Connecting returned emigrants with mentors who can help bridge knowledge gaps in business

Colin MacAndrias moved from London back to Dublin with his wife and children just two and a half years ago, after he lived abroad for over 25 years

Living abroad can open people up to all kinds of new knowledge and skillsets. International connections, knowledge of other markets and new language skills, among other things, can come from working outside of Ireland.

But when it comes to setting up a business back home, emigrant entrepreneurs can struggle with a lack of knowledge, small contact base, or an underdeveloped professional network compared to those who have always worked here.

Now in its seventh year, the Back for Business programme helps to connect recently returned emigrants with mentors who can help bridge these knowledge gaps in a way that is tailored to their needs. There is no cost to those selected.

The programme is funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and aims to benefit those who have lived abroad for at least a year and have returned in the last three years, while also including those who are abroad and will be returning soon.


Participants meet once a month on a peer-supported round table facilitated by voluntary Lead Entrepreneurs who have experience of successfully starting and growing a business, many of whom also lived abroad before returning to Ireland to start their business.

The lead entrepreneurs for this year are serial entrepreneur Hannah Wrixon; Morgan Browne, CEO of Milner Browne and Enterpryze; serial entrepreneur, Paul Coyne; Paul Duggan of The Gardiner Group; Séamus Reilly, co-founder and formerly of Critical Healthcare; and Thomas Ennis, founder of the Thomas Ennis Group.

Back for Business has been designed and is being implemented by Fitzsimons Consulting and is funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

With applications open for this year’s programme open until 5pm on January 15th, 2024, we have spoken to four past participants to learn more about what they gained from taking part.

Fort Energy

Ronan Purcell moved to Sydney, Australia with his wife in 2011 for “one last adventure,” for two or three years, and ended up staying for 10 years, having three children along the way. Purcell worked in three different organisations over their decade there, all of which focused on renewable energy.

However, the family wanted their children to grow up in Ireland, being close to their cousins and grandparents, and so they gave into the “draw to home,” moving back to Galway in 2021.

Purcell had never worked in the private sector in Ireland, having been in the Defence Forces, but when he moved back, found himself at a crossroads between whether he should go job hunting or try to set up his own business with the skills and expertise he gained in Australia. Thus, he set up Fort Energy, a specialist energy advisor and renewable energy developer.

“If I had set up a business like this in Australia, I would have had contractors, I probably would be further down the road in one sense, I’d have the network, I’d understand the market and I’d be ready to go straight into it and even have customers set up,” Purcell says.

Whereas in Ireland, he had “no network in the energy space, limited network in the business space in that sense, and even just understanding the Irish market, simple things like company law, how the accounting system for businesses works here, all those things I’d never experienced really because I’ve experienced it all in Australia.”

Back for Business provided him with a network of people he could trust and could bounce ideas off, without any conflict because they were all in different businesses. The group had goals to achieve each month, such as sales plans. “There’s a really good, healthy environment of encouraging, but equally challenging in the round table sessions we had once a month with our peers and then they had really good lead entrepreneurs to mentor [us],” Purcell says, adding that the group also shared contacts with each other and helped look at each other’s problems in diverse ways, since they were all in different businesses.

Purcell added that setting up your own business can be lonely, “you’re working away in your office at home or whatever. It’s a huge amount of information to understand what’s available in Ireland, how Ireland works to do business in and how you can build networks and improve your brand from your sales and all that.”


Aoife Matthews lived in London, Chile and Madrid before deciding to move back to Ireland with her husband and three children in 2021, when her oldest was going into secondary school.

She worked in investment banking and in the corporate world her entire career, but seeing how lacking the world of female health is, Matthews and two friends, Jennifer O’Connell who is based in Dublin, and Louise O’Riordan who is based in Los Angeles, set out to develop a product developed for the female body from scratch. Thus, SISTERLY was created, with Matthews taking part in the Back for Business programme remotely, from Madrid.

“It was just a great experience and really helpful and supportive talking to other entrepreneurs in similar situations,” Matthews says. “It was very supportive but also just the sharing of information, even the basic things like setting up a business, tax issues, or does anyone know an accountant or even just day to day stuff in terms of getting put in touch with web designers.”

Matthews’s cohort was all men, and she says she received great support from them and honest feedback with good insights on issues, and her business plan and strategy from the group on her female-focused business.

It took SISTERLY three years to develop the product which launched in September, and Matthews said that Back for Business are still helping her. “There’s been follow-ups as well, they’ve had different sessions for past kind of graduates of the programme to come back and talk about where you are and give updates and kind of get more input and advice and meet other companies.”


Shemaine Doyle worked in marketing for a food company in Ireland before she moved to Dubai in 2010 to take up a marketing role with some old colleagues who had set up a company there. She ended up meeting her now-husband, having two children and staying for 11 years, working as head of marketing for Emirates Leisure Retail for nine of those.

In 2020, the family decided they were going to move back to Ireland, but when the pandemic hit, they put it off for a year. After getting settled back into life in Ireland, Doyle decided she wanted to go out on her own and set up her own marketing agency, Brave, in 2022.

“I call myself the no-BS agency, where we support businesses to help them grow but not requiring large budgets to do it, and I work very much with food and beverage companies, to support them on what their business opportunities are,” Doyle explains.

“I found myself very nervous about setting up in Ireland, I suppose my perception, my thought at the time was, you’ve been out of the country for a long time, you don’t know the customers in Ireland, people are going to think you’re nuts, people are not going to believe you, who are you trying to fool?”

She thought about driving her business with brands in the Middle East because that was where her experience had been, but once she started the Back for Business programme, that changed. “It gave me this confidence, you have this programme set up to support people who have been out of the country and they want to give you the confidence and the tools to make sure that you are a success and that you have that network and you have people to reach out to and that you’re going in the right direction,” Doyle says.

“There’s the networking element but it’s also meeting people that are on the same path as you,” she says, “we all have very different businesses, but yet we all face the same challenges.

“Every interaction with that team, that group, you learn something, you progress forward, you get that network and that idea and it’s just such an open forum, but we’re all on the same page. It really helped build that network and be around some great people and really helped me believe in what I was doing.”

First Swim

Colin MacAndrias moved from London back to Dublin with his wife and children just two and a half years ago, after he lived abroad for over 25 years.

He co-owned a scuba diving centre in the UK, and the company began doing baby swimming classes during the days as most scuba diving lessons took place in the evenings and on weekends.

MacAndrias noticed the success of these baby swimming lessons and asked his business partner if they should focus on that rather than scuba diving. When his partner wasn’t on board, he and his wife then decided to move back to Ireland and set up a bespoke baby swimming facility there.

“We kind of decided there and then that rather than join an already growing market of bespoke baby swimming facilities in London, that we would come back to Ireland, because my wife is from Dublin too, and Ireland didn’t have any of these facilities back here, bespoke facilities,” MacAndrias says.

So, First Swim was born, a purpose-built baby and toddler swim school, with buggy space, spacious changing rooms and anti-slip flooring throughout. The showers have playpens and benches so parents can keep an eye on their children.

“I’d been out of the country for a long time, 25+ years, and it was quite a scary decision,” MacAndrias says. “I can’t put enough of a positive spin on just how great that support was [from Back for Business], because every person, every entrepreneur that comes back from overseas, especially for someone like me who’s been away for that length of time, the landscape shifted massively from the Dublin that I knew.”

Although MacAndrias felt like “a bit of a tourist” upon returning home, he says that the Back for Business programme helped him navigate the “minefield” that is the business landscape in Ireland.

“Without the assistance of Back for Business, [it] would have been just horrendous, so they were just great with the support and opening up a lot of doors that I didn’t even know existed, they were just wonderful,” he says.

“They have continued to be a resource that’s available to any of the candidates that are on the programme going forward,” he added. “All of the lead entrepreneurs all made themselves available and this is what I found absolutely mind blowing, you weren’t just limited to the resources that were in your group, it really was a pooled effort where you would throw out ideas and other lead entrepreneurs would get in.”

MacAndrias said that he had one-on-one meetings with numerous lead entrepreneurs from other groups that helped him tremendously. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we wouldn’t be where we are right now without the breadth of supports that were put in place from this programme.”

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Ellen O’Donoghue

Ellen O’Donoghue

Ellen O'Donoghue is an Irish Times journalist