been to America again

The morning of our Cardiff breakfast event, we were a bit tired having been up all night following the election results coming in and watching the President’s wonderful acceptance speech.  Neither of us would have missed it for anything. 

It was therefore with great excitement that I received the invite to the President’s St Patrick’s Night party at the White House along with a few others from the Northern Ireland business community (that’s us in the second photo).  The build up to the big day nearly killed me & it was a relief that I only had a week’s notice.  I had to rush out to the shops to buy something green to wear and thank goodness I did or I would have stuck out like a sore thumb (I’ve never seen as much green clothing in my life as I saw in Washington DC on 17 March).  I had an amusing incident at immigration when I was asked the purpose of my visit – the immigration officer asked to see my invite and after studying it for a long time appeared to be most impressed.  From talking to people around Washington DC it seems that the President isn’t much in evidence locally apart from on the tv – although the First Lady has a significant local presence through the many good works she’s involved in.  So what stays with me from the night itself? – the following highlights:

·         Hearing the President and the Vice President speak & being at the front with such a clear view

·         Watching the way the Vice President & the First Lady never took their eyes off the President when he was addressing the crowd

·         Being in the White House for 3 hours and being able to wander round the rooms and freely take photos of the decor, the view from the windows, the paintings and everything else (my full photo set from the evening is at this link http://bit.ly/h8VK1q)

·         The craic in the crowd whilst we were waiting for the President to appear – especially all of us being able to try on the Rose of Tralee’s tiara (thanks Clare!)

·         The mounting excitement waiting for the President – we were almost hyperventilating by the time 7pm came along

·         The pomp & circumstance of the whole evening – the pipe band, the choir, the banquet, the greenness, the beautifully dressed & polite members of the military dotted about everywhere who offered to take photos & were extremely cordial

·         The lovely people that we met who were also there as guests

·         Rather perversely I enjoyed seeing one woman spill her wine on the furniture

·         Glen Hansard of the Frames being joined by Tim Shriver for a rendition of The Auld Triangle

·         Being spontaneously hugged by Michelle Obama when I held my hand out to shake hers – I still can’t believe that – she didn’t hug anyone else and I’m glad she picked me

·         Meeting the President for a few seconds & telling him how glad I am that it’s him that’s there – Jannine’s photo is a bit of a joke but I promise you that’s the President’s nose!!!  You can tell by my face anyway

·         Realising that the President & the First Lady were as good in real life as I imagined they would be

·         Feeling the warmth from our diaspora first hand – doesn’t matter if you’re 4th or 5th generation guys – you’re still ours!

Thanks again to everyone that made this possible – people I knew already (Martin & Stephen & Alastair) & people I hadn’t even met that were so nice and so good to me (Kamala & Grainne).  The Learning Pool team has me down as a people collector but even with Robert Plant in the portfolio, Barack Obama’s a bit of a prize so I may give it up whilst I’m ahead.