Highlights from CEO Ann O’Dea

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Our co-founder and CEO Ann O’Dea picks out just some of the highlights of 20 years online with Silicon Republic.

Celebrating 20 years of Silicon Republic, 2001-2021

Where to start when looking back at 20 years of Silicon Republic? That was the question I was asking myself as I sat down to draft this column. My co-founder and our esteemed publisher Darren Mc Auliffe has already documented our origin story, and I highly recommend a read.

Today, Silicon Republic is an essential source of sci-tech news, views and community engagement for millions of readers worldwide. We have seven Irish Web Awards and many more to our name, and have been independently ranked among the world’s most influential sources on all things STEM.

But most of our more than 4m readers don’t realise that this all started with Darren, and a kernel of an idea he had to deliver the best technology content to an underserved tech and science community in Ireland. I was working as a freelance tech journalist and editor, and doing very nicely indeed, when he approached me back in 1998. Entrepreneurship was not on my radar – my focus was great writing and editing. But his ambition and vision was contagious, and through all the ups and downs here we are still working together and loving what we do.

As the entire Silicon Republic team currently works diligently from home because of a global pandemic, it’s funny to look back and think that this all started over a kitchen table in 2000. To paraphrase management leader Gary Hamel, innovation is that thing that emerges from the gap between vision and resources.

Memorable moments

This 20-year journey with Silicon Republic has given me many memorable moments. I confess I’ve always been a Mac person, so interviewing Apple co-founder Woz (Steve Wozniak) back in 2013 was a definite career high point for me. What a great human being.

It was also pretty amazing to see the first iPhone at the Apple Store in New York on 27 June 2007, two days before it was released to the world. It felt like something truly important was happening and sure enough, just over two months later, Apple had sold its millionth iPhone. The rest, as they say, is smartphone history.

Music and gigs being a personal passion, I grew up alongside the likes of Virgin Records and had followed Richard Branson’s remarkable trajectory as he moved into everything from air flight to comms, so it was fascinating to sit down with him and get his views on everything from diversity to the Pope to contraception.

Serendipitous connections

One of the privileges of working in publishing and events is without question the fascinating people you meet, and being invited to meet Barack and Michelle Obama in the White House back in 2013 is way up there as a personal highlight. This St Patrick’s Day celebration was made all the more delightful by great Irish companions, including CoderDojo co-founder James Whelton.

Ann O'Dea wearing a SXSW lanyard, in a selfie with Megan Smith.

Ann O’Dea with Megan Smith at SXSW 2016. Smith was the third CTO of the White House and the first woman to hold the position. Image: Ann O’Dea

It gives me great pride that Silicon Republic was the first publication in Ireland to interview 18-year-old James right before the launch of CoderDojo. On a Friday afternoon in 2011, James came to our offices in Citywest to speak to John Kennedy (our marvellous editor from 2002 to 2019) about his plans to teach children to code. The very next day the first-ever CoderDojo would take place at the National Software Centre in Cork.

James’ brilliant co-founder Bill Liao immediately caught our attention too, and I quickly invited him to speak at one of our first Digital Ireland Forums. I met Bill for the first time in mid-2011 near Heuston Station to chat about the event and we got on famously. He met Darren and the rest of team at the forum, and by late 2011 SOSV had become our first outside investors. To this day Bill Liao remains one of Silicon Republic’s directors. Serendipitous indeed.

It brings to mind another strength of Silicon Republic over the years. From day one we always listened to young voices, and were early to feature the likes of the Collisons of Stripe fame. Here we are reporting on 16-year-old Patrick Collison winning BT Young Scientist back in 2005, and talking to Auctomatic-made millionaire John Collison about his Leaving Cert results in 2009. And check out our current editor Elaine Burke chatting with a 12-year-old Shane Curran back in 2012. Shane also went on to win BT Young Scientist in 2017 and returned to the event three years later to speak on-stage with me about founding Sequioa-backed Evervault on the back of this project.

Eventful 20 years

Another fascinating opportunity arose in 2018 when I was invited to meet Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, to discuss diversity in STEM. Having been coached within an inch of our lives on the royal protocols, they were actually incredibly down to earth and unassuming. Possibly a harbinger of the trajectory of their lives since.

Stacy Abrams and Ann O'Dea pictured outside a large tent at the TEDWomen festival in California.

Ann O’Dea meets Stacey Abrams, the first black woman to be nominated by a major party for US governor, at TEDWomen 2018. Image: Ann O’Dea

I was invited on that panel because of my (and Silicon Republic’s) work in diversity, equity and inclusion in STEM over the years.

We ran events for many years in the noughties and early 2010s focusing on what we knew were critical issues for Ireland and for the science and technology ecosystem – from the Green Growth Forum (climate action has always been a priority for us) to the bi-annual Digital Ireland Forum to the Future Jobs Forum. People often remarked that these events stood out for the gender balance of our keynotes and panellists. I love this example from 2014 where we feature Linda Doyle (today, Trinity College’s first female provost) and the great Nora Khaldi of Nuritas, who recently raised $45m in Series B funding.

Inventive women

This shifting of the dial is one of those things of which I am unquestionably the proudest.

It was a subject always very close to our hearts. That passion led, in 2013, to the launch of our Women Invent campaign, where we have regularly profiled the smartest minds in science and tech – who happen to be women. Huge thanks to Intel who were on board from day one, and Accenture who supported the campaign strongly over the years.

As part of the campaign we published our first 100 Top Women in STEM, the first list of its kind in Ireland. We subsequently gathered many of these women in the room for a celebration in 2014. A very proud moment indeed!

That same day we ran the Female Founders Forum, with a keynote from Eventbrite co-founder and president Julia Hartz and numerous great panellists. When a smart young founder approached me at the end of the event to say it was the first time she hadn’t felt lonely in the tech sector, the die was cast. There had to be lots more of this, I thought.

From gender diversity to inclusion

By 2014, our focus had widened further from the lack of women in tech to other minorities, from people of colour to disabled professionals to all those underserved by our industry. Thus was born our first major annual sci-tech event, Inspirefest 2015.

Among this amazing line-up, some personal highlights were undoubtedly getting my idol, world-renowned astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, on stage; and introducing the madness that was Gamergate to a wider audience via the great Brianna Wu. We had to have extra security and received horrible anonymous abuse for the latter, only proving the premise of her talk.

Ann O'Dea and Enda Kenny at the Bord Gáis Energy Theathre for Inspirefest 2015. Ann is holding up a Macbook computer with another picture of herself and Kenny on the screen.

Ann O’Dea with then Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the very first Inspirefest event. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

Inspirefest celebrated its five-year anniversary in 2019. I wish I had room to mention all the amazing speakers featured, and friends made over those years, but to pick just one important moment, it has to be Violet O’Brien. Then known as Karla, her courage for one so young was only matched by her eloquence at Inspirefest 2016. And the response to her journey as a trans woman in STEM remains the longest standing ovation we’ve ever had at an event.

Over those five years, the calibre and diversity of speakers was matched only by the thousands of fascinating people in attendance from more than 50 countries. Genuinely some of the best days of my professional life. By 2019, we were ready to shake things up again and thus was born our new Future Human event. As it turned out, it was a hybrid/virtual event by the time it happened in November 2020, but the path to that destination is well-documented.

The future is human

The move to Future Human came from our belief at Silicon Republic that nothing is more important than placing the human at the centre of everything our industries do. Our focus on science, technology and innovation is really all about creating a better future. I hope you’ll come join us in May 2022 – but more of that anon.

Ann O'Dea sits backstage with the AV team at Inspirefest, surrounded by monitors and production equipment, intently watching what's happening live onstage.

Backstage at Inspirefest 2019, our most recent in-person event. Image: Paul Condron

Thank you to all our wonderful readers, attendees, partners, sponsors and supporters over these 20 years. And above all, to all the amazing professionals who have passed through and been part of the best team in the world, which is what we have today at Silicon Republic.

On that note, again, too many awesome people to mention, but professional highlights for me were Elaine joining in 2012 and taking over as editor in 2019,  and the best Christmas present ever when our head of business development, Ailbhe Lee, joined us in December 2016. It means we have had the dream management team to guide us through the pandemic, and that the future is both human and bright.

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