Mary Ann O'Brien sitting at desk

From Small Town CEO to Hall of Fame Honoree 

Mary Ann O’Brien Inducted into Omaha Business Hall of Fame 

“Mary Ann O’Brien, CEO, New York, NY 10069” 

I always wanted to own a business and ‘be successful.’ My ideas on what success looked like changed greatly over time. But I knew I wanted to define my future.  

I wanted to travel, have nice things, meet interesting people and help others. Growing up in a small town (Spencer, Iowa), I dreamed of seeing the world. From the time I was eight years old I remember wanting to be a CEO.  

So much so in fact that I began signing my name, “Mary Ann O’Brien, CEO, O’Brien Industries, New York, NY 10069. 

I came from a family of entrepreneurs and small business owners and while I didn’t know everything that being a CEO entailed, I knew I wanted to build a business. Being inducted into the Omaha Business Hall of Fame is a marker that will always stand out on the winding, exciting, adventurous road that began in Spencer, continued through Iowa City, where I earned a degree in International Affairs and Marketing from the University of Iowa, took me out west and eventually brought me back to the Midwest. life. 

A Gateway to Growth and Opportunity 

One of the best things I ever did was get an education. After earning my degree, I never stopped learning. I took advantage of every opportunity that came my way at work.  

Never one to say ‘no,’ I was an enthusiastic go-getter. And just as importantly, I was curious. A love of discovery drove me to understand my favorite subject – people.  

I consider myself a customer anthropologist because I love learning about what drives purchase decision and intent. That desire to learn more, willingness to say yes to any assignment, and curiosity led me to join Gateway Computers at the time it was one of the world’s fastest growing companies.  

After a whirlwind of promotions, I climbed to the role of Chief Marketing Officer, where I and my team engineered the wildly successful ‘Ask and Deliver’ campaign. 

Embracing the Internet Revolution 

After pioneering the kind of customer reaction and guerrilla marketing campaigns that have become common place in the era of social media, I left Gateway to grow my experience during the dot com boom of the late 1990s. 

Recruited to be Vice President of Marketing at, I relocated to San Francisco and pioneered one of the first wireless app companies. After successfully selling the company for a profit, I had become more emboldened to blaze a new path that would put the customer journey, and more importantly, the voice of the customer, at the heart of operations in businesses across America. 

Crafting a Vision for the Future 

A personal invitation from the then-President of Gateway brought me back to where my business acumen began. In my absence, the company had made a decision to prioritize expense reduction no matter the cost. That resulted in a sub-par customer experience.  

This time as a consultant, and eventual CEO of an intrapreneurial startup within Gateway – OBI Creative – I reengineered the company’s return to excellence. And, I collaborated with industry giants Microsoft, Intel, HP, and Lenovo to build powerful digital home strategies. 

Pioneer in the Voice of Customer Studies 

The early 2000s marked a turning point for OBI Creative. I moved back to the Midwest to be closer to my roots, and spearheaded the development of the O’Brien Voice of Customer Study. This landmark study connected organizations to their customers, but was born from a love of hearing peoples’ stories.  

In the process of proving to local, regional, national and international businesses that the voice of the customer can become the center of a profitable brand strategy, I guided OBI Creative from a brand research and strategy firm into a full-service strategy firm and advertising agency. 

Making an Impact in Omaha 

Armed with a talented team and a passion for delivering innovative solutions, OBI Creative began to make an impact on the city’s business landscape. Our dedication to understanding customers’ needs remained the cornerstone of OBI Creative’s approach, touching diverse industries with transformative strategies. 

Along the way, we worked with wonderful businesses and even more wonderful business leaders. Microsoft, Sony and Gateway gave way to Cobalt Credit Union, Olsson, Mutual of Omaha Bank and Miller Electric. 

A Legacy of Success and Giving Back 

Success found us, but I find its end extends beyond profit. True success is about empowering others and making a positive difference. I’m truly passionate about the power of businesses to transform communities for good. A champion of ethical growth, I still consider winning an Integrity Award from the Better Business Bureau as one of the defining moments of my career.  

A Journey of Fulfillment and Giving Back 

Countless teachers, family members, mentors, and individuals believed in me. Their faith nurtured me and helped make me who I am today. While my journey is a testament to the power of perseverance, innovation and the courage to follow your heart, it’s also a story about the power of business to enrich lives and foster meaningful connections within the community. 

I take seriously the charge to nurture the talents of the next generation of future leaders, entrepreneurs, marketers and yes, CEOs.  

More than anything I’m grateful. Grateful for the opportunities I seized; for the lessons learned from challenges; and most of all, for the many teammates who labored and invented and created alongside me, and whose ideas and artistry are equally responsible for the my success and the success of OBI Creative.  

I hope my story inspires aspiring entrepreneurs, reminding others that with passion, hard work, and a willingness to learn, greatness is within reach. The most successful people in the world are rarely the smartest; they’re the ones who work the hardest; who set goals and go after them with relentless pursuit.  

They’re also the ones who learn to see failure as another step on the upward path to fulfillment. The tenacity to dust yourself off after a failure, learn from it and move on is what really separates great business leaders from good ones. 

My message to you if you are hoping, dreaming and striving to build something beautiful is to dream big, work hard, and strive to make a positive difference in the world. 

And above all, never, ever give up.  


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