Choose Courage Over Comfort: Corporate Innovator Running Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech Accelerator
WiST talks to women and men in sports and sports technology who embody a more diverse and inclusive workforce, setting the benchmark for their peers and future generations.
By Alysse Soll, President NewModel Advisory, LLC and WiST Board Chair
Jenna Kurath comes across as a very measured, confident, accomplished woman. She was a varsity college runner, a tech sales, business development and corporate communications executive and now runs a key innovation group at Comcast. She is hard-working, diligent about process and progress, and knows how to drive a team and a concept forward. One attribute that is embedded in her core is the understanding of what it really takes to be fearless.
“I don’t see myself as a risk taker. I think of myself as very measured. I try to have a blend between vision and practicality. But then again, you don’t move along a career path from intern to executive without taking risks.”
Perhaps being fearless is not knowing when not to do something. Jenna recalls, “When I was first appointed to a position at a tech PR company I didn’t know that it was uncommon to just cold-call Walt Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal and ask him what he thought about our news. But that’s exactly what I did. When I called, he picked up because he was waiting for another interview. I asked if I could have a minute of his time to comment on our news release. And he did! Maybe he was surprised at my moxie.” All that said it’s easier when you’re just starting out. The balancing act is sustaining the courage to remain fearless as you advance in your career – when the stakes are higher.
For Jenna, being fearless is the key ingredient to building something from nothing. She understands that identifying a pain point and coming up with a solution often means establishing a new process, a new platform or a new ‘thing’. Getting buy-in requires strategy, goodwill, and conviction. She remarks, “Throughout my career I have learned that it is necessary to be fearless in your convictions. Experience is a great teacher. As you learn, you gain confidence, as you gain confidence, you gain conviction. Often when you have conviction that something can happen, something really could work, you just need the ability to gain the necessary support to align the stars and give it voice and structure. I have built ‘something from nothing’ a few times in my career. When you do this, you put yourself completely on the line.”
THE PATH TO THE PODIUM
Jenna’s work at Comcast is focused on building and leading the Comcast NBCUniversal Sports Tech Accelerator, which launched in January of 2020. The goal of the accelerator, which is operated by Comcast NBCUniversal and its partner, Boomtown, is to find, fund, and fast-track sports technology startups from around the world and tap into innovation that will change the way we experience sports. The accelerator wants to bring sports fans closer to the action, closer to those inspiring, epic sports moments, and leverage technology to support athletes on their path to the podium.
According to Jenna, “Given our company’s Olympic and Paralympic investment and long-standing support of Team USA, it seemed startup engagement could be the bridge to startups by standing up an innovation engine that runs before, during, and after the Games. After significant due diligence with the USOPC and various Olympic stakeholders, we found common pain points that needed to be solved, and we set out to find solutions. The best way to do that? Establish a sports tech accelerator to source the innovations we were looking for.” The Olympic stakeholders with whom Jenna dug in deep included the High Performance Directors at NGBs (National Governing Bodies), NBC Sports production and Olympic marketing teams, other corporate sponsors, broadcast, digital and social, production, and the athletes themselves. “We needed to carve a path towards best outcomes and experiences for the stakeholders as well as our audience.”
“Interestingly,” Jenna says, “where we started was not where we ended up. We always thought our partnership would be solely focused on the Olympic and Paralympic ecosystem. Yet, in our discovery process of looking at the problems worth solving with technology, we had an ‘aha moment.’ We came to realize we were playing too small! We needed to go beyond working in a single sport or individual group for a broader impact.” The end result - the magic of SportsTech - is the accelerator’s consortium of prominent partners, which now include leaders and experts from four Comcast NBCUniversal brands—NBC Sports, Sky Sports, GOLF, and Comcast Spectacor—alongside NASCAR, PGA TOUR, WWE, and our three U.S. Olympic NGBs: U.S. Ski & Snowboard, USA Swimming, and USA Cycling.
“Our NGB relationships with USA Swimming, USA Ski and & Snowboard, and USA Cycling are ideal incubators to benefit from the accelerator. These sports are so technical, that every innovation that can help an athlete shave a millisecond off their time or perfect their moves is critical. Looking at another example, NASCAR and stock car racing is a data driven sport, with a culture of testing and experimenting at tracks to bring fans even closer to the drivers, the cars, and the action of the race. The excitement generated by our inaugural cohort of startups meeting and working with our sports brands was amazing. Through this accelerator, we are able to directly connect these innovative founders with stakeholders who can deploy and benefit from their technology immediately. Such a rare thing. You can see the results for themselves, even with the recent Summer Games. With so much more to come!”
DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU THINK
True innovation comes from the ability to apply learnings in new ways. Learning is derived from many sources – from data points to pain points and personal experience to corporate culture. At the root of innovation is discovery. The why?
Jenna is a driver of innovation. “I have a sticky note on my wall that reminds me ‘don’t believe everything you think’. This thought process is one I wholeheartedly embrace and encourage my teams to do the same. This idea forces us to challenge what we think we know vs. what we should know. It’s so easy to fall in love with your own ideas and to self-select the process to prove out your brainchild - brilliant, yes? No!”
“This challenge also pushes us to operate in a constant state of curiosity, which drives discovery and learning, fueling alternative approaches. When you challenge the old constructs to generate new concepts, a world of opportunity opens up. So often where we end up is not where we started, and this is a good thing! This is how innovation thrives.”
Jenna has another sticky note on her wall. “This one says, ‘courage over comfort’. You need the courage to accept the process of progress. Go there. Put yourself out on that limb. If you facilitate open dialogue among your team and trusted advisors to poke holes, investigate and make a left turn instead of a right, you are opening up opportunity and increasing the chances for better outcomes.”
Q and A with Jenna Kurath
WiST: You are all about startups, leading the Comcast NBCUniversal SportsTech program. Can you share why accelerators are so important to Comcast’s ecosystem and the future of sports?
Comcast is one of the world’s largest distributors of sports and our deep investments in sports rights and sponsorships put us at the intersection of media, sports, entertainment, and technology. We bring sports to fans through a variety of touchpoints – from NBC broadcast, cable networks, and Sky Sports to technology platforms like X1 and Sky Q. Simply put, our company’s connection to sports runs deep. NBC partners with the PGA TOUR to deliver unparalleled live tournament coverage so fans never miss a great moment of golf. The WWE chose Peacock as its exclusive home for the WWE Network and its millions of fans across the country. Not to mention, NBCUniversal’s significant investment for Olympics rights through 2032 which gives us the privilege of telling the extraordinary stories of Team USA athletes for another six Games over the next 10 years.
We understand that the sports landscape is in constant flux. Consumers are eager to engage, but we need to know who those consumers are, how they are engaging and what is important to them. Our calculus must include the ability to optimize our investments and deliver the very best experience to our consumers possible. We have seen, first-hand how we can work with agile startups to solve these problems. As an example - the Comcast NBCUniversal LIFT Labs accelerator, which is powered by Techstars, helps talented startups create rapid breakthroughs in connectivity, media, and entertainment - yet another example of the portfolio of innovation programs for founders looking to work with us. The beauty of this recipe is that we learn about new technologies, systems, and applications from founders that can be successfully tested across our Comcast ecosystem. As an example, take a look at nVenue, a predictive analytics startup. On the heels of the nVenue founders completing the SportsTech accelerator, NBC Sports piloted their technology during a game between the Chicago White Sox and Oakland A’s – it was incredible to see how their technology was used to drive change to the fan experience in real-time during a Major League Baseball Game. It was something that was probably only possible through the accelerator program.
We welcomed our first SportsTech cohort last winter to specifically address the pain points we saw across our sports stable. The SportsTech accelerator is a huge undertaking – we select just ten companies from 800+ applicants. There are so many facets of sports tech which span our eight strategic investment areas, which makes the selection process and criteria extremely critical. We operate with intention here, by focusing on the selection of startups that hit on the innovation needs and priorities of multiple sports partners.
Our Sports Tech Accelerator gives us an early lens into the future. We're able to access insights into trends across the ecosystem, invest and literally help shape the trajectory of these startups. We back this investment by providing our founders with a rigorous, custom curriculum, and we surround these entrepreneurs with a dream team of sports industry advisors and experts who are passionately dedicated to helping them succeed. What serves one can also serve many. Midway through the 12-week accelerator, we engage our sports partners who also serve as advisors to cross-pollinate these innovations. We recognize the need to fill the fan engagement pipeline and strategic investments in these accelerator companies help us do that.
WiST: As a Baylor University undergrad, you were on the road to becoming a diplomat. Your career morphed into crisis communications management, then sales, then business development & partnership management and now sports technology. Can you share this unique journey and the thread that weaves everything together?
To start off, a common thread is this - when opportunity comes your way, you say yes.
Growing up, I was the peacemaker in the family. As an undergrad, I majored in International Business, Marketing and German. As a foreign exchange student in Germany, I witnessed the Berlin wall come down with my host family who had escaped East Germany. I understood in a very personal way the interplay of families, communities, nationalities, and the ties that bind and unwind them. I felt then that diplomacy was my future.
Opportunity knocked with a chance to intern at Silicon Graphics in Northern California. This company was a leader in Silicon Valley at the time and I interned two consecutive summers in two very different departments - marketing, and finance. These unique vantage points showed me that running a company of size and scale was again, an interplay between the internal controls and the external landscape. What you do matters and what your competitors do matters just as much…sometimes more.
Opportunity knocked again when I was finishing my internship at Silicon Graphics. They were not hiring, but their PR agency was. PR and Corporate Communications are necessary assets to any company. In those roles, you are in the room for the big decisions, the exciting product launches, and the times of crisis. You learn very quickly how companies and CEOs react and operate. ‘Messaging’ is more than a catchphrase, it’s the foundation of your mission. Crisis management is not ‘spin,’; it’s how you course correct and stay true to your mission. You really hone your skills when you talk to the media. They say ‘no’ more often than they say ‘yes’; and when they say ‘yes’ you better have your talking points at the ready.
I have always wanted to contribute to the bottom line in a very tangible way. I saw sales as the way to do that. Making the leap from PR and Corporate Communications to sales is not a natural progression, but it was my progression. I negotiated my way into a sales position at Symantec with my own sales pitch, “Hey, I hear ‘no’ all the time from media, where I get paid in inches and columns. I know how to build relationships. I know how to establish trust and credibility quickly. I know how to turn today’s ‘no’ into tomorrow’s ‘yes”.
One of the things I loved most about sales was its similarity to sports. It’s very numbers and stats-driven. At the end of the day, you hit your quota, or you don’t. You hit your time on the track and in the race or you don’t. You practice rigor and accountability, or you come up short. This intersection always intrigued me, and I believe it was a connecting thread of my future career decisions.
At Symantec, I was increasingly tapped to creatively think about new business opportunities and ways we could penetrate managed accounts to drive more revenue. And that just naturally evolved into more business development and partnership management.
When I joined Comcast, I ultimately found my calling working with sports brands within Comcast Business. As a company, Comcast has huge investments in NASCAR and the Olympics, and my role was to help foster C-level relationships, to deliver new revenue opportunities and assist the sales team in closing strategic deals within those ecosystems.
Very exciting but so very challenging! NASCAR and the Olympics are two very different animals. NASCAR is a singular sport (car racing), with a specific annual season, a well-defined fan base, and a master at leveraging sponsor activations to build incremental B2B opportunities. The Olympics is rather the opposite. A bevy of sports, a variety of demographics, and biannual events (winter and summer) that crisscrossed the globe and time zones. There was an opportunity to deliver greater value to Olympic sponsors, athletes and the sports ecosystem. Again, opportunity knocks. In architecting SportsTech I ended up with my dream job, through a compelling vision and conviction of the business value of uncovering and corralling the most innovative technologies that build upon our sports IP investments. The founders in our inaugural SportsTech cohort have secured over 29 pilots and commercials deals - measurable results for their business and ours.
WiST: You are a lifelong competitive runner. In college you ran for Baylor, in Los Angeles, you ran for The Janes and now you continue to run to keep yourself balanced, fit, and sane. What attributes of your successful running career crossover into your professional career?
Competitive running and sports, in general, have taught me everything about teamwork, leadership, having a plan, and working that plan. To be a successful athlete requires more than just determination and dedication, it requires ‘behind the curtain skills’ like scheduling your workouts for maximum results and downtime for maximum recovery. This plan also includes the necessities of balancing your school or professional work, family obligations and everything else that must be attended to in your life.
At Baylor, I had the honor of running for coach Clyde Hart who also coached Olympians Michael Johnson and Jeremy Wariner. Coach Hart always said that he “recruited for good citizens first, great athletes second”. This idea resonated with me. I knew I had the work ethic and skill sets required to be a college varsity runner, but I also understood that I did not have the natural ability to be an Olympic runner – that’s radical acceptance in my book. Sports teaches you radical acceptance which I see as a metaphor for life. You control what you can and accept what you can’t. You don’t judge yourself or others based on performance or outcomes alone but within the greater context of the environment. Learn from your bad races and celebrate your good ones. Every day you get up and perform at your best for yourself, for your teammates, for your team. The way it works in sports is the way it works in business.
Post-college, wherever I moved, I continued to seek the comradery of running mates. When I moved to southern California, I was invited to train with The Janes, a group of competitive female runners who were also highly accomplished professionals. In Philadelphia, where I live now, I run with the Slugs (don’t let the name fool you)! For me, running will always be a tie that binds my connection with other runners and is a constant joy in my life. Running will always be an inspiration for my career, one foot in front of the other, no matter how rough the terrain gets.
WiST: You maintain that partnerships are essential to success, and that ‘shared intent’ is the tie that builds, binds and sustains partnerships. In your experience, what is the roadmap towards building these ties that bind?
Building and maintaining strong, resilient partnerships, be they with your team, your company or your clients, are at the core of success. But getting to a strong partnership goes way beyond the initial concept of alignment ‘we both want the same thing; therefore, we are aligned.’ A successful partnership needs shared intent, ‘we are aligned because we want the same thing’.
What starts as a grand vision with elegant steps towards success (let’s call this the ideal) is typically shaped by discovery - deep diligence that can be messy, complicated, and rife with conflict (let’s call this the real). Two sides of the same coin. Navigating from ideal to real is the essence of building the ties that bind. It’s always surprising to me how the discovery process alters the landscape and how our elegant grand vision ultimately morphs into a stronger reality.
Discovery is the path to magic through mayhem. Actively listening to and processing the information being uncovered in discovery is essential. While it is important to have your POV, observe how the proof points are unfolding and identify which elements are rising to the top. In my experience, you can't control the final decision, but you can certainly control how you react to it, 100%. Don’t thwart, don’t throttle, guide.
Good partners share in this discovery process. They are in the trenches with you to find the better path. Good partners are willing to take the leap of faith that will make the collective better, stronger. When we were working through the Olympics analysis, the partnerships with the NGBs were so strong because we had a true alignment, a shared intent. They wanted to make their athletes better and we wanted to find the ways to do that and, ultimately, showcase those amazing athlete stories through our Olympic broadcast and related content outlets. This was a success that will lead to new ways of leveraging partners who want to do more.
WiST: Your skills as a diplomatic leader are a key element of your success. What cues can you share with women in your wake to learn this essential skill?
A diplomatic leader is one who can inspire others through confidence without arrogance. Finding a common ground.
I am a diplomat. My superpower is the ability to drive collective value towards a positive outcome and neutralize defensive instincts that could drive a negative outcome. It is essential to take the emotion out of the discussion. In sports, people are truly passionate, and they want to be heard, sometimes as the loudest voice in the room. In my experience, loudest is not always the best, it’s just the noisiest. I have never been comfortable being the squeaky wheel. I prefer to put the proof points up on the board. I don’t want to lose my shirt in the 10th inning because I followed the loudest voice. I want the home run. Eliminate the noise, focus on the goal.
A cue to look for this is what I call ‘false harmony’. If in a meeting, everyone nods their head in united agreement, yet in the halls, there is independent discourse, this means trouble. Perhaps the trouble started at the meeting because I didn’t ask the hard questions, the pointed questions, the questions that would reveal an early indicator of potential success or failure. False harmony starts with making assumptions about shared intent rather than asking the questions to confirm shared intent.
The ability to ask the hard questions throughout the process is a learned, practiced skill. It takes serious courage to ask the hard questions - of yourself, your team, your bosses, and your stakeholders - but it certainly sets the table to inspire the confidence that you can accomplish this collective goal with the key resources to meet your mission.
One final note. In today’s era, women’s proof points are soaring because they take the time to thoughtfully navigate their way in what are still relatively male-dominated industries. I am who I am. I play the long game as a diplomat, but I seek out the short game as an entrepreneur because the combination is what drives us all forward.
A special thanks to Jenna for sharing her journey with the WiST community. Courage over comfort. Inspiration comes in all forms.
Join the WIST community at www.womeninsportstech.org
Check out the Comcast NBCUniversal Sports Tech Accelerator - https://www.comcastsportstech.com/