A Diary of UpSkill Enterprise – a NI StartUp Trip to the USA

Following Stephen Rice, Founder of NI Startup UpSkill Enterprise on his trip to Missouri, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Dallas.
A real life example of the hard yards made in an effort to take an innovative edutech software solution Stateside.

Day 1 Belfast – St Louis, Missouri via Dublin and Chicago

Early alarm for a monster trek, good old Dublin Airport that gives us Northerners the access to the globe we deserve. Start of the journey, which will see me covering 6 states in 10 days. After contracting the most potent strain of man flu the world has ever seen, the harsh realisation kicked in…if I don’t go, nothing gets done and I have wasted a truck load of money.
The life of an entrepreneur can be arduous but motivating. After a short delay and a couple of Jameson, I got familiar with my seat. This is a trip I have taken 20 times in the past 2 years, on some of the worlds dodgiest airlines, in some of the worlds dodgiest planes, often through Iceland, anything to save a few quid really.

Chicago the first destination, quick 1 hour touch down then off to St Louis, Missouri. My mission today is to beat Jet lag and be firing on all cylinders for a two day conference starting tomorrow – MO2030, Missouri are redefining workforce and education, and I want to make sure Upskill are invited along to their impressive journey. For now, I plan to eat the sandwiches I made in Belfast (if they have an agreeable smell) and plan my strategy for the next 10 days. As always, bringing some Northern Ireland flare to the mid-west of America!




Day 2 – M02030 Conference
Jet lag is a beast. Woke up at 1, 2, 3 then 5am so I just got up. Coffee machine is working well, which is a great thing as I was straight up and into legal documents, working with the developers remotely and replying to emails before the day goes crazy.

I was excited for the workforce conference MO2030, meeting people I have met before and a whole raft of new folk. As the weird sounding foreigner in the room, I took advantage of opportunities to ask questions in some of the brilliant breakout sessions. One thing I have learned travelling here, if you don’t speak up and put yourself forward, you blend in. We have spent far too much money just to blend in.

Americans do conferences well, slick, professional and informative. Some of the topics discussed play right into the evidence base for TalentSensus so waiting patiently, I pick my moment to raise my hand, heart bouncing out of my chest, throat still feeling like it’s being scrubbed by sandpaper as a result of my man flu and I talk from the heart about how collaboration on workforce and education can change the world.

Those who know me, understand that I may not be the most eloquently spoken, you can take the boy out of Belfast…..but the thing is, it works. It’s a USP that not many others in the room have so I shamelessly use it. It opens the door, but the most important part is that you commit and walk through the door. I was fortunate to be invited to dinner with the Missouri Chamber and State Department of Workforce to speak about what we are doing, and I now have an exploratory meeting with the US Chamber in DC about how we could potentially collaborate. I have also met some other great people who I know I will work with in the future.

Finishing the night with a JD and coke in quiet reflection, I look around at the lobby and see business people talking business, porters organising luggage, service staff going the extra mile to be nice, highlights of baseball and NFL. I remember I am in America, a wee Belfast boy just being passionate and outspoken. That’s the simple science to export they forget to tell you about on these government funded programmes.


 Day 3 Everything said on stage, TalentSensus by UpSkill can do

The hardest thing for me to grasp is this idea of imposter syndrome. I am doing something which is resonating with people all over the world, yet I have this need to belittle myself constantly through my inner voice.
The hardest part is balancing keeping UpSkill going day to day work with making sure when I am at a conference I am ‘present’.

So I took some time to recalibrate and aimed to be back at the conference at lunch, which on paper was 12.30. Little did I know that Americans seem to like their lunch anywhere from 11.30am, so by the time I arrived I had missed it. However, two speeches which followed, removed my hunger and squashed the inner self doubt but I know my return to Northern Ireland will amplify my impostor syndrome.

Shelly Roither VP of Global Human Resources, Enterprise holdings was up first, yes as in Enterprise Rent a Car! She spoke about the secrets to motivating and developing staff and promoting within. Everything she said, TalentSensus does and they have been given the distinction of the No1 Entry Level Employer in the US.
I am proud to have built a system which is essentially benchmarked against the best.

Following Shelly was Governor Mike Parsons. He spoke on leading Missouri’s workforce transformation as Governor, empowering Missourians with valuable skills that match the needs of today’s employers.
He noted that his administrations focus is on Workforce and Infrastructure and that the other social areas would be resolved if these two areas are a focus. He also pointed out that during the recession of 2008, it was the small businesses that helped turn the economy around while the bigger businesses crumbled.

Two key and influential people on the worlds stage, making the business case very clearly for TalentSensus from UpSkill a product created in a little office in Belfast.

This is a message I hear state by state, city by city. Yet trying to convey this decision or the US both on a State and Federal level to focus, drive and invest, putting workforce front and centre of governmental and economic priority to ensure they are competitive in a changing world is falling on deaf ears in the UK who are too preoccupied with Brexit.

This is where I believe the root of my imposter syndrome comes from. I am engaged in a fundamental workforce shift in the biggest world economy, playing a key role. Yet when I come back home, share my experience and learning, I am not being listened to because people are blinkered by Brexit, the loud voices of corporate management consultancy and those “experts” who stand to loose out financially by institutional change.

It is frustrating, but I am enjoying the process of feeling like an American entrepreneur when I am here. Where people want to see you do well, are open to innovative thinking and who give you a hand up.

It’s in their blood, 1776, Independence Hall in my opinion the first real show of the Entrepreneurial spirit which courses through the veins of every American. In the face of the British Empire, they gathered together the forefathers to develop the Constitution and gain Independence. They knew they were not going to get it right, so they made sure they could amend it. It was labelled ‘the great experiment’. We could learn a lot from this give it a go attitude where people help each other achieve. It manifests itself in every facet of American life from philanthropy to innovation.

Just a thought and one I will take back home to NI at the end of my 10 days here

Day 4 – 6 – Tornado Time
Following Missouri, a short stay in Pheonix and Las Vegas, I have arrived into Dallas Texas only to hit my first Tornado

It reminded me that no matter what nonsense is spoken at Stormont, Westminster, Capitol Hill or anywhere, Mother Nature is in charge! Respect ✊ goes to to the emergency services and transport infrastructure in the area for making people safe. I am looking forward to my meeting with DART – Dallas Area Rapid Transport tomorrow to hear first hand how their workforce does what they do. Looking forward to introducing them to TalentSensus.




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