Neil O'Leary, Chair of Cork University Foundation, on a successful career and what motivates him to support UCC today

Kerry Bryson, newly appointed Director of Business Development and Advancement and CEO of the Cork University Foundation at UCC, speaks to Neil O’Leary, CEO of Ion Equity and Chair of the Cork University Foundation about what motivates him to support UCC today.

18 Nov 2021

It’s the people that make UCC such a great university and we are proud that our alumni go on to have incredible careers in their field of study, or in leadership roles becoming CEOs and board members, or by creating their own ventures and companies. 

Neil O'Leary, CEO and Chairman of Ion Equity and Chair of Cork University Foundation

Neil O’Leary is one such alumnus. Neil grew up in Midleton and graduated from University College Cork with a Bachelor in Civil Law in 1979. He began his career as a solicitor with McCann Fitzgerald in Dublin, was a senior executive of the London Stock Exchange and a Director with Union Bank of Switzerland. He was a founder, Chair and Chief Executive of boutique finance firm Ion Equity, which built businesses across a number of sectors - from technology to renewable energy. One of his best known deals was the creation of Topaz (a then €3 billion revenue business now owned by Circle K) by the purchase of the Irish assets of Shell and Statoil where he was Chairman.

He remains extremely busy with personal international involvements, mostly in the business of healthcare and with a heavy “impact” component. He is Chair and Group CEO of a US sensor technology firm he founded and is Chair and Group CEO of MYDAWA, a leading African e-pharmacy to medicine manufacture business which provides access to safe, affordable medicine. Just recently, in Nairobi, he agreed a major financing deal for MYDAWA and a collaboration with the Gates Foundation.

"There are outstanding things happening in UCC. We have further opportunity here, and there is much more to do”Neil O'Leary

Neil also serves as Chair of the Cork University Foundation. Kerry Bryson, newly appointed Director for Advancement caught up with Neil to ask him about what motivates him to support UCC today. 

“I took on the role because I was asked to, and I was curious to re-engage with my alma mater that I had forgotten. Most of my siblings had also gone to UCC and my father was Director of Programmes for the Co-operative Studies Department in his retirement, so there was a strong family connection," says Neil.

Neil, pictured with Kerry Bryson, Director of Business Development and Advancement and CEO of the Cork University Foundation at UCC

“Education has been the key catalyst in the transformation of Ireland to being a modern, generally well-functioning, relatively well-off and generally well-meaning society. The power we gain from knowledge cannot be taken from us. No institution can pretend to be perfect but my genuine experience is that UCC has been and continues to be, a major force for good in a great many lives. It has a significant regional focus and a larger national and international role that can grow given the expertise and capabilities it has.” 

“The Foundation was set up in in 1996 to assist the university with its fundraising activities in the furtherance of education, teaching and research. Since becoming involved, it is evident that additional resources will always be needed if UCC is to meet the long-term challenge of enhancing research standards and providing students with a world-class education and exceptional student experience as Government funding is reduced. Last year, and in spite of the challenges of COVID, the university, supported by the Cork University Foundation, raised over €6M in philanthropic income and pledges, launched an alumni mentoring programme, ran virtual events that reached over 6,000 alumni worldwide. Though it is rare for anything 'Cork' to be accused of underselling itself, I feel UCC has been modest in its entry to the global actuality of philanthropic contributions to third-level education. There are outstanding things happening in UCC. We have further opportunity here, and there is much more to do.”

“I’d like to thank everyone who supports us. It would be fantastic, however, to see more of the greater UCC family and friends join us. Together, we can enable UCC to continue to respond to global societal challenges, deliver breakthrough research and knowledge exchange projects. These activities better inform our teaching, ensuring we deliver market-aligned, future-ready programmes for our students, and assure UCC’s place on the world stage.” 


Please visit the dedicated UCC Alumni and Development website for further information.

Photography: Maxwell Photography

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