Conor O’Meara grew up in the west of Ireland watching his parents build their small business into his hometown’s largest employer. Their commitment to hard work and community involvement drove him to apply to Stanford GSB. He is determined to use his management education to help entrepreneurs with emerging technologies.
“Small businesses are the heart of so many communities, and that’s why I’m interested in tech, so I can serve those businesses in a scaled way,” says O’Meara.
He earned an undergraduate degree in economics and social studies from Trinity College in Dublin, and a master’s degree in public policy from Tsinghua University in Beijing. He returned for his MBA after founding a data analytics startup, interning in the U.S. Senate, and working for a behavioral science tech startup Potentialife, where he was vice president of growth. O’Meara is active in GSB Pride, and most recently has been interning at CapitalG in San Francisco, Alphabet’s independent growth fund.
A classically trained singer, O’Meara’s early focus on music led him to the Irish National Opera and to one-off gigs as a backup vocalist for U2 and Fleetwood Mac. “To be a singer in the west of Ireland is revered,” he notes. “I sang in church and at every school occasion, every wedding, every funeral. I won many competitions. But I had a moment of reckoning at the end of undergrad when I started to think about which way to choose, the opera route or the economics route. My singing teacher wanted me to focus full time on music. But I just didn’t feel like I was having a tangible impact on the problems of the world. I realized maybe I wasn’t being the most authentic version of myself.”
Tell us about your family’s business.
My dad owns a grocery store in a small town in west Ireland, and recently celebrated 40 years in business. It’s the main employer in our town, employing 90 people. We have the supermarket, a bar and restaurant, a small accounting office, and a small hairdresser shop. The supermarket is our main business; I worked there after school and every weekend.
What did you learn from that experience?
I learned what hard work really means. My dad was up every morning at 6 a.m. to farm, and went to bed at 1 a.m. because he was closing the bar or restaurant. You learn what it takes to make a business really work.
Mom passed away when I was 18, but my Dad is now 70 and remains the life and soul of this business. He drives to collect the bread every morning, or will drop a customer home late at night because they’ve had a few drinks and he wants to make sure they get home safe. I also learned how small businesses support community. My dad was a main sponsor of every sports team or drama group or school fundraiser.
How did those lessons shape your own career ambitions?
My ambitions are at the intersection between a really well-run, high-functioning business and something that continues to give back to the community. I put that down to how my Dad runs his business.
You’ve cited the Interpersonal Dynamics course and Leadership Labs as something unique and attractive about GSB. Why do you think those courses are so valuable?
There are many places in the world, including Stanford, where you can learn hard skills. All business schools offer accounting, finance, and marketing. But when I think about the business leader I want to be, I want to be a deeply reflective, considered, and holistic individual. In courses like Interpersonal Dynamics and Lead Labs, I was able to think about the type of person I want to be. That’s very powerful.
What drew you to Stanford’s GSB Pride organization, and how has that helped shape your experience at the university?
I was relatively late when I came out in my undergrad journey, and I already had a lot of friends baked into my life. I felt comfortable with myself and sure of who I was as a person, but I didn’t have a group that I could speak to about these issues or think about how we are giving back to the community. At the GSB there was a ready-made group that understood the challenges I had gone through, but also were proactive and forward-leaning enough to want to help other people on that journey. When I think about the people in GSB Pride — smart, considered people who have not only lived deeply and lived through difficult things but who also have reflected on those things — they’re the exact type of people I want to be around my entire life. My mom always said: “Surround yourself with people who raise you higher.”
What do you mean when you talk about achieving “harmony” in your life and career?
The opposite of discord is not necessarily harmony. It’s not everything going rosy. You can create something beautiful from notes clashing as well as notes being in accord. When I think about the fragments of my life, my relationship with my hometown, and my political views now, those things still can live in harmony. There’s this quote by F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” I like that. For example, during my summer internship, I ran an initiative at CapitalG where we were thinking about how to make a financial return, but also invest responsibly when it comes to technology. It’s OK for two things not to fit together, but they can still operate and function very well.
You’ve said an idea crystalized for you at the GSB: “Why are we here if not to embrace and then extend the opportunities we have to those who need it most?” What was the origin of that?
Three moments come to mind. One relates back to my Dad as a fantastic supporter of our local community. That spreading of wealth and opportunity was important to him and my mom. That giving back to the community was always very central to my life. Second, in university, I worked for five months in a school in an area with real poverty. That was a stark introduction to what real poverty looks like. I was running a tech program and teaching English and bringing computers into schools. Being surrounded by that was an important moment for me to think about what we can do to improve the lives of people in real poverty.
And the third moment?
I worked in the U.S. Senate for a couple of months, and got to shadow New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen. I saw what she did to help small businesses from a policy perspective and the work she did to address income inequality in impoverished areas in America. The best leaders are not necessarily carving out opportunities for those that already have it, but rather are sharing opportunities in the right places. The reason all that crystallized for me at the GSB is because you’re surrounded by so many opportunities, so much access, and so much talent. All of those things coming together are very powerful. What is it all for if not to create something better?
Photos by Kiefer Hickman