UND Today

University of North Dakota’s Official News Source

Kevin O’Leary, President Armacost talk tech, business and North Dakota

The executive, TV personality and ‘Shark Tank’ star stops by UND for fireside chat

O'Leary and Armacost
O’Leary and Armacost onstage in the Memorial Union Ballroom. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

More than 500 attendees waited in the Memorial Union Ballroom, filling every inch of space as they looked forward to the University’s most recent high-profile guest. Then, as the theme of the guest’s popular TV show boomed over the speakers, a graphic of a shark swam across the screens behind the stage.

It was a fitting introduction for Kevin O’Leary, the Canadian business executive and television personality who’s best known as “Mr. Wonderful” from the reality show, “Shark Tank.” O’Leary has been appearing across North Dakota this month, and on Friday, Jan. 26, he sat down on the Memorial Union stage for a fireside chat with UND President Andrew Armacost.

In the past year, O’Leary has shown great interest in North Dakota businesses. His venture capital firm O’Leary Ventures has invested in companies such as LandTrust and Thread, whose owner Josh Reidy, has ties to UND.

During his chat with Armacost, O’Leary discussed the state’s future with drones and artificial intelligence, and fielded questions about business.

Armacost and O’Leary discuss N.D.

Armacost opened the talk by looking back on last semester’s discussion with OpenAI co-founder and former UND student Greg Brockman. The president asked O’Leary for his thoughts on North Dakota’s future in AI.

In response, O’Leary said that AI’s reliance on data centers that require a lot of power makes North Dakota a viable location due to the state’s robust energy infrastructure. He thinks that the state has potential to expand its reputation as an exporter of oil and gas.

“The new oil is data,” he said. “If you end up owning the data center, most people are going to have all of their data at nexus places like this. And that’s extremely valuable.

Pivoting to another rising industry, Armacost brought up O’Leary’s recent investment in the UAS energy inspection company Thread and visit to Grand Forks UAS incubator HIVE. He asked O’Leary about his outlook on the future of the industry in the state.

O’Leary replied that North Dakota is one of the “the most advanced states right now in accommodating drone testing in the world,” citing the state’s preparedness to implement policies that address safety concerns revolving around UAS integration in commercial and military spaces.

He added that he’s “earmarked millions” for UAS investments, noting that that the rising utility of drones makes the sector a “huge opportunity” for investors.

Later, Armacost turned the conversation to O’Leary’s interest in the energy sector. O’Leary advised people to “embrace diversification versus transition” regarding hydrocarbons, as he believes they have economic staying-power in the market.

“They’re always going to be a very viable source. That’s great news for North Dakota,” he said. “Because part of what hydrocarbons do is advance their own technology and extraction because the returns are there.”

Other highlights from the conversation included Armacost’s acknowledgement of UND student investment organizations Dakota Venture Group and Student Managed Investment Fund, O’Leary’s thoughts on missing the chance to invest in home security company Ring and why O’Leary likes to wear to two watches.

The audience was full at Friday’s fireside chat, with an overflow section on the Social Stairs of the Memorial Union. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

O’Leary talks business with GF community members

During the second half of the event, Armacost opened the floor to questions from the audience.

In response to a UND student’s question regarding the difficulty faced by first-time entrepreneurs, O’Leary said that confidence is key to success in business.

“I think biggest decision on entrepreneurship is to take the first step,” said O’Leary. “Most people convince themselves it’s not the right time.”

Moreover, he said that despite the challenges of starting a successful business, the rewards of “success and personal freedom” make the uncertainty worth it for those willing to pursue it.

“If you think about your life and the time you have; don’t you want to spend it on things you’re passionate about?” he said. “It gives you something that brings meaning to your life.”

Another question came from a student studying supply chain management — a field which O’Leary considers “invaluable” in modern business — who sought advice on succeeding after graduation. O’Leary said that his best advice was to take time to work for a competitor before joining a leadership role at a family business.

“When you learn and understand the role of an employee and what it takes to be a successful employee before you become a leader of one, you’ll be far more effective,” he said.

Additional topics at the Q&A included advice for people considering a change in career to finance, whether O’Leary was considering another run for Prime Minister after his conservative candidacy run in 2016 and how businesses can adapt to rapidly changing technologies.

The event concluded with Armacost giving O’Leary a Fighting Hawks jersey, a nod to the Canadian entrepreneur’s dropping the puck at that night’s hockey game against Denver.

armacost, o'leary, bochenski
UND President Armacost invited Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski to the stage as he gifted O’leary a custom Fighting Hawks hockey jersey. Photo by Shawn Schill/UND Today.

North Dakota: A winner state

O’Leary made a full day of his UND visit, which included a case study with students from stop at the Nistler College of Business & Public Administration, a press conference and a puck drop for the Fighting Hawks hockey game in the evening.

At the presser, O’Leary continued to tout North Dakota as one of the country’s “winner states,” calling it an ideal location to invest in businesses.

“I was worried about two years ago that we couldn’t find enough deal flow here,” he said. “I don’t have that problem. There are fantastic companies here.”

Further, he suggested that the key to attracting new workers to the state was to allow them to enjoy it for themselves.

“This is a great place to raise a family, and it’s better to actually experience it and get the word out.”

Watch an archived stream of the full fireside chat below.