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Irish entrepreneurs relish U.S. retreat.

Competitive Edge By Maura Kelly

It has been called "the ultimate mind meld for business leaders" by those involved.

For seven days in June, 110 Irish entrepreneurs had the opportunity to engage with top U.S. CEOs, economists, political advisors and change agents in Chicago, the University of Notre Dame, and New York, this while attending the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year CEO Retreat.

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All of the participants embarked on the supercharger retreat with one goal in mind - to return to Ireland reinvigorated and expand their businesses on a domestic and international level.

The journey for twenty-four of the CEOs started when their companies were short-listed for the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year (EOY) 2014 Award.

EOY is a global recognition program for entrepreneurs run in 140 cities in over 50 countries.

The Irish EOY program, now in its sixteenth year, was created to recognize talent and innovation across the island of Ireland and it includes finance, technology, agriculture and manufacturing sectors.

All of the finalists and seasoned entrepreneurs on the retreat have created new jobs and opportunities, both in Ireland's tough economy and abroad.

I had a chance to meet and talk with several CEOs at the residence of Consul General Noel Kilkenny during the New York leg of the trip.

Fresh off the plane from South Bend, Indiana, the group was truly energized by the panoramic views of Manhattan and the Empire State Building from the Consul General's 52nd floor residence.

""The aim of this year's CEO Retreat is to challenge and inspire Ireland's entrepreneurs to think in new ways and unlock their success and strategy on a global level" explained Frank O'Keeffe, Partner-in-Charge of the EOY program.

"We want Ireland, north and south, to become one of the best places in the world to do business. We've just arrived from Notre Dame and we have a strong connection there. They are known as the fighting Irish in sports and the individuals here have a fighting Irish spirit and it's played out in business."

Several of the group commented on the inspirational talk football coach Lou Holtz gave the previous night about living life to the best of one's ability. They expressed deep admiration for the football legend and said it was a highlight of the trip.

Some of the companies vying for the EOY 2014 grand prize in the emerging category include Sugru, whose tag line states, "The future needs fixing." This innovative self-setting rubber is used for fixing, modifying and improving things and sells in 138 countries.

On the entertainment front, Belfast based Sixteen South (Sesame Street Northern Ireland and Jim Henson's Pajanimals) were in the running for two Daytime Emmy's that same week. Datahug creates online collaboration tools and I happened to catch their pitch at a recent New York Digital Irish event.

The applications enhance lead generation and uncover relationships and connections within a company's network of contacts. John Rice, CEO of Jam Media, recalled his early years in New York with MTV and talked about how his U.S. experience planted the seeds for opening his own animation company in Dublin, then Belfast, and now Canada in the near future.

The next day, World EOY 2013 winner, Hamdi Ulukaya, wowed the group when he shared how he started Chobani Greek Yogurt with nothing but a subway coupon and 25 cents in his pocket. Within five years he grew his company to $1 billion in sales and now employs over 3000 staff. Later that day, Jim McCann of 1-800-Flowers recounted his unique journey from start up to leader in the floral trade.

The EOY CEO Retreat doesn't limit itself to seeking excellent in all things business, it also promotes giving back.

Michael Carey, chairman of Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, explained the genesis of "Soul of Haiti" to me.

"Soul of Haiti is a charity that started in 2007 after the EOY CEO Retreat visited Haiti. We were so moved by what we saw, we decided to set up the charity on our return to Ireland."

Carey added: "We utilize the philosophy of social entrepreneurship and rather than focus just on relief work, we help stimulate business and employment in Haiti so that the people can start providing for themselves and build their own future.

I think the EOY Twitter feed sums up the week nicely: @EOYIreland "What a trip, we're now bringing our 110 Irish entrepreneurs back home re-invigorated and ready to get back to business with a bang! @bubblebumukltd tweets - "An incredible fanfreakingbubbletastic week with @EOYIreland in Notre Dame and NYC. Thank you."

Ireland's 24 finalists will face off against each other for the grand prize at the EOY Gala Night in Dublin on October 24th. The overall winner will then go on to participate in the World Entrepreneur of the Year Awards in Monte Carlo in June 2014. Good luck to all.

You can follow Maura Kelly on Twitter @MauraKellyMedia