Fancy representing Ireland in the UN? What about coming up with a brainwave to help farmers in less developed countries of the world? What about if we told you someone had done both and hasnt celebrated their 23rd birthday yet?
Jack O’ Connor, 22, from Kilcolman in West Limerick is making a name for himself as a social entrepreneur on the international stage and he’s been sharing his story.
Midway through his four-year degree in International Business from the University of Limerick, the fledgling social entrepreneur Jack O’ Connor was offered the position as the United Nations Youth Delegate for Ireland. As you do.
Aware of the demanding schedules and dedication the post required, the Limerick man opted for a gap year, “I decided to take a one-year leave of absence. So, a gap year from the University of Limerick. I thought it would be too difficult to effectively juggle the UN role and college as well.”
As the United Nations Youth Delegate for Ireland, O’Connor acts as a bridge between young people in Ireland and the United Nations. During his time in the post, he has represented Ireland on international stages including Geneva for the Human Rights Council and in New York for the General Assembly where he delivered a speech on behalf of the country on youth mental health- arguing for better practices to effectively engage with young people experiencing mental health issues.
He has also attended events nationally including a site event with the Hungarian mission with UNICEF and the World Health Organisation where he delivered a personal account of his own experiences and troubles with mental health.
The UN Delegate works to improve situations around education, climate action, gender equality, mental health and “anything that’s sustainable development goals, we tend to try and represent young people in whatever capacity we can. It’s a very varied role.” he says.
Reflecting on the numerous trips his role has taken him on and the varied insights each location has provided him with, Jack looks destined for global impact in the future, given he has more airmiles clocked up than the average Irish household, not to mind 22 year old.
“I feel that everywhere significant that I’ve gone to, has affected me and developed me in different ways.
“So, taking Malawi, for example, it was like the domino effect started there. I got to learn the underground stuff and got to understand all the intricacies and nuances that are involved in creating effective development and working in development projects.
“New York, for obvious reasons has been fantastic to understand the inner workings of the United Nations. To understand how diplomacy and international relations work beyond the scope of what you may see from the outside.
“Geneva as well has been absolutely fantastic from a human rights point of view. To work with human rights defenders and to work on bilaterals with various organisations, which are working to protect humans across the world from the most devastating side of human nature.
“Mexico has been really cool. Because we got to engage with people from all over the world, I think there were 91 countries their all together at the World Trade Centre General Assembly. I got to really understand how trade works and how those partnerships are crucial for supply chains, for marketing, for distribution and to understand the importance of network effect as well.
“So, lots of different trips have been efficient just in vastly different ways.”
Mr O’Connor threw himself into the world of social reform, enterprise and policymaking over the last few years successfully fulfilling his role as UN Youth delegate as well as being the founder and lead of Moyo Nua, “A social enterprise set up in Enactus in the University of Limerick, which aims to improve the lives of smallholder farmers in the least developed countries by increasing their planting efficiency, improving their income and financial stability. And by also improving their health and wellbeing through ergonomic design.”
The idea behind the project stemmed after the then sixth-year student was presented with the Science Development award by Irish Aid during the well-known BT Young Scientist competition in 2017. Following his win, Mr O’Connor was at that point sent to Malawi to be involved in the research and development of the mission, which he accredits to the projects now current success, “Ever since then, it’s (Moya Nua) just kind of gone on leaps and bounds.”
The Limerick man thanks his trip to Malawi in Africa for much of the involvement he has today with humanitarian development work. He described it as, “the start domino of the domino effect,” which led to much of where he is today in terms of his work with the United Nations and social reform.
Working collaboratively with farmers in the Sub-Saharan African region, the University of Limerick student brought over the prototype from his Moyo Nua venture and was able to test out the idea with locals. Engaging in conversation with the Malawi residents, he was able to work on the project’s innovation, leading to the new prototype which utilized locally sourced bamboo material to create a much more environmentally friendly product than initially planned.
The 22-year-old was grateful for the clarity and deeper understanding the trip provided him, explaining it was an experience that couldn’t be found through any documentary or book.
“It was good to see the on the ground context and to really understand what life is like there and to understand what we have to navigate through in terms of whether it’s the distribution or whether it’s partners or whether its the actual design.
“We’ve had to completely redesign the planter, the Moyo Nua tool, to make it more effective. To make it more ergonomic and more user friendly and to make it more relatable to farmers which we wouldn’t have known by watching documentaries or reading in a book,” he said.
The remarkably successful Moyo Nua project was successful in The World Trade Center’s Association (WTCA) competition, securing the Peace Through Trade award. The first of its kind by the WTCA, the competition worked with students in third-level education to engage in projects aligning with the UNs sustainable development goals, “to create a better world for everybody, through inclusive trade and productivity.”
The award took the young entrepreneur and team to Mexico where they attended the World Trade Center’s General Assembly and presented the idea that is Moyo Nua. The success of the project was eventually picked up by the renowned business, investing, technology, entrepreneurship, leadership, and lifestyle publication Forbes, securing an interview and feature on its sought-after pages.
Mr O’Connor admitted his featuring on Forbes had encouraged a lot of positivity with the project:
“It definitely gives a lot more credibility as a project going forward. It’s a lot easier to enter a negotiation now for more contracts and to develop a relationship with a partnership when you can say I have Forbes in the back pocket to illustrate there is certain credibility there and there is a certain brand awareness and respect that has been built up over time.”
The delegate said he was optimistic about the emerging generation of Irish leaders, as well as leaders across the world. He shared the words of wisdom he attempts to live by, encouraging others to do the same:
Something I always try and live by is to be an idealist in vision and a pragmatist in execution. That’s an appeal, every citizen of the world or every citizen here in Ireland must try and be to some degree, whatever degree that they’re capable of doing so within their own capacity,Jack O’Connor
The Limerick native added that ideas are great; however, execution should be the ultimate goal.
“It’s one thing having fantastic ideas, but you need to be able to back those ideas up rationally, and to try and reduce and eliminate any form of negative impact from stakeholders or other elements of life. It takes a lot of consideration to create big change, because if you’re doing big change for some people, you may be negatively impacting some other people. And it’s a balancing act, certainly, which is a lot of what I found over the past year.
“Try to engage with certain groups or certain sectors to create the best balance to create a better standard of living for everybody involved. It’s easier said and done. But I think if people take a good approach to have big grand ideas and being strong in their ways and strong and their virtues for what they want to have to create a better world and then having the ability to work with others to develop their own ideas and their own perspectives. To shape that into reality. I think that’s probably the best way of getting the next generation of leaders up to pace with the problems and challenges that we find ourselves currently facing.”
His advice for anyone wanting to make a difference but not knowing where to start was simple- just start. He urged people to take time to consider what it is they’re interested in and not to worry if interests shift, reminding us that “it’s okay to deviate. And it’s okay to pivot.”
He went on advising others to continue pursuing what they are passionate about.
“Keep chasing your passions, and you’ll learn what they are, and you’ll figure out what’s right for you. They could change, and you could stop being passionate about certain things. And that’s okay too. But just follow your passion, follow whatever it is right now that you’re interested in learning more about and just take a step by step.”
The 22-year-old will soon handover his torch to new UN Youth recruits and will return to his degree at the University of Limerick. He hopes to continue learning and putting his academia into practice.
So, if there is anything, we can take away from our chat with Jack O’Connor it’s to remember that anything is possible once you set up your priorities. Whether that is taking a gap year to focus on succeeding in an area or dedicating your time towards your passion we can all make a difference when we give it our time and energy. Bravo Jack 👏🏽