Postcard from Northern Ireland: From Traveller to Entrepreneur

Life is like riding a bicycle: you don’t fall off unless you stop pedaling.

After nearly 20 years living abroad, Irene McAleese, Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at See.Sense, joined the Advance Talent Return Program in preparation for her return to Australia. In this postcard, she shares some insight about her experience as an expat, and some reflections in the lead up to returning home.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, and where you now call home…

Hi my name is Irene McAleese, and I’m originally from Brisbane. I left Brisbane in 2004, with the original intent to take a one year working holiday but it ended up being a lot longer than that!  Seven years in London, two and a half years in Singapore, and the last 11 years in Northern Ireland. I’m actually now planning to return home later this year, just under the twenty-year milestone.

What led you to move overseas, and what advice would you give for those following in your path?

My grandparents are English, and I’d grown up listening to their stories of the UK, so I was curious to visit, but never ‘got around to it’ or started seriously saving to do it. When I got an invitation from a family member over in the UK to join in on a family holiday, it was at that point I asked my employer if I could have a ‘leave of absence’ to take a year off to make the most of the experience and stay a bit longer. When I got their permission to do that, it kind of de-risked it for me, and I had a lot of encouragement from friends who had previously had the London experience (for them it was usually a year or two) so I finally made the decision to go.

Meanwhile, my husband, Philip, a dedicated cycle commuter, sought to improve bike safety through technology. Drawing upon his electronics and software expertise, he designed an intelligent bike light, which ignited our interest in the entrepreneurial journey. Despite our established careers in the corporate world, we chose to take the leap, driven by the enthusiastic response to Philip’s innovative bike light.

Our business partnership was not without its challenges, but our distinct skill sets complemented each other well. I took the lead in shaping our strategy, spearheading marketing efforts, and nurturing the growth of our data projects, while Philip delved deep into the technical intricacies.

My advice to those thinking of moving overseas would be similar to the advice given to me by my flatmate – go and experience it. Travel broadens your horizons, but actually living somewhere different, immersing yourself in the culture is a very different experience. It challenges you to reflect on your own sense of self, you will learn so much.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome?

The first challenge was fitting all I owned into a suitcase to take to the UK! I tried to downsize but in the end a lot of my things went in a van and were driven over to stay in my Mum’s. I had a huge CD collection I remember, and I had to force myself to only bring one with me (if you are curious it was The Go Betweens, Liberty Belle and The Black Diamond Express). Nearly 20 years later I do not miss any of the things I sent up to my Mums, though I remember it was a big deal at the time. A friend once told me that ‘you’ll have all that and more again’ and she was right, it is easy to accumulate stuff, and as I write this nearly 20 years since I left, there is now 40 foot container of belongings is now making its way to Australia full of our ‘stuff’, and I’m also bringing back a husband and two lovely daughters too! 

Then, a challenge that has been present throughout my career; being one of the few women in my industry. Despite working in a predominantly male-dominated field, my overall experience has been positive, yet the glaring underrepresentation of women remains evident. It was this realisation that drove me to step into the board of Cycling Industries Europe for a two-year tenure as the only female member. At the Velo-City conference, I was gratified to witness the inauguration of the first ‘all women panel,’ expertly orchestrated by the Women’s Cycling Network. As an ambassador for this network, I’m committed to cultivating mutual support and championing female voices within the cycling realm. In 2016, I stood as the sole female contestant at the highly competitive BT Infinity Awards, where I presented my vision of leveraging cycling data from our lights to enhance urban cycling. This transformative moment marked our shift from a hardware-centric company to a data-focused one.

The most recent challenge has been deciding if and when I should return home. I hadn’t been able to get home for a period of three years during COVID and when I finally did get back last year, something just ‘clicked’ for me, and I knew I wanted to return permanently. However, while the decision was made to return, it took me a long time to work up the courage to do it as it is not just about me, we are established here, with children, and our own business.

In an ideal world I think I would have liked another year to prepare for the transition, but with the children’s age and schooling milestones we knew we had to make a call and the decision was made to get them into school for the start of the academic year in 2024. It has felt like we’ve had to move a mountain to make it happen in under a year, but it is now happening and we are very excited. Once we arrive, we are planning to set up a sales office for our business, so combined with being home for family reasons we genuinely see some amazing opportunities in the Australian market for our business.

Was it easy for you to create a network for yourself overseas? Have you still managed to maintain your connections in Australia?

When I first arrived in London, I stayed with a uni friend of mine from Brisbane. I was there for a few weeks until I got my first job. My friend actually introduced me to a colleague of hers from work at an after-work drinks party – and this is how I met my husband Philip! I had only been in London for six weeks at the time, and was not intending to settle down. Building a network overseas varied by location. London had a big Aussie network and was very social, while the expat community in Singapore felt more like a second family. Northern Ireland is different again as fewer Australians live here, but I have my husband’s family here which is nice.

My husband and I co-founded See.Sense, a cycling tech and data company, while living here in Northern Ireland, which has kept us extremely busy! My role has connected me with a broad network of people, across the cycling and active travel industries. With it, there has also been quite a lot of travel, helping me build a strong network of colleagues around the world.

Maintaining my connection back home has always been important to me. I’ve made an effort to visit home to see friends and family roughly every two years or so, with a longer break over COVID. Each time I’m coming back with some new milestone – a boyfriend I was keen on, and on the next trip a fiancee, then a wedding, then our first child, and then our second child and more recently our girls growing, and with our eldest now a teenager. My poor husband doesn’t get a lot of opportunity for pure sightseeing trips on our return, as the main thing I like to do is visit my Mum and have a cup of tea over her kitchen table or in her garden while we watch the native birds, and visit my friends for a natter to hear everyone else’s news. There will be plenty of time to do some sightseeing trips once we are back home 🙂

What have been some of the main benefits of becoming a Global Australian?

Probably the main benefit is the network of friends and work colleagues I have built up over the years, and also the changed perspective I have. I imagine that if I had stayed in Brisbane I would never have left my ‘safe’ job to become an entrepreneur. 

I guess pushing myself out of my comfort zone built more confidence in myself so that I could take more risks.  It’s led to some amazing opportunities and experiences, both through work and through travel. It has shaped my perspective on things. I’ve learnt so much about cycling and micro mobility, not only as a sport which is more common in Australia, but in how cycling can be for everyone, taking short journeys by bike or e-scooter to reduce congestion, pollution on our roads and contribute to overall health. This is something that has a lot more prominence in thinking in Europe and I hope to be able to contribute and share these learnings on my return through the work we do at See.Sense.

🚴‍♀️✨ SPECIAL OFFER: Irene has kindly offered a 15% discount for the Advance community when you use the discount code: ADVANCE15 at checkout –