In America there are over six million first and second generation people with a close connection to Northern Ireland. This is a country which is changing for the better and NI Connections has been actively working to ask those with an affinity to the country to help us to update perceptions around the world.

You will find the Northern Irish diaspora in over fifty countries around the world including Hong Kong, Tanzania, the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Sri Lanka. My recent trip to the U.S. highlighted the appetite in New York that some of our diaspora have to support the growth and improvement of their home country.

The Northern Irish identity is one which is individual to each person. We aren’t trying to get into politics. We are trying to encourage people to be proud of Northern Ireland, and to do what they can to allow it to continue to progress forwards. We are taking a people-centred approach to our network, not a political one. By 2020, our goal is for NI Connections to be the established diaspora network for 150,000 friends of Northern Ireland globally, helping them to connect with each other, exchange advice, pursue new opportunities and thrive.

I found a warm reception waiting for me in New York and NI Connections had the opportunity to sit down with some fantastic people and organisations. We live in a world that has never been more connected and that has brought new attention to how we engage with our diaspora. At the core the processes have remained the same – telling stories, listening to each other and wanting to help as much as possible. However, we are seeking to do this differently than many other diaspora networks.

Our network is open to anybody with an affinity to Northern Ireland through birth, education, business or just being connected in some way through sport or culture. NI Connections is truly a two-way street. By engaging our diverse and influential diaspora we can promote business and cultural opportunities for our members, and for Northern Ireland. Continued collaboration, shared vision and a desire to “be better” are at the core of NI Connections and we will drive this agenda forward into 2015 and beyond. This more progressive perception of Northern Ireland is something that NI Connections strives for, offering friends of Northern Ireland across the globe the opportunity to connect and collaborate for their own and Northern Ireland’s benefit. We take the time to listen, to connect and to collaborate with our global contact base.

We know that diaspora engagement is nothing new. It is something that has been happening for years, with people connecting back and working to be at home abroad. This year has already been our most exciting to date. There has been a step change in our focus and passion for connecting with our diaspora. We are now delivering tangible benefits in each of our four core areas of activity: Education, Investment, Innovation and Tourism. For example, this year NI Connections, collaborating closely with the Invest NI office in Dubai, secured three international students from the United Arab Emirates for Belfast’s Campbell College which will have an economic benefit of £1,050,000 across seven years. We have also laid the foundations for the Gourmand international food event to come to Northern Ireland which, if secured, would deliver approximately £3.45 million to the economy.

The outlook for the year ahead is even brighter. We plan to extend the range of our connections around the globe even further by actively visiting and engaging with our network in their markets, and we also plan to ask our diaspora to come home to celebrate all that is good about Northern Ireland as part of a major celebration in Belfast.

New York will always be important to us but we will also be looking at our less well-travelled routes, reaching out to cities including Washington and Atlanta. We aim to continue to identify investment opportunities and to create ways of encouraging more visitors, more international events and more Northern Ireland-based conferences. We are working alongside our universities and colleges to further promote their international programmes in both research and education and we need support from globally experienced business people to help entrepreneurs and young start-up businesses by sharing expertise.

Our trip to New York was an opportunity for us to meet our members and potential members on a face to face basis, to say thank you and to discuss opportunities to work together collaboratively. We have returned to Northern Ireland having taken on board suggestions and lessons for the future on how we can best work with our diaspora.

• Andrew Cowan, Chief Executive of Northern Irish Connections, visited New York recently to promote links between Northern Ireland and its diaspora. Learn more about Northern Irish Connections at