Kay Koplovitz, Founder, USA Networks: Be Bold, Think Big

Kay Koplovitz is a cable television visionary and was the first woman to head a television network when she founded USA Networks under the banner of Madison Square Garden Sports in 1977. She led USA Networks to first place in cable primetime ratings and it remained there for 14 years. In 1992, she launched the Sci-Fi Channel which has become a top ten rated cable network known for innovative drama and mini-series. In 1994, she launched USA Networks International into 60 countries worldwide.

In 1998, President Clinton appointed Kay to chair the bipartisan National Women’s Business Council. She used this platform to launch Springboard Enterprises, in a move to get women to “think big” about their growth companies and to raise venture capital to fund them. Springboard, her shared vision, has screened over 4000 companies and presented 360 of them since its first forum in 2000. These companies have raised over $4 billion in capital and are returning positive results to investors at record rates.

In 2001, Ms. Koplovitz co-founded Boldcap, a venture fund backed exclusively by high net worth women seeking to grow their portfolios with venture investments. Boldcap invests principally in the media, technology, and healthcare sectors.

Kay Koplovitz is the author of ‘Bold Women, Big Ideas’ (2002), which she wrote to inform and inspire women entrepreneurs to create wealth through equity. She is a sought after motivational speaker on subjects ranging from leadership and management to entrepreneurship, capital formation and emerging media.

We spoke to Kay about the science fiction writer who inspired her career; about her startup predictions for 2012; and about her motto for life.

TNW: What was the inspired moment that led you to launch USA Networks?

KK: I was a student traveling in London with a backpack and $5.00 a day, when I saw a poster at the London School of Economics posting a lecture on satellites. I had always been attracted to space, first by the Russian launch of Sputnik in 1957, then by President John F. Kennedy in the 1960’s when he inspired Americans to put a man on the moon. So I thought, well, let’s go hear what these satellites are all about.

I was captivated by the speaker and his vision for the power of geosynchronous-orbiting satellites and how they could transmit signals from any point on earth to another without being jammed. This was the 60’s, the time of the cold war. We didn’t know what was behind the Berlin Wall or the Great Wall of China. I was intrigued with his vision, so much so that it took hold of me and would never let go. 

This lecturer was Arthur C. Clarke, noted science fiction writer, and the man who energized my entire career.

I was determined to launch programming via satellite and communicate with people behind those walls. It took seven long years to get US government approval to use satellite for commercial purposes and two more years to launch Madison Square Garden Sports, the forerunner to USA Network. It was a long journey and worth the wait.

TNW: How important is technology to USA Networks? 

KK: Technology is very important to TV networks then and now. Satellites originally made it possible to secure inexpensive transmission to any point in the US from one satellite. Today, the multiplicity of media options has moved on to the internet, mobile, broadband and more. People have so many ways to access media, and television companies must keep up with the evolving consumer demands.

TNW: You founded Madison Square Garden Sports in 1977.  What was it like leading a company in the male dominated world of sports television in the 70s? Have you seen attitudes towards female entrepreneurs change since then?

KK: I never really thought about being a woman in those days as something different than being an entrepreneur and visionary in the realm of cable television programming, including sports. In some ways, it probably helped me to be unique. Being the only woman of my stature at the time made me recognizable by most in the sports world, so once we got rolling, access became easier in some ways.

We were offering a business plan that could fill the sports leagues covers with new cash flow. The business case spoke volumes, so I think it was pretty easy to accept.  I will say, there were plenty of incidences of discrimination in the field though.

Clubs with no admittance for women, weekend outings that the guys went on and to which women weren’t invited and the like. I have plenty of stories about that era, but hopefully much has changed today.

TNW: You have helped countless female-led startups to find funding. Do companies which are successful in fundraising tend to share certain common traits?  

KK: Interestingly, there are no distinguishable attributes between start-up companies founded by men or women. The characteristics they share for wanting to be their own boss, create wealth, build a team, have control over the scheduling and have decision making authority are nearly identical. If this is true, why then do women have a harder time raising capital? Good question. I can speculate from experience that the networks men have created around their friends and colleagues makes their investment strategies gravitate them toward more men like themselves.

TNW: What is the most common piece of advice that you have given to female founders?

KK: They must present their credentials upfront to establish their seat at the table.

TNW: Your book ‘Bold Women, Big Ideas’, aimed at female entrepreneurs, was published in 2002. If you could distil the key lessons from the book into three sentences, what would they be?

KK: 

Be confident in your own credentials to have a seat at the table.

Build your network of advisors, experts and sources from the very beginning to give you access to the human capital you will need to access financial capital, customers and talent;

Understand your revenue streams, something many business founders overlook at their peril.

TNW: We published an article recently about subscription service startups being the next big thing in 2012. What other startup trends do you predict for the near future?

KK: There are more start-up trends we are seeing every year with the advancement of technology. Subscription is one, but micro payments have become very large in media and games, competitions have appeared as trends from business plan to innovation monetary awards, crowdfunding as a way to democratize the capital sources for start-ups.

TNW: How has your leadership style changed over the years, and why? What is one lesson about leadership you have learned the hard way, but wish someone had told you in the beginning?

I have learned to let others take the lead if they are up to the challenge. It has been surprising to me which people step up when a task is given to a group.

You can lead from the middle as an alternative to leading from the front, and I find this most effective on corporate boards of equals.

TNW: How has Dell or the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network enabled you to grow your business? What do you see as the benefits of all-women networks such as DWEN?

KK: Actually, I am working on the same side of the table with Dell, helping women grow their businesses through Springboard Enterprises, a non-profit venture catalyst selecting, training and presenting high growth women led businesses to the venture capital market.

TNW: Do you have a motto which sums up your approach to business, and to life?

KK: Be bold, think big. It’s captured in the title of my book: Bold Women Big Ideas.

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our community? 

KK: Yes.

Life is full of decisions to make. Be fearless if you want to advance. Take risks to the limit you can tolerate, and you’ll be amazed with how far you’ll go.

The Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network (DWEN) celebrates the wonderful accomplishments of women in business, whilst looking forward at how we can progress and learn from each other. Natural networkers and relationship builders, women have innate flair for entrepreneurship. With DWEN, Dell is helping women in business to expand their networks while offering technology capabilities designed to help them innovate and grow their businesses.

The NextWomen is in partnership with DWEN to bring you a series of 40 interviews with the world's most influential female founders, investors and decision makers: The NextWomen DWEN Interview Series.

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