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O’Brien challenges entrepreneurs to ‘be brave’ in Summit keynote

Mary Ann O’Brien delivered the lunchtime keynote Friday at the Nebraska Summit on Entrepreneurship. 

Long before Mary Ann O’Brien actually was a CEO, she signed her name like one.

Today, O’Brien is the CEO of Omaha-based OBI Creative, an ad agency that, per company literature, “is hard-wired for innovation.” But O’Brien has harbored big ambitions since she was a little girl growing up in rural Spencer, Iowa.

“I’ve been signing my name: ‘Mary Ann O’Brien – CEO, O’Brien Industries, New York, New York, 10069’ since I was in the third grade,” O’Brien said Friday in her midday keynote at the sixth annual Nebraska Summit on Entrepreneurship.

Years later, O’Brien still maintains that mentality of refusing to let doubt or fear temper her aspirations. “At OBI, our mantra is to be brave,” O’Brien said. “And if you’re not brave at OBI, you don’t get to stay at OBI. And that means for employees, that means for the owner, that means for our customers and for our partners.

On Friday, O’Brien did her best to instill that same sense of bravery in the crowd gathered at the Embassy Suites Conference Center in La Vista. She emphasized the importance of bravery throughout her talk — at one point, she even solicited definitions of bravery from the crowd — and closed with five tenets for attendees to take with them on their own entrepreneurial journeys:

‘If it is to be, it’s up to me’

O’Brien encouraged the would-be entrepreneurs in the audience to believe in themselves and take advantage of the opportunities available to them, spurring them with the tagline, “If it is to be, it’s up to me.” She said opportunity is everywhere for those willing to recognize it and capitalize on it.

“If you believe that you an be the CEO of your company, you can,” she said. “You live in America. That’s the place to do it … there are no excuses.”

Don’t settle

O’Brien was abundantly clear about her thoughts on giving up or giving in. “Do not settle,” she said. “Don’t settle. My god, do not settle. Ever. Never.”

She encouraged the crowd to be curious and willing to solve problems. Sometimes, she said, the pursuit of solutions to those problems can lead entrepreneurs down a difficult, lonely road. But the reward, she said, is worth it. 

“Being an entrepreneur is a lonely place,” O’Brien said. “But it can provide a great life and it can feed that unsettled part of who you are.”

Don’t make excuses

Evolutions in technology have brought about significant shifts in O’Brien’s business, but she has chosen to view those changes as opportunities rather than obstacles. “The internet has changed everything,” O’Brien said. “Everything has changed. I changed my business in 2010 to be a virtual ad agency. I can go hire the best of the best.”

An awareness of what’s going on in the world around you is essential for success, she said, and businesses that don’t venture out of their comfort zone will be left behind. 

“We’re on a global stage; you’re on a global stage,” She said. “You have to understand what’s going on in order to provide good solutions.”

Good ideas don’t have to be spaceships

O’Brien emphasized that a great business idea doesn’t have to be something huge or earth-shattering. Some of the best ideas, she said, are ones that solve small probelms and about which entrepreneurs are particularly passionate.

“I think sometimes we as entrepreneurs think ‘I’ve got to come up with this super idea,’ ” O’Brien said. “But that’s not the case.” She continued:  “Whatever it is that turns you on, makes you tick, that you’re passionate about — whatever that is, how how can you build something? And it doesnt have to be a huge, huge idea in order to be really relevant and have lots and lots of success.”

Take risks

Citing examples of seemingly far-fetched ideas that have become the basis of successful business ventures, O’Brien encouraged attendees to take chances on things they truly believe in, no matter what the potentially unpleasant outcomes. 

“You have to have a hard hard shell,” she said, “to get through the bullets that are going to be shot at you and your ideas the whole time”


Credits: Photo by Michael Stacy.

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