LOS ALTOS, Calif. - The world is in love with its fast-burning youth - the bright-eyed geniuses who carve through the corporate ranks to become giants of industry, with billions in their bank accounts to prove it.
But Rich Karlgaard cautions that not everyone is a fast-burner, and that some of the best talent, like some of the most inspiring blooms in a summer or fall garden, are late bloomers.
Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes magazine and a man who could fairly be considered a poster boy for late blooming, is returning to Fargo-Moorhead with his blend of tech-savvy and wit.
The journalist, futurist, author and entrepreneur is this year’s keynote speaker for the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce’s annual Economic Outlook Forum, which runs noon to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20, at Delta by Marriott in Moorhead.
Karlgaard will share his take on what’s ahead for the U.S. economy and discuss the acceleration and evolution of digital technologies.
But there’s also a chance the Bismarck, N.D.-raised Karlgaard - who has twice spoken at Fargo’s TEDx events - may touch upon the idea of not burning yourself out like a workplace Roman candle.
The Forum caught up with the 64-year-old in a telephone interview Friday, Feb. 8., and he shared his thoughts on late blooming, creating a tech hub, and technologies transforming our lives.
Not quite a boy wonder
“I’ve always thought about what it was like growing up in Bismarck and not being a standout student, not being the athlete that I’d hoped to be, wondering what would become of me. I’ve always identified with this late-bloomer concept,” Karlgaard said.
He’s researched the topic and his most recent book, due out in April, is called “Late Bloomers: The power of patience in a world obsessed with early achievement”.
Karlgaard’s father, Richard “Dick” Karlgaard, was an all-around athlete who had been a teacher and athletic director for Bismarck Public Schools.
However, Karlgaard’s football and basketball careers ended in junior high school.
“I was just sort of this skinny undeveloped kid and I became a runner,” at Bismarck High School, he said.
It was at Bismarck Junior College (now Bismarck State College), that he began “to blossom a bit,” captaining the cross country team and qualifying for the junior college indoor track nationals.
Karlgaard, who had been a mostly B student in high school, brought his grades up to mostly As. He applied for and got into California’s Stanford University.
He didn’t do well academically at Stanford, though he graduated in 1976 with a political science degree.
“Other than pulling off the upset of getting into Stanford, I didn’t bloom much at all until my late 20s,” Karlgaard said “I describe myself as a poor student at Stanford. I wasn’t ready for it.”
He’d go to the library intent on studying, but would soon head off to pour over the bound magazines, particularly Sports Illustrated.
“Even though I was wasting my time reading Sports Illustrated when I should have been studying, I was absorbing lessons without even being aware of it," he said.
After Stanford, he knocked around, working jobs such as security guard and dishwasher.
In the early 1980s, he became a technical writer for the Electric Power Research Institute, he said.
It was In 1985 that Karlgaard and a friend, Anthony B. Perkins, created the Churchill Club, a public forum for business speakers. The first speaker was Robert Noyce, the inventor of the integrated circuit and co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel. Other speakers included then-Arkansas governor and future United States President Bill Clinton and former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.
In 1989, Karlgaard and Perkins created Upside magazine to cover Silicon Valley businesses. With both sports and business being competitive, Karlgaard opted to model the publication after Sports Illustrated.
“I think that really was the right decision,” he said. The “wasted time” in college “was the very thing that made my career.”
The success of Upside caught the eye of publishing executive Steve Forbes, who hired Karlgaard in 1992 to start a similar magazine, Forbes ASAP. Six years later, he was promoted to publisher of Forbes.
Beyond being a renowned author and public speaker, he also regularly appears on television, including the show Forbes on FOX.
“Literally, in a very small period of time, I went from being a guy who had the lowest level of jobs, to founding a magazine, to catching the attention of Steve Forbes and getting hired by Forbes,” Karlgaard said. “That’s why I call myself a late bloomer. Once I bloomed, I was fortunate to bloom very fast.”
‘Bounce in the step’
North Dakota’s congressional delegation for years championed turning the Red River Valley and Interstate 29 into a tech corridor, much like Austin, Texas, or North Carolina’s Research Triangle.
It’s been envisioned as a way to diversify the region’s economy by harnessing the intellectual power of research universities such as North Dakota State University, the University of North Dakota, and smaller institutions such as Minnesota State University Moorhead and Concordia College.
Karlgaard said research and leadership feed Fargo-Moorhead’s entrepreneurial vibrancy.
“I think Fargo has a lot of good going for it right now. I like to think of it … (as) Austin North. It’s got that vibe going for it. ... The bounce in the step it has with the success of the Bison athletic programs,” he said.
Karlgaard said Gov. Doug Burgum “set the tone” by investing in Great Plains, turning it into a business software firm worthy of a buyout by Microsoft.
“It takes the success of one homegrown entrepreneur who builds something big, on a national or even world scale, that shows the community that, ‘Yeah, it can happen here. It can really happen here,’” he said.
Tax breaks and other incentives might attract a tech firm, but not create a swagger.
“You might be successful at that, you paid a high price for it,” Karlgaard said. “Whereas, when you create a Great Plains in Fargo, then everybody among the first 50 or 100 or 200 people to work there knows what it is like to build a successful company.”
Karlgaard points to Seattle as an example of a town that moved from economic dud to dynamo.
After “the soaring ‘60s” Seattle’s economy went into a tailspin in the early 1970s, starting with massive layoffs at aircraft builder Boeing that cause ripple effects throughout the economy.
Bill Gates and Paul Allen moved what is now known as Microsoft to Bellevue, Wash., in 1979, Karlgaard said. From there, the growth was exponential and helped the city bounce back.
“Now when you look at Seattle, you go, it’s one of the most hoppin’ places in the whole world, right? …. You’ve got Microsoft, and Amazon, and then even outside of technology, you have Starbucks. You have great, relatively new, global powerhouses that are all identified in Seattle," Karlgaard said. "But In my theory, it just took one company, and one pair of homegrown entrepreneurs to prove to Seattle that it could be done here.”
Appetite for disruption
While technology has done much to improve lives and raise production in various industries, there is plenty of disruption ahead, Karlgaard said.
The low cost of storage and computational power available on demand from Microsoft, Amazon, Google, IBM and others “is just extraordinary,” he said.
Cheap sensors and radio frequency identification chips are everywhere in packages and supply chains, gathering and feeding information into data pools, Karlgaard said.
“When you have this enormous power of cloud computing, being able to crunch algorithms against that pool, you can do things that you couldn’t before. You can get meaningful artificial intelligence and all of its manifestations from driverless vehicles to robotics to predictive analytics, etc.,” he said.
Wireless communications are getting super fast, vital to getting information to and from driverless cars, combines or oil rigs in the Bakken formation, he said. Farmers are using drones, GPS and other technologies that can precisely determine where to put down varying levels of fertilizer and water for crops, he said.
“I think the big story now is the digital enablement of and transformation of physical industries," he said, including farming, manufacturing and transportation.
"I think that’s where the exciting revolution is happening right now. You don’t have to look any further than North Dakota for some examples of that,” Karlgaard said.
To keep up with change, schools will need to equip students to be lifelong learners, he said. He also favors a revival of skilled trades education, which can provide good pay while helping a young person mature and learn about the world.
Overall, Karlgaard reminds us that we all have different timetables to hitting our stride.
“At age 25, I was still a security guard. ... It speaks to my immaturity at the time,” Karlgaard said. “When all the pieces fell into place, it moved fast.”