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How a trade delegation for female Irish entrepreneurs persuaded them to expand to Chicago

ChicagoGlobal by AJ Caughey
Peter Morrison / AP
Aer Lingus Airbus A320 plane lands at Dublin airport.

Several large, Chicago-based firms, including Aon and Illinois Tool Works, have expanded into or relocated to Ireland since 2021—but that’s only half the story.

Irish companies are also coming to Chicago. The city’s educated workforce, logistics infrastructure, and large Irish community make it an especially attractive option for growing Irish companies, but Chicago has to compete with East Coast hubs like Boston and New York that also have strong Irish ties and are physically closer to the Emerald Isle. 

Illinois has long used trade delegations and business exchanges, which can be supported by local and foreign governments and by nonprofits, to help coax international entrepreneurs to the state. But a recent delegation of female entrepreneurs from Ireland offers a particularly illustrative example of how Chicago works to attract Irish business.

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This story first appeared in the ChicagoGlobal newsletter, a joint project of Crain's Chicago Business and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.


In March, the city made its pitch to a group of 12 Irish businesswomen who were considering Chicago for their companies’ first expansion into the U.S. market. The Irish Foreign Ministry, the local nonprofit Ireland Network Chicago, and the Irish nonprofit Going for Growth all helped organize the delegation. Participating founders came from diverse sectors including green tech, skin care, advertising, and woodworking, and each arrived in Chicago with a business plan for overseas expansion they could stress-test on their trip. 

“We were probably leaning more to the eastern seaboard,” Tracy O’Rourke, CEO of Vivid Edge, told ChicagoGlobal.

But O’Rourke, whose startup helps decarbonize commercial buildings and cut energy costs, started to rethink her plans when she traveled to Chicago. 

During her visit, O’Rourke met with potential suppliers, funding partners, and the state commerce department’s liaison to women entrepreneurs. Even though she already had a representative on the ground in another state, O’Rourke decided to make a change. 

“Nothing we could do in any of the other states could replicate what we gained in Chicago, in terms of just the relationships that we’ve established and the understanding of the market,” O’Rourke said. 

“It’s Chicago,” she said. “That decision was remade on the trip.” 

Why are Irish entrepreneurs interested in Chicago? 

Ireland is Illinois’ 7th-largest foreign employer, according to the definitions and statistics used by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, with firms like Shire, Eaton, and Accenture employing over 20,000 Illinoisians in total across the state. Between 2009 and 2022, trade ties exploded: exports from Illinois to Ireland grew over 600% to more than $1 billion, and imports from Ireland to Illinois grew over 400% to more than $3 billion. 

600% growth between 2009 and 2022

on exports from Illinois to Ireland, generating more than $1 billion. Imports from Ireland to Illinois grew over 400% to more than $3 billion. 

That cross-border trade hasn’t just grown over time; it’s fundamentally changed. Ireland Network Chicago president Ruairi Barnwell, an engineer who immigrated from Ireland after graduating college, has seen this firsthand. 

“You see a lot more professional service companies coming over now,” he said. “It’s definitely a lot more technology [and a] higher-end focus these days.” A decade ago, he explained, there were more companies in hospitality, construction, and food and beverages expanding from Ireland to Chicago. 

Since then, Irish imports have become a crucial link in the supply chain for Chicago’s growing life sciences sector. World Business Chicago told ChicagoGlobal that the majority of organic chemicals imported through O’Hare last year came from Ireland. Almost all of that trade – 95% – is in two compounds used to manufacture pharmaceuticals, including drugs that treat diseases like arthritis, diabetes, and cancer. 

Chicago’s appeal to foreign founders isn’t limited to pharmaceuticals: as a transportation hub in the middle of the country, the city can serve as a point of entry to the U.S. market. That’s especially attractive for Irish entrepreneurs, said Paula Fitzsimons, who helped orchestrate the business delegation as head of Ireland’s Going for Growth.  

“The Irish market is relatively small, if you are interested in growing,” she said in an interview with ChicagoGlobal, while “the U.S. is an enormous market — and daunting for anyone approaching it from another country.” 

Trade delegations can show founders how to enter the U.S. via one specific city, which can be a big help for entrepreneurs making the leap from Ireland to America. 

“You could fall completely flat on your face,” said O’Rourke, the Vivid Edge CEO. “And that's why it was real gold to us to have this opportunity.” 

How Chicago uses business development exchanges to make its case

Meeting Chicagoans face-to-face helps delegations like this one learn about local markets, supply chains, and financiers. For O’Rourke, that meant she could “find a smaller slice of [the market].” 

“I actually think there’s a need for us here,” she added. 

Klaudia Byrne was trying to decide if her company, Custom Wood Designs, which makes branded corporate gifts, should manufacture in Chicago or just ship their products in from Ireland.

“It became clear that local manufacturing would substantially increase costs due to the high expenses associated with setting up production from scratch in a new market,” she told ChicagoGlobal. Instead, she opted to ship flat packs to local partners who could assemble them in Chicago. 

As the head of foreign direct investment for World Business Chicago, Karla Orozco meets with dozens of delegations a year, and her team helped shape the Irish mission’s itinerary. For her, business development exchanges are about building community and face-to-face connections – not just money. 

“These types of in-person business missions play a crucial role in nurturing and fortifying ecosystems,” Orozco said. 

Building networks for women entrepreneurs brings the city business

Since the March delegation was designed specifically for women, its schedule included programming focused on supporting female founders – which organizers say is critically important for building community among participants. 

“Women are underfunded when it comes to venture capital, private equity, raising money,” Irish Network Chicago’s Orla Castanein told ChicagoGlobal. 

Castanein, who was born in Ireland and has worked in the U.S. for two decades, sees female founders facing similar challenges on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Especially in male-dominated fields like STEM and manufacturing, female executives can face sexist stereotypes — something Byrne, the Custom Wood Designs founder, has experienced firsthand.

“Often, there is a preconceived notion that women should handle roles focused on customer service or administrative tasks rather than being actively involved in the core manufacturing processes,” she said. 

“Women may not have the same access as their male counterparts to informal networks or mentorship opportunities,” she added.

That can make business-focused exchanges especially effective, according to Castanein.

"When you bring a similar group of people facing similar challenges, it’s easier to make sure that they’re getting the support and resources that are targeted particularly toward them,"

—Orla Castanein

That’s why the delegation met with Michelle Lura White, Illinois’ liaison to women entrepreneurs, who introduced participants to cross-sector business groups focused on supporting female entrepreneurs. Addressing the shared challenges that female founders and business owners face also helped the group build a sense of community, so its participants would feel more supported if they chose to expand their business to Chicago. 

“This is a network that will continue,” said O’Rourke. 

This story first appeared in the ChicagoGlobal newsletter, a joint project of Crain's Chicago Business and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Subscribe today.

About the Author
Data Journalist
Council expert AJ Caughey is pictured outside in a plaid shirt looking into the camera smiling
AJ Caughey is a data journalist at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He previously covered Chinese and US tech policy at Protocol and, prior to his career in journalism, administered United States State Department exchange programs at Meridian International Center.
Council expert AJ Caughey is pictured outside in a plaid shirt looking into the camera smiling