This article was originally published in our print magazine. Enjoy!
To call Kay Koplovitz legendary is simply not hyperbole. Kay was the first women to head a television network, she invented sports television as we know it, and developed the revenue model for cable networks. She headed USA Network for 14 years, and has served on corporate boards for over 25 years, including Time Inc, Kate Spade, and General Re. Along the way, she taught many women how to invest-and encouraged countless people to invest in women.
She co-founded (and manages and chairs) Springboard Growth Capital, the investment arm of Springboard Enterprises, who’s aim is to support, educate, and invest in women entrepreneurs. Oh-and she has four honorary doctorate degrees. (#goals)
Along with the Partnership Fund for New York City, Springboard created the New York Fashion Tech Lab, which is celebrating it’s third year of investing in and supporting fashion tech startups here in our beloved home town of New York City. Read on to hear how Kay launched the first cable network, her advice for pitching investors, and who the original tech “unicorn” was, back in 1977.
What does ‘fashion tech’ mean to you, how do you define it?
‘Fashion tech’ is technology that’s applied to the fashion and retail business, so it’s many different categories. People immediately think of wearable technology, but it’s everything from 3D printing to inventory control, predictive analytics, fit, mobile marketing, social media, having technology in stores that makes shopping easier for the consumer, and relating to the consumers needs in a way that makes it easier for them to make decisions on what to buy. ‘Fashion tech’ is not only wearable technology, or just variations on the Fitbit. It includes all kinds of cloth and products that you’re wearing: innovations in the materials manufacturing, stain resistance, stretch fabric, sun blocking, etc. There’s a lot of technology in the fabrics and products used today. The entire fashion and retail business has technology attached to it.
What motivated you and the Springboard Growth Capital to invest in fashion tech?
Springboard is both an accelerator for women entrepreneurs in technology and the life sciences. The Springboard fund invests in women-led companies in those categories. When we started Springboard back in 2000, there were really no entry for women mounting companies in technology or life science. There was no access to the market. We had to create an access point. We had to create a platform for women to be drawn into the bootcamps, the mentoring programs, and then to be able to put those entrepreneurs out in front of investors.
I’ve been in the fashion business for 23 years on the boards of Liz Claiborne, then Kate Spade. A few years ago the industry was still lagging behind in technological innovation. I came from technology in television—I founded USA network and the Syfy channel and used technology as the genesis of my business and throughout my business. I realized it was important to fashion. It’s not just about design, which we all love. It is about the implementation, the manufacturing, and the getting to market, which is all very critical.
In a 2013 interview with Forbes you spoke about women needing to learn the language of investors. Do you think that’s gotten better? At what point do women need to adapt to the culture and at what point can women start to influence the culture?
Women have learned a lot in general because there are so many different programs – there are at least 63 incubators and labs in greater New York City. There are many places to go to learn how to present your company from a financial point of view. We all get very excited about what our product is, but when you’re pitching people to put money in your company they’re excited about how much money they’re going to make if they invest in you. It’s a different language. I call it a different language because you have to approach your presentation differently than a product presentation. They have to know what the product is, but mostly they want to know what is the market, how you’re going to deploy the capital, what is the growth, what is the size of the market, how are you going to compete for your segment of the market, and how much money can I make if I invest in you? Women are getting much better and much more comfortable with that. It’s something that everybody has to learn.
In some cases, the people investing in the technologies are lagging behind—they don’t understand the market. So they have to rely on entrepreneurs who are excelling in the market if they want to invest in companies that are going to be really terrific. People who invest in these different sectors are looking at the success of women and say, wait a minute, they actually understand something that I don’t get. I better teach myself a little bit more about this marketplace. But still, in the fundamentals of funding and financing there’s a lot of pattern recognition. Since 95% of investors are men, their pattern recognition is still skewed to men’s patterns.
How does this relate to the wage gap? Are those lessons applicable?
When I was running a large company the men were much more aggressive about what they should be paid, and were more frequently asking for raises. Women almost never did. Women are more reluctant. There’s no doubt that there are still biases in the marketplace. That’s why I’ve always said to women it’s good to be on the side of bringing in revenue and performance that can be measured—otherwise it becomes who likes you—and to get yourself attached to people you really admire in what they’re doing. If they sponsor you and they’re really good at what they do that is going to help their career by picking the right winners to follow them, and vice versa, it’s good for your career.
What was the biggest or most unexpected hurdle you experienced in your career, and is it a hurdle that women still face?
The biggest hurdle that I faced is that there was no capital market the way there is today. In 1977 there weren’t capital markets. We launched Madison Square Garden Sports Network, the precursor of USA network, in 1977. People thought this was a ridiculous folly. They thought it was laughable, and that these businesses wouldn’t amount to much. Today they dominate the worldwide landscape. But back then access to capital was impossible. You couldn’t borrow money for it. There wasn’t the capital market to finance it. My partner was in the cable industry and owned cable systems, and his systems would benefit from having new programming and more subscribers, so [working with me] would be building the business. We were pioneers in completely building a business. That was how I was financed.
What’s been the most satisfying project that you’ve done over the course of your career?
Launching my dream of the USA Network—creating the first basic cable network and creating the business model for an entire industry. It’s very seldom that an individual gets to have an imprint over an entirely new industry. If we had unicorns back then I could have been the first. I would have shown the boys how to do it!
Talking about “women in tech” and “female founders” is somewhat of a recent cultural trend. What do you make of it? You’ve been in it since before it was a “thing.”
I’ve been in tech since before it was cool. People are taking notice and the deficit of women in technology is getting focus, which is prompting companies to start reporting their numbers and the levels women are in, in these companies. All of that is a necessary step on the way to more equality. With a spotlight on it, there is beginning to be a recognition that there actually is something that needs to be corrected.
If you go back through the history of computer sciences women were real groundbreakers. When girls start to realize that science is a creative process they are really going to take to it and think it’s cool. Just for myself, for example, I started off as a television producer working my way through college. I soon learned that I felt business was very creative—that I could create a company, an industry. I find bringing new products and services to market an extremely creative process. Girls are going to learn [best] by having the opportunity to be exposed in a way that they enjoy it, at a young age. I think it should be taught like another language in schools so that girls can use it in very creative ways and create cool things. Then it won’t be unusual.
Women have enough challenges in their careers without the burden of representation: i.e., talking about the experience of being a woman in tech rather than your tech experience. Do you have any advice for women on balancing speaking about their career versus being a woman in their field?
I have some very specific advice because I come from the media business so I understand it well. It’s extremely important for women to show up. What we need to do is have women seen as experts in their category in business. Not because they’re women, but because they’re experts. I consider myself a leader in my industry, not a leader of women in my industry. Women should endeavor to get themselves interviewed because they’re experts in their field, and get on panels about being an expert in their particular field. Be choosy about where to go, but show up. You have to show up.
To see you as a leader people have to hear your leadership message. They have to know and recognize you as an expert in your field. I’m very positive on women being out there in the media. Women can support other women while they’re doing it. But it’s important to get themselves positioned as experts in their field, and then the gender thing starts to go behind the scenes. If other people can’t see that they’re women… then that would be their problem.
How will we know when it’s gotten better? Are there any milestones or metrics?
There’s absolutely no doubt that success breeds success. The more women that go through programs like the New York Fashion Tech Lab and build successful companies, when they become successful people take note. When I look back at the 60’s and early 70’s, I thought, “Wow, women really didn’t have these kinds of jobs at all.” I was out there on the frontier. But it’s changed. There are a lot more of us around. As women we’re beginning to understand that we can associate with, help progress, mentor, support, and collaborate with women without it reflecting back on us or saying, “If she wins I lose, of if I win she loses.” There’s a lot of room in the marketplace. We can all be winners and we can help each other be winners.
This post was updated to reflect Springboard Fund’s name change to Springboard Growth Capital. Author: Adelle McElveen; all photos by Tory Williams. This interview was originally published in our beautiful print magazine Third Wave Magazine Issue 03. Pick yours up here!
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