Interview: Kevin O’Malley, US Ambassador to Ireland and St. Louisan

Estimated reading time: 4 minute(s)

An interview with US Ambassador to Ireland Kevin O’Malley during the recent delegation to France and Ireland.

EQ had the chance to interview Ambassador O’Malley jointly with Travis Sheridan, Executive Director of Venture Café – St. Louis and host of Nothing Impossible, which airs every Sunday on KMOX.

US Ambassador to Ireland Kevin O'Malley welcomes the St. Louis delegation to the Ambassador's residence.
US Ambassador to Ireland Kevin O’Malley welcomes the St. Louis delegation to the Ambassador’s residence.

Travis Sheridan: Ambassador, thanks so much for being a gracious host.  You’ve said some very important things over the last week since we’ve been [in Ireland]. What kind of things do you see as the fruits coming from a delegation like this?

Ambassador O’Malley: Well, the soil in both Ireland and St. Louis for these kinds of new collaborations is really rich.  I think that we have lots of opportunities in the cultural side, clearly, and now on the business side.  I think that we’ll have a real connection between the small and medium sized companies that are growing so fast in both Ireland and in St. Louis, and because of the links that we have, both DNA and business links, I think that our future is bright. It’s just a matter of making sure these connections get made and, as a St. Louisan who happens to be the US Ambassador to Ireland right now, they’re obvious to me and I’m just trying to make sure that they become obvious to everybody else.

Travis Sheridan: One of the biggest things that I noticed with this delegation is not only do you have startups and startup support organizations represented, but we have large corporates like MasterCard. How important is that to bring the entire ecosystem, when we’re having conversations like this?

Ambassador O’Malley: Well Travis, that’s a good point, because one of the things that makes me optimistic about how this will come out is that we have a good plan of the MasterCard’s, the St. Louis universities, together with the smaller incubator and startup companies.  I think that when we saw Rob Reeg from MasterCard describing the other day how his business is expanding and who they’re looking for in the technologies that they need and how they’re going to acquire those technologies, I think you can see really the blend between the big and the small and how that will benefit all of us.

Travis Sheridan: We had the benefit of meeting your son, Brendan, an entrepreneur himself, and you’re an innovative ambassador, with the Creative Minds [event series], that you host. Tell us a little bit about the innovation that really drives you as, in your ambassadorship.

Ambassador O’Malley: Well, you know, I have been given a tremendous opportunity by President Obama to come to the land of my own ancestors, uh, and I don’t have to trace my roots back too far.  I knew my grandparents and seven aunts and uncles were born here, so I think I’ve arrived already with the spirit of trying to find a connection.  And, what started out as a relationship between two countries that really began with impoverished immigrants, really refugees, my grandparents were economic refugees from Ireland, and they were given a chance in the United States to prosper, to raise a family, and two generations, I get to come back as the Ambassador from the country that gave them refuge.

So, it’s easy for me to get up every morning and try to find new connections and new ways for people to get together and make sure that the great relationship that exists between Ireland and the United States gets handed down to the next generation, and that’s what we’ve done with Creative Minds, is to try to find, um, not only cultural but economic, technologic, entrepreneurial ways that new collaborations can be established.

Kelly Hamilton: Building off of Travis’ questions, when I spoke with Tim Nowak [Director of the World Trade Center St. Louis] about the delegation as we were preparing to come, he gave credit to you for making this delegation a priority. Tell me a little bit about why it was important to you to make something happen for St. Louis.

Ambassador O’Malley:  I love St. Louis, it’s where I was born, it’s where I was raised.  But I’m concerned that we are not taking advantage of what we have.  It troubles me that we have become so conscious of regionalism, which really shouldn’t exist. I thought because I was given this opportunity by the President, and because I do understand St. Louis, and I believe I understand Ireland, I thought maybe this was a way we could get together and not look at separate little communities in St. Louis, but look at this as a region that could really connect itself with another country that is literally on fire, doing very, very well and is very creative, is very innovative, is looking for markets to expand into.

For the Irish, for example, the default positions [for expanding into the US] are New York, Boston and Silicon Valley, and I’ve spend a lot of time here trying to emphasize the fact that there is lots of real estate between those two places in the United States and that there many of the startups and many of the expanded companies in Ireland that need to expand in the US could be very successful in our neck of the woods. They would be welcomed in St. Louis, they would have a chance to prosper in St. Louis; they would probably be given second and third chances in St. Louis that they wouldn’t get in the more expensive, more competitive, regions of our country.  So, knowing Ireland the way I do and knowing how it operates, I know that St. Louis is a perfect place for many of these companies.

Kelly Hamilton:  At what moment did you reach out to Tim and organize the delegation?

Ambassador O’Malley:  It was months before I actually came here [to Ireland]. I was still going through the confirmation process in the US Senate when I had my first meeting with Tim [Nowak], to tell him what I thought we could do and what I was willing to do to make that happen.  So, Tim and I have been talking since probably the summer of 2014 about my vision for what I thought we should do, and he has been a wonderful partner in doing that.  He’s been very, very helpful.  He’s had to do all of the heavy lifting. I’ve had the opportunity to use the megaphone which I have here to connect people, but it’s really the business people themselves that do the work.  I can provide the introductions, I can provide the background, I can provide some insights, but really as we saw today with the announcement of the Yield Lab, that they are the ones who are really going to make the connections that will make it stick.

Kelly Hamilton: The delegation has been appreciative that you’ve invited us here.

Ambassador O’Malley:  I’m delighted that you’ve come.  It, it’s really a wonderful place, and I think that, you know, as Christine [Karslake] said here, you know, we want this to be more than a trip.  We want this to be the beginning of something.  There are huge possibilities here, there’s no doubt in my mind about that, and it’s just a matter of can we make the right connections. That’s what I’m going to be doing for the next several months.

Read more about the recent delegation to Ireland in EQ’s fall 2016 print issue, releasing September 9.

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Kelly is Cofounder/Managing Partner of EQ and Cofounder of ALIVE Media Group. After earning an M.A. in literature at Washington University in St. Louis, Kelly cofounded ALIVE in 2002. He believes becoming an entrepreneur can change not only the life of that entrepreneur, but also his/her community and the world, and that being able to tell stories of transformation like that is the best job one could have.