Northern Roots: “Sometimes you have to leave a place to appreciate it”

In the latest of our Northern Roots series, where we speak to people originally from Northern Ireland but currently living elsewhere, our interviewee is Sinéad O’Sullivan. You can follow Sinéad on Twitter @SineadOS1.

1. Tell us about yourself. When did you leave Northern Ireland, and where did you go? What do you do now?

I left Northern Ireland after finishing my undergrad at Queen’s University Belfast (Aerospace Engineering) — I moved to New York, then Europe, and now I’m in my fifth year in America- Atlanta, NYC and Boston. I’ve spent the last five years working in the space industry, working on NASA space missions, autonomous robotics, satellites and drones. Now I’m at Harvard Business School, where I’m a Sainsbury Management Fellow (by the Royal Engineering Society in the UK) and an Entrepreneurship Fellow. My research here looks at commercialization and entrepreneurialism around space technologies.

2. What do you think when you see the Northern Ireland of today, in the news and on social media?

I’m pretty optimistic when I read about Northern Ireland. I am involved with business, engineering and political groups in Northern Ireland and I do see the progress that is being made. I think that NI is going through an incredibly transformative phase both culturally and economically. Some of the news saddens me, but the types of change that NI needs to see won’t happen overnight, and we’re always moving in the right direction, even if slowly.

3. Are you hopeful for Northern Ireland’s future? Will Brexit make a difference?

I’m less optimistic about the future for Northern Ireland around Brexit. I think Northern Ireland is being squeezed on both sides by Europe and the US, and there is a very unique opportunity here to create a deal that could make or break the country, but without leadership, this is most likely not going to happen.

I am in the Irish and British Caucus at Harvard- a small group of economists, political scientists and business academics who meet weekly to discuss the future of the UK around Brexit, led by former UK Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Ed Balls. What I regularly see there is that Northern Ireland is very rarely mentioned during discussions, debates and economical impact analyses- it is simply forgotten about.

This is exceptionally worrying to me, and is a symptom of a much larger problem- is Northern Ireland losing its voice in the UK? Without any leadership, never mind good leadership, this is unlikely to change in time to take advantage of current negotiations around leaving Europe and clarifying our relationship with the United States.

In 2016, Sinéad delivered a TEDxStormont talk on space, satellites and natural disasters.

4. Do you think you will return to Northern Ireland? What could convince you to come back?

I currently return to Northern Ireland about once a month or every other month for business, but would love to one day make it my full time home again. A lot of people say that they leave because of a lack of opportunities in NI, however I think the unique situation that NI is in right now has the potential to create massive opportunities. When I think I have gained enough experience in the US to take advantage of opportunities back at home, I will most likely move back.

5. What can Northern Ireland learn from the place you live now?

I am incredibly lucky that I live in Harvard Square, around Harvard’s campus, where diversity in thought, gender and sexual orientation, socio-economic background and race are celebrated. People constantly seek to meet others who do not reflect their ideology to further their research or work, and the result is that people can create very interesting and multi-faceted views of the world.

This is changing quite quickly, but sometimes in Northern Ireland differences can be seen as threatening to individuals or communities, and the result is that diversity, instead of being a catalyst for growing our society, is instead marginalized.

Turning the tables, I think that NI has a lot that it can export to the US. Top of this list has to be the culture — people are hard-working, laid back, very intuitive and warm natured. There is really no direct translation for the word “craic” in America. This is why people from Northern Ireland tend to do very well in the US.

6. If Northern Ireland had a president with sweeping powers, and it was you, what would you do?

Crikey. Had to spend a lot of time thinking about this! I’d make a three day working week once a month, replacing two working days with a suggested day spent celebrating a culture different from your own, the other day I suggest recovering from the night before. One of my best friends growing up in Armagh always invited me to band parades and rugby matches, and I got to learn that in my small home town there are a lot of different cultures! I disagree with Northern Ireland having a green and orange culture, the country is filled with diversity that should be celebrated.

7. What would you like to see more of on Northern Slant?

More shenanigans, such as photos of Connor Daly circa 2005!

8. If you could ask Northern Ireland politicians (past or present) to dinner, who would they be? And why?

I would do this the other way around. I would suggest that politicians have dinner with some of the people knocking around Northern Ireland, starting with Conor Houston, who last week gave a speech to thousands of people on stage in Colombia with Kofi Annan and Colombian President Juan Santos, both Nobel Peace Prize winners.

And Estelle Johnston from my home town who just came FIFTH in the Barcelona Ironman in her age group this month. And Gareth Quinn who is changing the future of technology in Northern Ireland and Ireland.

And Adam Flanagan, who is still at school and founded Europe’s largest teen hackathon in Belfast. If spending time with local people like this doesn’t put a rocket up your *** and inspire change, I don’t know what will!

9. Do you have a favourite quote, or mantra?

Over the last few years I’ve really embraced the “fail fast, fail often” approach, both professionally and personally. In America, the opportunities are so large and you can really achieve anything you want to. So at the minute I’m really experimenting with what I can do and how far I can go. It’s really exciting, and I have learned a lot about myself every time I’ve failed.

10. What’s your message for people back home?

Sometimes you have to leave a place to appreciate it. There really is no place in the world like Northern Ireland, and I have been lucky to grow up there and to be able to call it my true home. Look for the positives around — there are incredible people doing extraordinary things and are always looking for people to join them!

Originally published at Northern Slant.