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Northern Ireland is a challenging place for digital entrepreneurs, there is a disconnect from the rest of the UK and also not enough interaction with the thriving eco-system in the Republic of Ireland. That’s not to say there isn’t an immense amount of digital and tech talent in Northern Ireland because there is an abundance, however, the problem for them is to grow their business from Northern Ireland, with a variety of issues such as lack of investment etc.

The difficulties digital and tech entrepreneurs face is also further frustrated by the complex political and social issues and division, which I am working to improve and tackling with Peace Tech

Many entrepreneurs and those seeking to work in the tech and startup world come the conclusion with limited opportunity in Northern Ireland, that relocation is the only way to grow their business or career and the NI diaspora grows with relocation to the ROI, US, Canada, Australia and the rest of the UK a very common choice.

An essential pillar of retaining and attracting talent and support entrepreneurs in Northern Ireland is to recognise and highlight those who have successfully navigated the challenges and achieved highly.

Naomh McElhatton has been working tirelessly to do just that and 7 years ago she founded the DANI awards to celebrate the achievements of digital innovators in Northern Ireland. With the 2017 awards fast approaching I caught up with Naomh to discuss the awards and her views on the Northern Ireland digital and tech ecosystem.

Hey Naomh, What encouraged you to set up the DANI awards?

I set the DANI’s up as a celebration of being in business 1 year. That now seems like a lifetime ago to be honest. 7 years ago, as you can imagine digital strategies for companies were few and far between. Agencies were beginning to embrace online advertising and businesses were starting to think that there may be something in this online malarkey. There was definitely a gap in the market to take this “underground” industry mainstream.

2017’s DANI awards mark’s your seventh year, did you imagine that it would be still going strong?

This is actually only the 6th event, within the 7 years. Due to a change in business circumstances last year the event didn’t happen. However, I have to say I literally have been overwhelmed with the support, interest and positive feedback the awards have received this year.

I have no doubt that this years event will be bigger and better than ever before. This is due to a number of factors, number one being businesses genuinely believe the impact and positive return their online presence, use of technology and marketing efforts make for their business. This year’s event is only scratching the surface for what’s to come!!

Do you still get excited by the event as you did when you first started?

Excited, nervous, trepidatious all rolled into one. I love watching the evolution each year. Listening to everyone talk about the event is just brilliant, the entrants getting excited about the awards, excites me. I absolutely love this event and I am so happy its back with a bang.

Have you got any highlights from over the years?

Oh so many!!
Some censored to be honest, what goes on at the DANI’s stays at the DANI’s. Watching the delight on the faces of the unexpected winners is always a great buzz. Terry McCartneys Mickey Mouse hands will go down in history, although I think that accolade was supposed to go to Niall McKeown! One year our host for the night walked off stage and it all turned into a bit of a pantomime, so much so we also had audience participation (oh no we didn’t, oh yes we did!). David Schneider was a legend and poor John from Savilles will never forget him, when technology works its EPIC! however when it fails it FAILS….

How do you think the attitudes have changed towards Digital has changed in Northern Ireland over the last 7 years and do you feel enough is being done to support digital and tech startups in Northern Ireland?

OMG! Where would you begin? The shift in attitude has been immense over the last 7 years. For me being at coal face of it all, I’m actually fascinated to watch it grow, the penny has finally dropped with most folk, that this is something they can longer avoid.
Defining “Digital” is still a challenge, is this marketing, is it advertising, is it technology, is it innovation? This is all obviously enhanced with global technology, social platforms, and connectivity.

There is still a lack of digital education, a lot of talk, but not a lot of action. Action is vital for the continued growth and success of the digital economy in Northern Ireland. We have such a wealth of talent, however, that talent escapes to greener fields. So, I feel it’s up to us to create those opportunities to keep our talent here.

People talk the talk but don’t necessarily walk the walk in Northern Ireland and over the coming years, it’s critical to take the risk and go for it. This applies to all sectors, we talk about the Digital and Creative Industries, however, this is so much more than that. It seeps into finance, to agriculture, to health care, to FMCG companies, to home-heating, to engineering, construction, and the automotive sector. It’s relentless. We need to be bold, to educate, inform and inspire our homegrown talent. This will attract so much more FDI in NI. We need to view this province-wide potential and not just city focused. I’m eager to see how this pans out and obviously be involved as much as possible in these developments!

Which spaces being disrupted are you really excited about at the minute?

There’s huge chat at the moment regarding robots taking OUR jobs!

AI, ML, VR, all these little letters put together genuinely intrigues me. I recently had a tour of the factory floor in Sphere Global’s HQ in Derry. To say I felt totally insignificant after seeing first-hand what these machines can do is mind blowing!

Again, it goes back to the education piece, it’s not job losses as such, it’s pivoting and re-skilling and creating new opportunities. Computer software, engineering, design, there is no end to the possibility. Really and truly if you want to create something amazing, collaborating with the right people, using the right technology and it will happen!

What does the future have in store for the DANI awards?

Who knows!

Every year I have a dream about how I want the night to roll out, the theme, look and feel. Chris Love knows only too well, how wacky these dreams and visualizations can be, he views them more as nightmares.

The awards are a labor of love for me, I’m so proud that they are my baby. I put my heart and soul into providing a good night for all the folk in attendance and my dreams are that they continue to evolve, I have no doubt the award categories will change every year based on industry developments but it can only grow from here. Watch this space.

How do our readers buy a ticket for this year’s awards?

Simply visit the website here: https://thedaniawards.com/buy-tickets/

If you are in (or can get to) Northern Ireland on 28th April, I would recommend you attend and purchase a ticket quickly (as they are going fast), it will be a great event which I have no doubt will be a very enjoyable, but on a serious note, by supporting this event you are also helping to support, celebrate and build the Northern Ireland digital ecosystem.

I’ve got my ticket, so I will see you there 🙂

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