Susan Bala: Fashion, Furlongs, & Film

Written by: Josiah Kopp
Susan Bala enjoying the loft at Teddy's Eatery & Bar, a project that she helped back, financially.

Susan Bala’s inspiring journey as a local entrepreneur

Being in the world of entrepreneurship is impressive enough, yet Susan Bala has given the word a whole new meaning, having worn many hats over the span of her career—investing her work in Fargo and the state of North Dakota. 

Bala is a first generation American who grew up in the Fargo community. Her family migrated to the States from England and Poland after WWII, settling near Felton, MN. Bala recalls growing up as a true Fargoan a blessed experience that helped shape who she is today. “It seemed like an idyllic period when I look back; local businesses lined Broadway, local sports were important events, and ‘dragging Broadway’ to the dairy queen at the end of the street by Island Park as well as dances at the YMCA were the thing to do on Friday nights,” she reminisced.

Early Years in Business and Mentors

Bala studied art, psychology, and english at North Dakota State University, supporting herself by working at one of Fargo’s long standing main line department stores, Herbst. There, she eventually moved into management, merchandizing, and became an assistant to the buyers. Bala then moved from there to a local women’s specialty store called Black’s. There, she became a Buyer and spent time in New York City

What is a Buyer?

A Buyer is a person that goes to the national markets to identify trends and buy merchandise for the retail stores. Black’s was a specialty store for women’s clothing and accessories, so the primary market Bala went to was in New York City’s 7th Avenue fashion district, often called Fashion Avenue.

“Listen to your customer—they will tell you everything you need to know to set your course. Customer service is number one no matter what you do.”

“The energy of New York City appealed to me,” she said. “The forward thinking of the designers, the innovation in branding and communications, the level of talent and the business savvy I was exposed to were an opportunity to develop my own path and creative inspiration.

Later, when I consulted in business and marketing, the relationships I formed in the financial markets as well as the wall street professionals I met gave me an inside view on economics and corporate development. All of these key experiences led to me establishing clear views on business principles and the awareness to come to understand my own nature as an entrepreneur.”

One twist-of-fate moment Bala had was when she became the image for Black’s when a television commercial was being shot and they couldn’t find a person to fit the brand they sought to create—she had written the copy and storyboard for the commercial. At the last moment they pushed Bala in front of the camera, and she ended up producing all of the television, print, and radio advertising for several years.

“Television production for me was about storytelling in short form,” she said. “The experience was a creative process, but also a disciplined one in order to coordinate multiple moving parts with numbers of people on constant deadlines. You learn that you have to work as an ensemble to get the best results.”

Bala had numerous mentors while she was in retail, learning from people like Henry Kissinger (who in addition to his service as Secretary of State, led the business consulting firm McKinsey & Company and later Kissinger Associates), Paul Healy (a ND native who worked with Chase Manhattan in New York, an executive with Hollinger International, a multinational media company), Elliot Stein (Managing Director of Commonwealth Capital Partners and member of the board of directors of Apollo Investment Corporation), and most importantly, former U.S. Senator Quentin Burdick’s wife, Jocelyn Burdick, who was a close friend to Bala.

Bala on Jocelyn Burdick (former U.S. Senator Quentin Burdick's wife) as a mentor and friend

“I met Josie through community service and her dedication to the Christian Science Church. She maintained a high-altitude view of life and approached everything and everyone with a clarity that left no room for seeing anything less than love and perfection. I learned from how I saw Josie endure tragedy and human loss-she led with a strength of principle and I never saw her waiver.”

Susan Bala and the history of the horse racing industry in North Dakota

Bala first became involved in the North Dakota horse racing industry when former ND Governor George Sinner approached her and former Securities Commissioner, Arly Richau, to conduct a feasibility study for horse racing in North Dakota in the late 1980s. Although she had no formal role at the time, Bala had connections with federal representatives and state elected officials, including Richau, who was in private practice, but still active in state politics.

This was a pivotal time when the world of racing was changing significantly, as the U.S. Supreme Court had just ruled that pari-mutuel horse racing (betting pools) was legal in the country, opening the opportunity for each state to legalize it.

From that study, the model to build the North Dakota off-track betting simulcast system was born. Bala worked with three governors in North Dakota as they navigated new technology and legislation to expand and keep North Dakota competitive with other states. The model was a success—it built the Fargo race track [North Dakota Horse Park] and a self-sustaining industry in North Dakota that also paid into the State’s General Fund.

Bala developed the model for North Dakota to create a network of locations that covered the population centers across the state to generate the funds to develop the state’s industry with purse funds, breeding funds, and a promotion fund to build a Fargo race track.

Two people prominent in the national industry, RD Hubbard, owner of Hollywood Park and Los Alamitos race track, and Lloyd Shellhammer, owner of United Tote, joined in the first partnership (initially called Dakota Race Management and later changed to Racing Services) that was awarded one of the first licenses in the country as a service provider, providing technology and services for off-track pari-mutuel wagering.

Susan Bala and North Dakota Horse Park General Manager Hugh Drexler at the track grounds

Life-altering experiences

In 1980, Bala and her family visited Eastern Europe, a trip that forced them stuck behind the then Iron Curtain, unable to escape. Ultimately, because the international borders shut down, they were unable to leave and their visas expired. Thus, they were declared illegal and had to petition the East German government in order to leave. “We were packed onto overpacked train cars, and pulled off of the trains twice at gunpoint during the journey,” Bala recalled.

The events left Bala with a new realization of the meaning of freedom. Upon her return, she spent time with her good friend, former U.S. Senator Burdick’s wife, Josie Burdick, to process the experience in an effort to find a path where she felt she could contribute something of meaning to her community. Bala began what became a career in entrepreneurship consulting, marketing, and opening her own businesses.

“The very dramatic experiences I had in Poland and Germany, which included walking through a concentration camp and getting pulled off trains at gunpoint, were jarring, and it was life-changing to come face to face with how we are lulled into taking our freedoms for granted,” Bala said. She soon took up the study of the U.S. Constitution and took continuing education law classes through the Minnesota Legal Institute, which helped open doors for her down the road.

Richau and Bala developed the draft legislation with the help of national race track professionals from New York OTB and the operator of the Preakness for simulcast off-track-wagering, making North Dakota one of the first states in the country to enact those laws. Bala and her colleague’s model would drive the state horse racing industry, creating the economic engine that built North Dakota’s industry and its tourism.

Bala continued to lead the development, eventually generating the $10 million in funds to build the Fargo race track, operated by The North Dakota Horse Park and Horse Race North Dakota.

Bala went on to create advances in technology and legislation that were among the first nationally in technology and legislation that further funded the industry. She developed networks in other states, as well as internationally after being named a delegate to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The North Dakota simulcast off-track wagering network notably was a huge success for the state, contributing new tax revenues, self-sustaining itself, generating the funds to run the North Dakota Racing Commission, contributing to nonprofit organizations, and building an award-winning statewide industry. The system opened on April 28, 1990, one of the first in the nation. The race track opened in 2002 and celebrated its 20th year anniversary in the summer of 2023.

Did You Know?
Over the past two years, Bala has developed a technology and service group that is currently bringing precision, cutting-edge geofencing, and security technology to the market for use in online businesses—the launch is being prepared for early 2024. D

Susan Bala with Pritan Ambroase in London

International Influence, Fargo, & Ukraine

Some of the open doors that took Bala’s career to the next level were when she served on the Downtown Business Association in Fargo and started the first Downtown Street Fair. On both a national and international level, she was asked to be a delegate for the U.S. Commerce Department and traveled to Latin America as a Delegate, working closely with government officials and eventually opening the first international tech and services center, creating the ability for wagering pools to be transmitted internationally between counties into the United States (via track pools).

In subsequent years, Bala became involved in health care and real estate development where she continues in business today. In 2008, Bala built Arbor Park, an assisted living facility in Moorhead complete with its own 1,200-square-foot garden for fresh produce and herbs to grow as well as giving a home to two rescue pups, Brady and Vinny, whom you can meet in the “Meet the Office Dogs of Fargo-Moorhead” on

In 2017, she joined with two physician friends, Dr. David Humphrey and Dr. Lance Bergstrom, to back the opening of Teddy’s, an eatery and bar that has since become a staple in the downtown Fargo restaurant scene.

Most recently, she became involved in a technology company where they are currently launching security software nationally— which leads to her current endeavor: a documentary in Ukraine. In a project close to her heart, Bala is currently serving as Executive Producer for a cinematic documentary on the children of war in Ukraine titled, “Can I Go Home Now?” Bala teamed up with London-based Pritan Ambroase, who is the owner of Hollywood Insider and the Producer/Director of this film. The soundtrack was done by A. R. Rahman, who is a two-time Academy Award, two-time Grammy Award, and Golden Globe Award-winning composer.

The film focuses on the human condition amidst war through the lens of children—in fact, not a single adult is allowed to speak for the duration of the film, helping magnify the voices of these children. The film will be released in early 2024.

To learn more about this project or watch the trailer, visit

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Josiah is an Editor and Photographer at Spotlight Media in Fargo.