‘PA is passionate about Catalyst’s Generation Innovation programme and supporting young people in Northern Ireland’

  • Photo: Karen Duffy, PA Consulting Belfast

    Karen Duffy is the Senior Business Support Specialist at PA Consulting Belfast. Kathryn McKenna recently got the opportunity to sit down with Karen at PA’s warm and welcoming offices based in Belfast’s bustling Chichester Street offices; where Karen reveals what she loves most about her role at PA; why diversity and inclusion in the workplace is vital; and why we should always get to bring ‘our whole selves to work.’

    In our wide-ranging conversation, Karen also highlights the importance of inspiring the younger generation through innovative and immersive work experience, including Catalyst’s Generation Innovation programme which PA Consulting has been involved with since 2019.

    Walking into the brightly-lit hub of PA Consulting’s thriving office in Belfast city centre is a welcome sanctuary from the rain on a particularly turbulent day weather-wise on a recent spring morning. That is not only because friendly PA team members are quick to greet all who walk through the door, but the open-plan, industrial but warm design and screens advertising current events (including the likes of a Pride breakfast event to kick off June’s festivities), all add up to the overall impression that PA Consulting seems like a particularly welcoming place to work.

    And Karen, who has been working in the Belfast office for six years this November, agrees the office is a particularly embracing and welcoming hub of activity: “I definitely think it is as well,” Karen agrees. “In our local market, I would like to think that PA is seen as that employer where there is lots of diversity, and people feel and can see that when they come into PA.”


    Karen, who is one of the longest serving members of the team here in Belfast, explains she initially came to the company through PA’s Consulting Business Support function. Karen has remained within this function, however has been promoted within her role, most recently to the title of Senior Specialist.

    “It is amazing to have your hard work recognised,” Karen explains, adding that essentially, “there are a few hats that I wear in my role.”

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    To begin with, Karen is the Belfast office manager, a role which sees Karen support three partners in London who sit within different capabilities, including offering general business support from financing, to diary management, and client management.

    On the other side of Karen’s role, Karen is “very heavily involved” in Life@PA, which is the firm’s strategy for all things Inclusion and Engagement. “I do a lot with PA in the Community, our volunteering and fundraising initiative, and I am also one of our Chairs for the global Pride Network,” Karen explains, adding that she helps look after PA’s objectives and things that they would like to do “across the globe for the community within PA” and also externally.

    Karen’s role in Belfast had “really taken off” when she had started getting the office involved in the Belfast Pride Festival. “We were the first ever PA office to actually walk in a Pride Festival, so that is something I am really proud of.”

    “This really ignited my own passion for supporting people within the LGBTQ+ community, because I'm a part of that. I was heavily leaning into our global function to say, ‘what are we doing to help support people within the LGBTQ+ community and how can I get involved from a local aspect and also support the global initiative as well’.”

    Karen did just that, and is now a valued source of support for anyone in PA taking part – not just practically but for emotional support as well. She says: “Anyone that is walking in a parade globally, I would help support and navigate through the finances, as well as help support with marketing, including getting the t-shirts ready.

    “We also mark a lot of days, for example June is Pride month and there are a lot of different small events around each office to mark those days and generally just act as that ear of support for people, as well as helping with awards nominations. If anyone is facing or struggling with any sort of issues within the community and equally within PA, then I would be a point of contact for them to chat through and help out.

    “It is very versatile, and you have to be ready just to jump off the hook. It was something I was really passionate about joining. I've never seen myself in a Chair role, but here I am this year. It has brought a lot of extra work, but it's work that I absolutely love and it doesn’t feel like work.”

    Karen adds the move felt extremely holistic, explaining: “When you come into the company and really understand the way PA are, you know the saying of ‘bring your whole self to work’ really does ring true. Our staff in PA genuinely feel comfortable to be who they are and are able to express it.

    “That's where I found my feet in this role, just by being keen and wanting to learn and grow more, and that has led my role to grow into what it is now.”

    Karen, who worked with young people in her previous role, was keen to get involved from the offset when she joined PA after hearing about Catalyst’s Generation Innovation programme.

    “I have worked with young people in my previous job, so I was always quite passionate about upskilling young people in different areas of personal development and professional development.

    “So as soon as I started in PA, a colleague brought the Catalyst programme to my attention, explaining how innovative the programme is and how it brings work experience to a new light, and I knew I had to get involved as I recognised it as being something PA strongly aligns with.

    “I got speaking with the Catalyst team, specifically the Generation Innovation programme team within the Catalyst group, and I believe it was only their second year when we came on board.

    “We had to get involved because it is such a fantastic programme. Catalyst have basically reimagined work experience for young people across Northern Ireland. That is something that sticks out in my mind from my time in school,” Karen recalls. “There were no placements for what I wanted to do and so I was placed in retail stacking shelves. I got nothing from my work experience, because it is not what I wanted to do.”

    Karen adds: “It is all about giving young people transferable skills, things that you actually need for the workplace but you can also broaden their horizons to what is actually available out there.”

    With more traditional subjects generally promoted in schools across Northern Ireland, Karen is in agreement that the copious career opportunities in the world of tech need to be highlighted at school level. Programmes like Catalyst’s Generation Innovation though, are real drivers for change.

    “Our involvement with Catalyst has holistically grown over the years since we first got involved four years ago and being one of the company sponsors, we are extremely committed to it. Whenever you are in this programme with these amazing young people, you actually find something out about yourself too.”

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    This is the biggest year yet for the programme, which will see the team working across three locations in Northern Ireland this year: Belfast; Derry and Dungannon.

    “The growth and support I have received from our leadership team means I have an amazing team of support who help fly the flag, and the project team who will be PA’s reps at the programme are just amazing!” This support also demonstrates that for PA, this is not just a ‘tick box’ exercise for them, they genuinely want to help mentor and support these young

    Karen adds: “One of the really beautiful things about it, as well, is these young people are ready for the programme. They have volunteered for this and voiced they want to be part of it. Everyone who comes is really invested in it and they are ready to meet the challenge and to solve it head-on.

    “And the ideas these young people have are mind-blowing. I think it is seeing things through a different perspective. As you get older, you sometimes put up barriers and think ‘Oh, no, we couldn't do that.’ Whereas these young people come in and are full of energy, ideas and enthusiasm, and it is so amazing to see.”

    Karen explains that Catalyst also invite previous alumni who have taken part in the programme previously to return: “Catalyst don’t lose touch with these people. That's so important because it is not just a week-long program, they have so many opportunities there after, and these young people feel a deep sense of connection.”

    When speaking of the importance of seeing more women in tech, Karen explains: “You can’t be what you can’t see, so this helps to take away that stereotype and showcases there is absolutely an exciting career for young women in tech.

    “It also helps highlight the different pathways into tech, for example through apprenticeship programmes. There are so many options for young people now and careers certainly are no longer just straight lines.

    “For example, I work in tech but I am not technical, however that isn’t to say I don’t get just as much out of this role as someone who is. It has also been really exciting and interesting to upskill myself and surprise myself by learning new things. When I started here it just felt like everything culturally aligned. Everyone was so friendly and I hit the ground running straight away. I haven’t look back since.”

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    PA is passionate about Catalyst’s Generation Innovation programme and supporting young people in Northern Ireland. To this end, the team are running two different workshops across the Belfast programme this year, including running a ‘consultancy conquest’ to show young people what it means to be a consultant in a fun and engaging way. This year, they are basing this around the World of Warcraft.

    “Last year, we did a workshop around AI and that went down really well,” Karen explains. “These are the sorts of ways we are trying to do to help support young people in that interactive, immersive, memorable way that really makes a lasting impression.”

    Focused on fostering the equal opportunity for all within innovation and education, Catalyst’s free work experience programme, Generation Innovation, for 17 to 18-year-olds across Northern Ireland first launched in 2018 and is funded by the Department of Economy.

    The one-of-a-kind work experience programme is designed to empower, enable, and upskill young people for the workplace of tomorrow by pairing them with household business names such as PA Consulting and more.

    Throughout the four to five-day programme, participants collaboratively work to develop a solution for a real-world business problem, before pitching an innovative solution to the partner company and fellow participants at the end.

    Catalyst are just one of the great organisations PA work with. This year, PA Consulting are also headline sponsors for the Stonewall NI Workplace conference, on 25 June in the MAC Belfast. This is the first event of its kind on the island of Ireland, and will be a fantastic opportunity for local businesses, people professionals, and LGBTQ+ networks to come together and learn how to best support their local LGBTQ+ communities. For more information and tickets, head over to and check out their events section.

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