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The graduate inspiring and motivating young people - Helen Raftery

Junior Achievement Ireland (JAI) works with business leaders, students, teachers, and other educationalists across 160 supporting organisations to deliver JA programmes to more than 63,000 pupils in primary and second levels across Ireland. 

Helen Raftery is CEO of Junior Achievement Ireland (JAI), working with 30 staff and 3,000 business volunteers each year to inspire and motivate young people to realise their potential by valuing education and gaining an understanding of how to succeed in the world of work.

Above all, she is a UL graduate of the class of ‘91 where she gained her degree in English, education and physical education. 

Before assuming her current role, Helen enjoyed opportunities to teach and to work across the public, private and voluntary sectors, including roles in two National Governing Bodies of Sport, and at the Irish Sports Council, in the eight years spanning its emergence from voluntary committee to statutory agency.

Her doctoral studies focussed on the work of volunteer directors/ board members in non-profits, with a particular emphasis on the governance of sport and the role of voluntary leaders in non-profit organisations. 

A native of Corofin, Co Galway, Helen gained her primary degree in English, Education and Physical Education at the University of Limerick in 1991 and pursued further postgraduate qualifications, comprising an MA in European Public Policy (1992), supported though Erasmus across four different institutions around Europe, and later an MSc (Management) at Trinity College, Dublin (2003). 

Three years at the ‘chalkface’ in Holy Rosary College, Mountbellew, Co. Galway was followed by two years in the National Governing Body (NGB) for basketball – each of which were exciting and challenging roles. The chance to get involved in the work of the emerging Irish Sports Council (ISC) however was an opportunity not to be missed. 

Working from early 1997 in the Department of Education with John Treacy, then Executive Chairman of the emerging Irish Sports Council (ISC), meant a ‘box seat’ to see hugely important governmental-level developments in sport emerge: from the appointment of the first Minister of Sport (1997), to the signing into law of the Irish Sports Council Act (1999) establishing ISC as a statutory agency. 

In the subsequent years, Helen contributed to the organisation’s growth from a start-up with four staff and a budget of circa €10million to 28 staff and circa €50million in 2005, incorporating direct involvement in the initiation of ISC-led initiatives like the Local Sports Partnerships (2002) to coordinate efforts to promote participation and the Irish Institute of Sport (2004) to support the building and maintenance of high performance systems for elite athletes.

After moving to the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) in 2005 to oversee the merger of the Association and the National League, other once-in-a-generation opportunities included being involved at various stages in the work to design, build and fund the new stadium (AVIVA Stadium) and leading the IT-enabled change project to systemise football administration in support of the thousands of volunteers, coaches and officials who promote sport at club, local, county and regional level all over the country. 

Challenging herself to gain more diverse experience outside of the public service and the sports industry while completing her doctoral work at Queens University Belfast, Helen worked as a management consultant for a number of years, specialising in areas such as strategic planning, organisation development and design, change management and governance.

In this period, the opportunity to take up teaching hours at University College Dublin evolved to leading the governance and law module within the MSc Sports Management postgraduate programme, which she continues to enjoy.

Joining Junior Achievement (JAI) following the retirement of its founding director in 2012 was a fantastic opportunity to combine Helen’s experience and expertise in senior management of non-profit organisations with her long-held belief in the power of education and the merits of providing opportunities for young people to excel.   

Her clarion call remains the need to ensure young people get every opportunity to participate, enjoy and excel in the area of their choosing – be it in sport, academic pursuits, or starting their careers in business. That is why she is passionate about the ambitions of JAI in recruiting and training business volunteers to inspire young people to maximise their talents and to stay in school, a mission driven by the combined efforts of the professional staff at JAI and volunteers from a wide range of industries and education partners across Ireland.
-  Andrew Carey