At Babson College, Entrepreneurs Celebrate Northern Ireland’s Progress & Potential

At Babson College, Entrepreneurs Celebrate Northern Ireland's Progress & Potential

Participants in Ulster University’s 25@25 Leadership program are visiting Babson College this week for a week-long residential course that is a cornerstone of a the year-long program, which marks 25 years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Babson photo

Stephen Spinelli remembers hearing a bomb go off in London when he was a grad student in the early to mid-1990s. The president of Babson College, then studying for his Ph.D. at Imperial College London, recalls walking down the street and hearing the muffled boom of a distant explosion. He wasn’t sure what it was — but moments later he was directed by authorities away from the scene of bomb planted by the Irish Republican Army, protesting the British presence in Northern Ireland.

A year later, visiting Belfast, Spinelli was near another explosion — and this time, he says, there was no mistaking what had caused it.

“It might’ve been ’93 the first time — it was hot and bothered back then,” Spinelli says, referring to the Troubles, a 30-year conflict between separatist elements in Northern Ireland and the British government. “When I was walking down the street in London, there was a bomb at Harrod’s. I heard some muffled noise and I thought it was construction, I was a bit naive. And it was a bomb in a trash can.

“I was in Ulster maybe a year after that and a bomb went off. It was much louder and I could tell right away. And I remember someone said, in that droll Irish way, ‘We’re pretty careful not to kill Americans, so you probably don’t need to be that concerned.'”

At Babson College, Entrepreneurs Celebrate Northern Ireland's Progress & Potential

Stephen Spinelli, Babson College president: “The students here at Babson in the 25@25 program are bringing in very practical plans about how they’re going to make the world a better place.”


Nearly three decades after leaving London with his Ph.D., Spinelli is again reliving those troubled days, but with a focus instead on their peaceful conclusion and the progress in the years since. Babson’s Olin Graduate School of Business this week (March 25-29) is hosting more than two dozen alumni from Belfast’s Ulster University alumni for the U.S. leg of a year-long celebration of the 25-year anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, a pact between Ireland’s political factions and the Irish and British governments that signaled an end to the decades of violence in Northern Ireland and the UK. As part of the cornerstone of the 25@25 Leadership Project, 25 students and alumni from Ulster are participating in a week-long entrepreneurship course at Babson, attending workshops and sessions and working in groups on civic projects.

The 25@25 Project was launched by Ulster last year for grads who live and work across a range of professions and sectors in Northern Ireland who are committed to promoting entrepreneurship and leading the country’s innovation, kicked off by an address at Ulster by U.S. President Joe Biden, who said, “Your history is our history, and even more important, your future is America’s future.” Babson was the obvious choice to host the Ulster alumni: The two schools have a long-standing relationship, including faculty collaboration on the development of curricula, teaching, and research; the schools also have faculty and student exchange programs.

Spinelli, who has gone back and forth between the schools for 20 years, observes that the 25@25 program participants are an impressive bunch who reflect not only the great progress that has been made in Northern Ireland, but the potential for even greater things to come.

“In business school, we used to teach about longer-term business models. Now we teach about pivoting,” Spinelli tells Poets&Quants. “And in Northern Ireland, pivoting was what you did every day. You didn’t know what was going to happen.

“Going from that fraught nature to what seems like an interesting level of toughness and aspiration is an interesting evolution. It was 25 years to get to that — and there’s lots of issues in Ireland that they need to figure out and continue to — but they’re on the right trajectory.”


At Babson College, Entrepreneurs Celebrate Northern Ireland's Progress & Potential

Chris Shannon: “Most people applied to this program because they had a really strong why. For a lot of people, it is to make Northern Ireland a more peaceful and prosperous place”

The 25@25 Project participants are teachers, consultants, managers, social workers, journalists, civil servants, and more. All are recent graduates of Ulster.

Chris Shannon, who earned a degree in marketing from the school in 2015, has worked in advertising, education, business, and politics. Last year, he was a candidate for councilor in Northern Ireland’s local government elections. Currently he is director of two companies that he co-founded: Startium, which helps universities and local governments better support businesses; and Venture Folk Ltd., a workers cooperative focused on community building, support for new venture creators, and other economic development.

Shannon, who won a spot in the 25@25 Project out of hundreds of applicants, says he applied partly because of a trip he made to Babson in 2019 for a week-long course on teaching entrepreneurship, when he was working as an enterprise and entrepreneurship manager for Ulster University. As part of a group of university delegates, he met and mingled with a wide array of interesting and connected people — including seven representatives of other UK schools, all of whom became his first clients and customers when he left Ulster to go into business.

“After that,” Shannon says, “the world changed forever from Covid. So when this opportunity came up and I knew there was a potential opportunity to come back to Babson, but this time as an entrepreneur, that definitely was something that I wanted to do.

“I think that for me is a really valuable piece of this — that you’re experiencing something together. For the 25@25, we’re from various different backgrounds and sectors. What I’m seeing this time around is that it’s so rich in terms of what we’re all getting from this, because everybody has such a varied perspective and not everybody will agree. That in fact makes it such a rich discussion with what we’re getting.”


Along with Babson faculty and students, Stephen Spinelli is spending a lot of time with the Ulster visitors. He’s impressed.

“When you look at their backgrounds, there’s this integration of practical understanding in market-facing behavior and business model development, and then social good: ‘I see a deeper problem, and I think I can solve this larger problem by interfacing it with this business model.’ And in a lot of ways it is the manifestation of this thinking that social and economic value are intimately woven.

“The students here at Babson in the 25@25 program are bringing in very practical plans about how they’re going to make the world a better place. The stuff that they’re working on is cool stuff. We’ll beat them to death on cash flow, on capitalization, organizational design, panels of distribution — just really grind it out there and then talk about, ‘Well, how would you grow that if you actually attain that? What is the bigger problem you’re solving? Who are the stakeholders that will pay for this or invest in this?’ And we build that out.

“And so we’re trying to develop this three-dimensional phenomenon, really smart ideas about what the opportunity is, really diligent business plans and business models, and an expansive view of how to create value.

“This is an interesting program because it’s highly concentrated, so you’re beating them to death. This is a marathon. You’re working out for the Boston Marathon, and then you’ve got X number of hours to run it, and we’re putting them through the marathon here. It’s good for both the knowledge and for the conditioning.”


Even though he spoke to P&Q while still at Babson, Chris Shannon was already looking ahead to the end of the 25@25 program in June — and how its participants an continue to meet and work together.

“These people are incredible,” Shannon says. “They’re just so inspiring and they’re passionate too, which rubs off. So I’m really looking forward to figuring out what is everybody doing in five years’ time, what’s the legacy impact of this. But importantly, we’ve already started discussing how we don’t want this to end in June. While the support and the funding from the charity that has made this possible may run out, we — the university and us as participants — know we’re not the bunch that’s just going to say, ‘Oh, well that was lovely,’ and move on.

“We’ve already started talking about how we create a legacy. How do we host an event every quarter to keep this going? Because people have changed careers in the first six months of this program, when you’re having really deep introspective thoughts and encouraged to think about your why and your purpose. Most people applied to this program because they had a really strong why. For a lot of people, it is to make Northern Ireland a more peaceful and prosperous place. So you find that when you’re really going into that deep thought that you realize, maybe, your current role or organization isn’t helping you live out that way. So we’ve already seen people make those changes. So if that’s happened in six months, I’m really excited to see what happens in five, six years.”



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