On Tuesday, June 14, tech entrepreneur and former Microsoft exec Doug Burgum won the GOP nomination for governor of North Dakota, essentially sealing his spot as governor of the state. Burgum won over Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem with a 59 to 39 percent lead, a victory that came as a shock to many considering Burgum’s role as a newcomer.
Not only was he a newcomer, but from the beginning Burgum pitched a platform that even he knew might not immediately resonate with North Dakotans. He pushed for a greater concentration on the tech sector, staking it as the main hope for a state where oil-run economy is no longer sustainable.
When Burgum announced his bid for North Dakota governor in January, he predicted that the tech platform might not go over well.
“It’s a tough message,” he said at the time. “But I have a great belief in the people of North Dakota, and I know the guy that’s sitting in that tractor, that’s got more technology in that tractor than he knows what to do with. All of us interact with technology in our everyday lives and have frustrations. I think I can connect with people on that level.”
Apparently, he did. Weaving across the state in a 42-year-old bus with a leaky roof, Burgum and his campaign team spoke with residents of North Dakota in the oil fields, the farm, the “tech hub” area, and all four ski resorts.
Throughout his campaign, Burgum pushed for a greater focus on the tech sector, using his own experience as president of Great Plains Software and senior vice president at Microsoft to illustrate his capabilities to be “CEO of the state.”
A few months ago, Emerging Prairie asked each of the gubernatorial candidates what their thoughts were on entrepreneurship in North Dakota, and how, as governor, they might respond to the rising startup culture across the state.
Burgum responded with enthusiastic support of the tech sector and entrepreneurs in the area.
“A strong tech sector helps create new jobs and opportunities for bright, motivated young people from every corner of our state,” he said.
His words echo that of global investor Paul Singh, who paid Fargo a visit in June as part of a national tour. Singh emphasized that tech jobs statistically pay employees more, and those employees then go out and spend more. The tech sector, he concluded, is a driving factor to healthy economies.
For North Dakota, which has been suffering from slump in oil production, Burgum points to boosting the tech sector as an inevitable next step.
“Every industry in North Dakota is facing accelerating change,” he said. “The digital revolution is touching every job, every company, and every industry in North Dakota.”
Burgum specifically notes that Moore’s law — or the idea that the overall processing power for computers will double every two years –, super-cheap storage, increasing bandwidth infrastructure, and a proliferation of super low-cost and highly accurate automatic data sensors will move all industries forward, faster.
“There is a truism in business today that ‘every company needs to become a software company, or will be disrupted by one,'” he said. “I believe that is absolutely true.”
Opportunities in North Dakota where Burgum sees potential is in the unmanned aircraft sector, in conjunction with the work being done at both University of North Dakota in aviation and North Dakota State University in agriculture.
At the second annual Drone Focus Con held in Fargo, Burgum spoke again about the impact of the drone industry both locally, nationally and internationally.
“We’re really on the forefront because we’ve got the tools; we’ve got the airspace, we’ve got the education, we’ve got the leaders, we’ve got the technology, we’ve got startup companies,” he said. “The world is truly changing, and the UAS technology is gonna be at the center of that.”
In Bismarck-Mandan, Burgum points to successes such as National Information Solutions Cooperative (NISC) and CoSchedule – the latter of which recently announced $2 million in annual reoccurring revenue. These are the types of founders and companies that the state needs to build off of, he said.
As governor, Burgum said one area he will focus on is bringing down cost of higher education, “so that young entrepreneurs are not burdened with so much college debt that it dampens their ability to take risks on startups and new ventures.”
Burgum is the co-founder of Arthur Ventures, a Fargo-based venture capital firm, as well as Kilbourne Group, a company focused on the revitalization of downtown Fargo. Both are endeavors that Burgum aligns with his mission to strengthen an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Fargo and in North Dakota as a whole.
“One of my top priorities [as governor] will be to help create an environment that inspires entrepreneurs and innovators to want to work and live in North Dakota,” he said. “We have to do more than create great jobs; we have to create communities that foster interaction and ideas that become attractors for innovators.”
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Feature photo by Dan Francis Photography.