Shane Leahy: From the line-up to the frontlines

Podcast Ep 179: Irish former rugby star Shane Leahy has been the driving force behind an aid effort that has brought more than $40m in medical supplies to Ukraine.

After a long and successful rugby career former Irish rugby star Shane Leahy has not only excelled at sport and business but he has also been the driving force behind One4Humanity, an NGO that has supported Ukraine with vital medical supplies amidst its war against Russia.

Not only that but the charity has also expanded to Kenya, Mozambique, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan.

“They are fixing the roads with tarmac and you can hear the shelling. Farmers are back out in the fields planting”

Leahy began helping on the ground in Ukraine as he had experienced the country first-hand while there on business as the CEO of the Oxygen8 Group where he runs operations in over 20 countries with a turnover in excess of £90.

Most recently the former Munster rugby player secured a further tranche of supplies from US charity Heart2Heart worth $5.1m with lifelong humanitarian Norman Sheehan which will be deployed in clinics in Kramatorsk and Kherson and distributed from One4Humanity’s warehouse in Mukachevo.

One4Humanity have proven their ability to deploy in Ukraine where they have worked with and are working with An Garda Siochana, the National Rehabilitation Hospital and Heart to Heart International, delivering $40 million+ of Medical Aid (Including 15 Hospital Units) via their partners in Ukraine – Cemark (A CRH Company) and StepIn.

Humanitarian entrepreneur


Leahy, a former EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalist (2012), has a stated mission to bring a business and entrepreneurial approach to running an NGO (n0n-governmental organisation).

“I happened to be in Kyiv just before the war broke out. When Russia invaded I contacted a friend of mine Ray Jordan who was the CEO of GORTA and I asked him how could I assist? Is there anything I can do?”

As well as providing financial support Leahy soon found himself assisting with distribution of supplies and infrastructure. While on the ground he got in touch with Damien Lynch, director of logistics for Cemark, a Ukrainian cement business owned by CRH and soon they established a warehouse in Slovakia, near the border with Ukraine and built a network of local drivers.

“We were able to utilise their logistics and bring aid right into the far reaches of Ukraine and right up to the frontlines. So we had quite a unique solution that we were able to put in place quickly.”

Sheehan connected One4Humanity with the US charity Heart2Heart and they have succeeded in delivering 15 operating theatres along with $40m worth of aid.”

“It was horrific in the early days, obviously. We had we were operating on the Ukrainian side of the border, but very close to the border at the time. The health system had been requisitioned by the army, there was confusion and panic within the country. You remember the 40-mile column of Russian troops that were heading basically through the country and everybody thought that they would run like a juggernaut through the country. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. The Ukrainians fought back incredibly, incredibly well. And the you know, the transformation in the country since it’s just been an outstanding phenomenon.”

Life has returned to normal in the parts of Ukraine away from the war. “You know, Kyiv is a vibrant, busy city again. It’s been transformational what they have done. In the early days, everybody was pushing over towards the border, there was a big humanitarian crisis, because of the amount of people that were there. But it was to see the families break up, men over 18 and under 60, weren’t allowed to leave the country … we had a number of cases where the kids literally had to be pulled off their fathers, they don’t know if they’re going to see them again. At the time, the father had gone off to join the army or go to the war to kill or be killed. So it’s just an absolute horrific situation.”

Global mindset

Man in black jacket.

The experience left a mark on Leahy and he wants to continue to support in Ukraine for as long as necessary but also help in other parts of the world where there are humanitarian emergencies.

“Our role is to is to be there at the moment to be to assist in the crisis situation, I would love to be made redundant as quickly as possible from Ukraine. And I think it will happen, and hopefully, relatively quickly.”

He said he is impressed by the Ukrainian instinct to rebuild as quickly as they can and pointed out that he has seen roads being rebuilt just 10km from the front.

“They are fixing the roads with tarmac and you can hear the shelling. Farmers are back out in the fields planting.”

At the same time, the war is ever-permanent. He notes that in beautiful cities like Odessa, while people sunbathe, they don’t dare swim in the sea for fear of mines and rockets.

Leahy describes combining humanitarian work with business as “a tough balancing act.”

He explains: “The more you do in Ukraine the more thankful they are. I’ve gotten a hell of a lot more out of it myself in terms of a feelgood factor than anything I’ve ever done before. They are fighting a war on our behalf so we should be supporting them in any way possible. I have two sons in their early 20s and I ask myself if I’m not willing to help out, are they going to be pulled into it in some shape or form?”

Charity is something Leahy says he has always been interested in. “A few years go we took 20 staff to Haiti. Again we took 20 staff to South Africa to build social houses and I’ve done charity work previously. The more you do it, the more it sucks you in and you enjoy doing it and you want to get out there and try to assist.”

Sports to business

Leahy credits his rugby career with providing him with business connections but also the philosophy to lead businesses and organisations. “It was a very enjoyable few years and it helps you in a number of ways. It increases your profile and it gives you access to people and businesses you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. But also you’re working as a part of a team, you’re working hard for the team and you’re working together to put all of your efforts towards a common goal. And it’s similar in business – you can’t do anything individually, you’ve got to pull your team together.

“You’ve got to unite them behind the goal and bring them forward as part of it.”

When Leahy retired from rugby he set up the Irish arm of Oxygen8 and played a pivotal role in scaling the business globally. Three years ago he took over as group CEO.

The business has grown substantially from turnover of $30m to now close to $100.

“It’s important to get the staff right and we were lucky enough to partner with the right people in different countries.

“So in Ireland, we have a business called Engage Hub, which now has its own management team and has completed a partial management buyout and it deals with some very nice customers such as Bank of Ireland and Sainsbury’s. While I’m a director of it, I have limited input into the day to day management, which frees me up to do other things, like assist in Ukraine, because we’ve put the right people in place that are now taking those businesses forward.”

Leahy’s businessman’s eye has spotted an opportunity to use the efficiencies and structure developed in Ukraine to provide humanitarian support in other parts of the world such as Mozambique.

“We’ve figured out how to do this at a low cost and scale it significantly. Myself and Norman are mere volunteers, we don’t take salaries and we pay all of our own expenses, flights, accommodation. So we can keep the costs tight and we can scale it because of the partnerships we’ve put in place.

“I also look to leverage other global Irish or global companies that have infrastructure in place. Again it’s low cost for them because we do all of the work in bringing aid to Ukraine but piggybacking off their existing infrastructure.”

One4Humanity was able to leverage this kind of infrastructure to provide food distribution in northern Kenya where there has been a drought.

Leahy’s ambition is replicate this approach. “Looking further afield we are looking to put the same model in place and we look to put a low-cost, efficient distribution mechanism in place to assist there.”

John Kennedy
Award-winning editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.