Learnovate Meet the Patrons Q&A with Bernard Kirk Camden Education

Q&A with Bernard Kirk

Reading time: approx 11 minutes

As part of Learnovate’s Meet the Patrons series, we speak to Bernard Kirk, founder and CEO of Camden Education Trust (CET), a not-for-profit company based in Ireland which aids the creation of education initiatives for the benefit of young people in underserved communities around the world. 

Bernard’s career in education began after graduating from Mary Immaculate College in Limerick with a degree in education in 1983. An 18-year career in primary school teaching followed, during which time he earned a master’s degree in educational leadership from Trinity College Dublin and undertook courses in non-profit financial stewardship and leadership from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

In 1998 while working as a primary school teacher in the Gaeltacht area of Claregalway, Co. Galway, Bernard received a request from then-Minister for Science and Technology Noel Tracey to serve as the secretary of the Galway Technology Festival. 

Success in that role led to the development of relationships with leading multinationals in the science and technology space, including US medical device company Medtronic and German software firm SAP. These links would prove key to the success of CET following its formation in 2018, with many of these companies now serving as sponsors of the non-profit’s global education projects, such as SAP Africa Code Week, ACW Women Empowerment Programme, Explorers Education Programme, and the World Robot Olympiad. 

A father of two girls, Bernard is passionate about making STEM subjects more accessible to women and girls. The ACW Women Empowerment Programme is now in its fifth year while Africa Code Week engaged more than fourteen million young people and stands as the continent’s largest digital literacy project. Meanwhile, CET’s latest venture, the World Robot Olympiad, was rolled out in five countries in Africa in 2023, including South Sudan, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Uganda. Plans for 2024 will involve 14 countries in Africa supported by Google and Irish Aid.

In addition to his work with CET, Bernard is the chairman of Creative Enterprise West (CREW) which aims to create jobs in the Digital Creative Sector in the West of Ireland, and is a former Chair of Philanthropy Ireland, an organisation aiming to increase the levels of charitable giving in Ireland.

In 2013, Bernard was awarded an Honorary Master of Science degree from University of Galway in recognition of his dedication to promoting education in Ireland and abroad. 

What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?

The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that no matter where you travel, you won’t go wrong as long as you value people. A friend from the business world told me once that he thinks of his business in terms of care – for your customers, your team, suppliers, and for yourself. That really stuck with me. 

I try to focus on encouraging people and take an interest in them. I received an honorary master’s degree in 2013 and, with it, they give you a citation. The final line read, ‘My name is Bernard Kirk, I get things done’. A mentor of mine said they were disappointed by that. They said, ‘That last sentence should have read, “My name is Bernard Kirk, I get things done, but I don’t fall out with anybody”.’ I try to be diplomatic in my approach. That can be frustrating for some, but you just never know when you are going to come across people again. I’ve had countless experiences in which I’ve worked with someone and six or seven years later, I find that I’m working with their spouse or another relation. Someone told me once, ‘If you’re going to burn a bridge, you better be a really good swimmer’. I live by that.

What was the best advice you ever received?

One of my first teaching practices was in a really disadvantaged area of Limerick. When the kids came into the classroom in the morning, you could tell the night before had been difficult for them. I remember a nun came out to supervise us and she said to me, ‘No matter how cross you are, you’re never going to be as cross as their parents at home. Always remember, in the classroom and in life, you survive on your eyes and your voice.’ What she meant was that if I raise or lower my voice, or if I come and stand next to you, I can influence what you’re doing and how you’re engaging with me. I stand in front of groups all over the world – from refugee camps in Jordan to conferences in London – and I always remember that. It’s the best piece of advice I ever got. 

How would you define your work style and how has this changed over your career?

My work style is based on respecting people. I take people as they are, no matter where they are in the world. I’m interested in finding out about people, their lives, and families. Don’t ever go into anything whether it’s a meeting or project with assumptions. You don’t know where that person is coming from or what they’re bringing with them. We meet amazing people and a lot of time they just need someone to give them confidence. A friend in business often says, ‘If you can’t delegate, you’re a nuisance’. You need to be able to trust people. 

What have you learned about managing teams and individuals?

Encourage people, make them believe they can take on a role, and make sure they know that you appreciate their efforts. I think when you’ve done a role yourself, you can quantify how much effort it took and appreciate how the other person may have done it much better. You can’t have an ego. You can outline to someone what you want to do but you must let people show their personality. If you do that, a lot of the time, the end-product is lovely. 

The manager of a Michelin star restaurant told me once that his job involves constantly training people. Young people come in as waiters and waitresses and he knows that they’re only there for the experience and they’re going to leave, but he also really enjoys seeing them develop in their roles. We see the exact same thing with our Women Empowerment Programme, which is a six-stage process. Women come in as participants, then we give them a role as a programme coordinator. After that they might present a small part of the programme and then we get them to help us behind the scenes. At the end of all that you get someone like Vickie Nxumalo, the founder and executive director of Girls In Stem Zimbabwe. She spoke at the Learnovate Conference last year and blew everybody away. She was fantastic. That’s just one example of how we encourage people, knowing that they are going to fly the nest while taking the time to prepare them for that, and being satisfied with their development. 

How has AI impacted your organisation/industry?

We are not using AI but we are trying to lead conversations about AI. Last year I was at the UNESCO conference in Paris where there were many conversations about ethics in AI, and AI’s role in education and special education needs. I’m glad to see those conversations happening at an early stage because those conversations didn’t happen when we first discovered the internet. Indeed, they happened far too late. 

We listen to people we work with to see how we can bring expertise to help them plan for what’s happening in education and what’s going to happen in the future. For instance, in the African Women Empowerment Programme, the participants told us they wanted to know more about AI. In Africa, local languages are dominating more than English so AI is going to be important in translation. We want to support work in niche areas – like use of indigenous languages and special education. That’s where we’re very much focused and why the connection to an organisation like Learnovate is so valuable because it means we’re tapping into incredible research in our focus areas. 

What are the opportunities and/or risks from AI to your business or sector and/or the learning technology industry?

In education, there’s a clear risk in terms of exams but then again, many organisations have been running open-book exams for a long time. From an education point of view, particularly primary and post-primary, it’s going to have a lot of implications but it’s part of society so we work with it, embrace it, and try to shape it rather than seek to ban it. 

I have no idea what the change is. I don’t think anyone does. At the UNESCO conference, a senior professor at Stanford presented a quote from John Maynard Keynes who said that technological change would lead to huge reductions in working hours and an increase in leisure time. Life hasn’t turned out that way for the overwhelming majority of people. My attitude is always: let’s see how it turns out. No-one can see the future. You can’t predict anything. Everything can change very quickly.  

From your experience, what are the current trends in learning? 

There’s an increased focus on girls in education but we find that these things come in waves. Where once we had a science wave, then a maths wave, now there’s a lot of discussion about AI. We’re currently building on work that we’ve done in coding by focusing more on robotics. In 2015 and 2016, we set up EU Code Week in Ireland, which was the precursor to Africa Code Week, and then we had Coder Dojos. The result is that now coding is on the Leaving Cert. The next stage is robotics because, firstly, coding is at the heart of robotics, and secondly, there’s a lot you can do in that area, particularly in health, that can improve lives. We’re focused now on introducing a robotics competition across Africa while also working with partners in Ireland to bring it to the next level in this country. 


What book would you recommend on learning, technology, business or understanding people?

Oh the Places You’ll Go by Doctor Seuss. 

I’m not shy about saying that everyone – from the smallest child to the county’s leading businesspeople – should read this book. ‘When you’re in a slump, un-slumping yourself is not easily done’ – but this book is a great way to reset. I went from advising people to buy it to keeping four or five copies in the car just to give away. It’s all about the ups and downs of life. ‘You’ll have hang ups and bang ups, you’ll go up and down. In the end, ‘will you succeed? Yes indeed. Ninety-eight and three quarters percent guaranteed. Kid, you’ll move mountains!’  

The Crossroads of Should and Must by Elle Luna. 

It’s about life and everyone telling you what you should do, but it’s what you must do. 

The Surrender Experiment by Michael Singer. 

Michael Singer created a digital medical insurance form using a computer he found while building a house. His computing skills were entirely self-taught and very limited. He then ended up with a multi-billion-dollar company which he ran from his home in the woods in the middle of nowhere. And then it all fell apart. It’s a life story as well as a business story. His attitude is: that’s life and these things happen, your life flows along and often the real value is found in the people you meet. 

Any interesting podcasts or other media do you consume that you would recommend? 

I listen to F1 Nation a lot. I’ve been enthralled with Formula One over the last few years. The pitstop is fascinating to watch. McLaren hold the record for quickest pitstop. It’s 1.8seconds. From a tech and engineering point of view, that’s incredible. But it’s equally fascinating from a teamwork point of view. My daughter was working in St Thomas’s hospital in London and they used to show them F1 pitstops for training. They noticed that there was always someone in the crew who stands back to serve as an overview. That demonstrates that even in chaos, there’s value in having one person checking that everything is running as it should.

Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company? What does Learnovate do well?

We’re a small company. That’s why an organisation like Learnovate is so important for us. It gives us access to an R&D team. We work with major organiations like Google, SAP, Irish Aid and UNESCO. We can’t go into them and say, ‘I think this might work’. Whatever you propose, it must be grounded in actual research. 

We’re already tapping into research Learnovate is doing – in special education, in particular. I’m also not a tech person. When I’m on the Thought Leaders Circle call, I’m learning so much myself. As a small education charity, we gain a lot from hearing what the big players are working on and the discussions they have. When you’re small, you need to be connected in with these bigger players to hear what’s going to happen. 

Why do you feel companies in Ireland & NI need the support of a centre like Learnovate?

Companies need to be in connection with what global leaders are thinking. That’s where they identify a need. You need to be in the room with the bigger players to see where the trends are going because they’re driving the trends. Learnovate provides that connection. 

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