Athlone-born businessman Will Sweeney.

Athlone-born man wins coveted Philadelphia award

Philadelphia resident and Athlone-born man Will Sweeney recently won the Philadelphia Business Journal's 40 Under 40 Award for his achievements in the data security and privacy industry.

Will (39) said that he was “really excited” to receive the accolade and that it was recognition for all of the hard work that he's put into the business over the past seven years. “I got to meet a lot of other award recipients who are extremely impressive and smart people so this is a really nice honour.”

Will is the son of William Sweeney and Bernadette Sweeney neé Parkes from Athlone.

The family lived in Ard Na Ri near Assumption Road, Athlone, until aged five when his parents and his three siblings moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the US in the late 1980s.

Recalling his early years in Ireland, Will said that he loved his time here and missed Ireland for a long time.

“I still remember going to the soccer pitches around Athlone and playing soccer with my uncle Andy and my cousins Mark and Ian and visiting my grandparents on Assumption Road.”

He recalled a lovely tradition whereby his family would land at Shannon Airport and drive straight to his grandparents house for an Irish breakfast.

Will continued: “We would always go to the Coosan Tavern. That was just somewhere we would sing and hang out before we went back to the States. He added that he has “many fond memories” of Athlone.

The entrepreneur's parents also showed him much of the country and they have visited Dublin and Galway along with family members in Longford and Kilkenny. ”I still miss it quite a bit and I love every chance I get to go back,” stated Will.

Will’s father William sought out to create a better future for his family and started his own plumbing, heating, and air conditioning business, which he ran successfully for over 40 years. He was in the army before establishing his own plumbing business in Philadelphia. Will was inspired by his father’s success, and knew that he wanted to be a business owner too. He said that his Dad set a really great example for him and his siblings. “He ran that business for almost 40 years before he retired and that was about three years ago,” said Will.

He added that he grew up helping his father on the weekends with various plumbing and heating jobs. “I got to see a lot of the ups and downs of running your own business pretty up close and, you know, being that we were immigrants from Ireland, we didn't really know very many people here.” Will said that watching his parents adapt to their new life in the US instilled a belief in him that he could do anything he put his mind to.

He studied information sciences and technology in Pennsylvania State University and secured a position working as an IT Advisory Specialist after college. Later, the Philadelphia resident began working for IBM and their Global Business Services Consulting group.

Will learnt about General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and said that this was an interesting time in his career as awareness levels about data privacy laws were starting to increase. “I had this kind of inside track knowledge of GDPR from my time at IBM and helping build out their go-to market strategy for helping its clients comply with the GDPR."

Will decided to set up his company Zaviant Consulting in 2018 which is a leading data privacy and cyber risk consulting firm.

Will said that it was an “interesting” time in his life because he had also just had a baby with his wife. He left his secure role with IBM even though he would have received six months of paternity leave. “I really felt like I had that itch and I had that urge, and it was something that I really wanted to do for a long time,” remarked Will.

“I can remember working in the hospital when my son was born, just trying to make sure I was able to sustain my family.” Zaviant Consulting has experienced much success and growth since 2018 and Will said that its top line revenue has grown by 85% every year. Last year, the company grew by 114%.

Will added that he tries very hard to not sacrifice “to the extent that it negatively impacts” his family. “I want to spend as much time with my kids as I possibly can and I don't think there's any substitution for the time that you get with your family. Regardless of how successful you are, how much money you make, I think, you know, to me the most important thing is getting that time with my kids.”

Will is married to Amber Sweeney née Makin and they have two children, son, Nolan (6) and daughter, Reese, (3.)

From observing his father who ran a business for almost 40 years, Will realised that his parents had to make a lot of sacrifices to be successful. “Unfortunately, my dad had to work six, seven days a week sometimes and long hours so he could provide for our family. I'm not doing quite as much as what my dad was but there are a lot of sacrifices you need to make to have your own business.”

“It's just been a really fun journey,” said Will. “Now we're working with Fortune 200 companies, very large organisations. One of the clients we work with is a $20 billion publicly traded company here in the States.”

Will is glad of his Irish roots and that his Dad moved to America and started his own business. “I think (he) really kind of blazed the trail for us to pursue the American dream here and that's what we're doing,” he commented.

Through his work, Will met the Irish Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon in years gone by at a data privacy conference in Washington DC. Helen amazingly lived near Will’s childhood home on the opposite side of Ard Na Rí and remembered playing with him in their youth.

Will’s father used to hold mini Olympic Games for the children in the area and Helen and her siblings often visited their former home and took part. They have kept in touch since meeting at the conference. “We all played together,” said Will. “I have this picture of me standing there and Helen's house is in the background of the picture and I'm like four years old in this picture." Will said that he hadn’t seen Helen for over 30 years but despite this, she knew exactly who he was within 30 seconds of seeing him again in Washington.

Speaking about how he first became interested in technology, Will said that he remembered going to a computer store with his Dad and buying a $6,000 Bell computer.

Will said that his father wanted to give him an opportunity to learn about the technology that he felt would be important in the future.

“I just took to it right away when I was very young and I really stuck with it and in high school I actually helped build the first website for my high school,” said Will. He also helped to build a number of other websites for local businesses.

Will feels that he was fortunate to get some exposure while working for IBM. “I've really created a niche there for us where there's a lot of complexity around the data privacy laws both in Europe and now in the United States and we've really got a solid team.”

The company is always expanding and hired six new employees in the past year and is seeking to hire for three or four more roles in the near future. Will's focus is on growing Zaviant and developing a team. “I think it'll make a lot of sense for us to pursue more opportunity around AI governance.”

He added that there is now additional opportunity for the business within the artificial intelligence field. Zaviant has been involved with Facebook's parent company Meta and joined a consortium of tech companies with IBM, Google and Accenture helping to build responsible AI policy called Open Loop.

“One of the things that I think is also happening as these privacy laws continue to proliferate is now you're seeing more focus and emphasis around artificial intelligence and how do we govern artificial intelligence? And I think everybody's aware of how that technology is expected to continue to grow,” said Will.