Alysse Soll interviews Jessica Gelman, CEO KAGR, for WiST
By Alysse Soll, President NewModel Advisory and WiST Board Advisor
Crafting Her Kraft
There are those who are successful athletes; those who are successful academics; and those who are successful in business. Then, there are those who are all three, and more. This is Jessica Gelman. Jessica is the CEO of KAGR (Kraft Analytics Group which spun out from Kraft Sports & Entertainment in 2016) and the co-founder of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. She started her sports career playing basketball in her Chicago and Connecticut hometowns, then at Harvard leading them to Ivy League titles & NCAA tournament appearances, and finally, playing professionally in Europe. After receiving her MBA from Harvard Business School, she began working for the Kraft family and the New England Patriots, using analytics and market research to better understand fan behavior and leverage technology to drive more efficient business decisions. Simply put, her analysis helped answer two critical questions - Who is our customer? and, How can we serve them better?
Over 17 years, Jessica has evolved her work seeking solutions for Kraft Sports & Entertainment to a company providing those solutions across sports and entertainment. In 2016, KAGR was born as an analytics technology platform and consultative services company with 14 employees spun off as a stand-alone business. Now, KAGR is 60 employees strong with a roster of blue-chip clients including the NFL, Ticketmaster and Harris Blitzer Entertainment (HBSE).
KAGR (pronounced Kay-gur) is a subtle nod to the economics acronym, CAGR (Compounded Annual Growth Rate). This is by design, as KAGR believes the company’s offering is responsible for driving consistent growth and annual returns for their clients.
Play it Forward and Pay it Forward
Jessica is a huge believer in paying it forward. “I grew up in the Title IX era where women could play team sports. As a point guard, my job was to set people up to be successful, understand their strengths and weaknesses.” Her playing experience has transcended into how she leads. For Jessica, confidence is key: “having played sports and been successful there, you start to believe in what you can achieve not just individually, but with a common vision.”
Jessica recalls a defining moment which crystallized the idea that she was part of a legacy formed by those who had cleared a path (paid it forward) so she could succeed. “My grandmother, who recently passed at 101 years old, was one of the first employees at NASA. In her 80s, she attended my graduation from Harvard Business School. As we were walking arm in arm together, she commented, “never did I ever believe, in my wildest dreams that I would see a woman graduate from Harvard Business School, let alone my granddaughter!” That comment still resonates.
Jessica appreciates those familiar faces, “people in my corner” who have cleared a path for her - mentors, coaches, employers, colleagues, family. She also recognizes the countless unknown faces who played a role. To this end, she believes “part of my responsibility is to clear a path for those coming after me.” The legacy continues.
MIT Sloan Sports Analytics, Where Students Become Leaders
The MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference is a must-attend event for anyone engaged in sports analytics. Jessica and Daryl Morey (formerly of the Boston Celtics, presently GM of the Houston Rockets) are the founders of this annual event. They taught a class at MIT Sloan on sports analytics; Jessica focused on the business aspects, Daryl on the team aspects. MIT Sloan students were hungry to learn more and sought real world engagement.
Recognizing the need to open the dialogue between students and sports professionals, infuse sports with data analytics, and drive innovation in sports through technology, they launched the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics conference.
What started in 2006 with 125 people and 8-9 panels has grown into an annual multi-day event with 3500+ attendees participating in speaker panels, deep dives presentations (Competitive Advantage talks) on using analytics, competitions in research and innovation with hack-a-thons and Start-up Competitions. It has become the premier event for sports analytics in the world. President Obama was the keynote speaker at the 2018 event.
Jessica is both a mentor and coach to the students who manage the entire event, facilitating their journey from the classroom to immersion in real world sports and sports business. They identify and solve pain points and incubate the future of innovation. In this way, connecting students with industry leaders enables them to become industry leaders.
Q and A with Jessica Gelman
Jessica will be the first to say she has been incredibly fortunate as the beneficiary of tremendous support, from her family, coaches, teammates, mentors and bosses (including Robert and Jonathan Kraft). She is a nose-to-the-grindstone individual whose industrious nature has driven her own success, while her belief in giving back drives the success of others. She is a study in humanity and humility.
Some Q and A with Jessica helps us understand how she sees the worlds of sports and business as two sides of the same coin.
WIST: You pivoted your work at Kraft Sports & Entertainment (New England Patriots) into what is now KAGR, a standalone analytics sports tech & services company. Can you pinpoint the mission that inspired these pivots?
Our goal is to help move the sports industry forward in the acceptance and use of data. My pain point was needing clean, trusted data from disparate places presented in a single view to drive informed business decisions. This mission, to generate one single source of truth of the customer and broader business operations, is what incubated KAGR.
In my role, I was using data and analytics to drive our customer facing business lines - ticketing, marketing, retail, and sales. It was critical that we understood our customer, what they were engaging with and how, but as importantly, what they were buying from an inventory perspective. The systems we employed to analyze individual business segment data, such as ticketing or food & beverage, could not integrate with marketing or retail operations to deliver a clear and accurate picture across our entire business. At the same time, our brainpower was focused on manually integrating subpar systems instead of easily seeing and digging into the data to find insights. There were so many pain points all around.
For supporting our business growth and informing ownership, having information at my fingertips to see results of sales and marketing activity in a single view in near real-time was critical. At the same time, there were often issues with the data or how 2 people standardized or applied the data set. So, trusting the data and have transparency that our team (and folks throughout the organization) were working from the same information was a constant focus. The frustration was that no technology existed and we were educating folks with no industry knowledge. So, during my conversations with the Krafts and understanding the interest other teams had in what we were doing, we thought there was an opportunity to build a business to address that pain point.
Our KAGR technology platform ingests all forms of data, aggregated from a multitude of system types from ticketing, marketing, CRM, retail, stadium operations, food and beverage and sponsorship to provide a single view. Importantly, we serve up that information in pre-defined dashboards and machine learning analytics integrated into the visuals. Simplifying the process is critical. Having been on the other side, understanding our client needs and servicing them is a major focus. Ultimately, seeing how our Client’s trust data and sue the KAGR platform is incredibly rewarding.
We believe we have the best technical solution platform and when coupled with our deep industry expertise, and we love to take on industry changing projects, such as our NFL Integrated Ticketing Platform. Our goal is to be the most trusted partner for data, technology and analytics.
We are singularly focused on allowing our clients to spend their time on prescriptive business growth efforts because we are handling the data and technology challenges.
WiST: How has being a world class athlete transformed you into being a world class CEO? Can you identify defining attributes during your athletic career that have translated to your professional career?
A few things I’ve learned; you must be resilient, dedicated to constant improvement, set your team up for success, and have great time management skills. These attributes are the same for sports as they are for business.
Failure is a great teacher and you need to be resilient to learn from it to strengthen your resolve and drive your progress.
Having a focus on continuous learning and growth is critical. As an athlete, I was the ultimate gym rat, always practicing, honing my basketball skills. As importantly, I am used to being coached. As a CEO, I am a perpetual student of my business, tracking trends, technologies and disruptors that constantly change our landscape. At the same time, I am thirsty for feedback and ways to grow.
Setting my team up for success is always a priority. My job as a point guard in basketball was to understand my teammates strengths and weaknesses. Pass them the ball at the right time or call plays where they could score. And, always having a constant flow of communication/chatter. As CEO, I do the same. I need to understand where people on our team are strong to position them for success and where they require some coaching to help them evolve and grow.
Great time management is critical. At Harvard, I had to effectively juggle schoolwork, D1 basketball and a social life. In addition to my family, KAGR, and my leadership with the MIT Sloan Sports Conference, I am also on several boards: Shooting Touch, Peace Players, the Harvard Varsity Club. The skills I learned around prioritization in college are what allow me to be able to engage in the activities I love and with the people I respect.
WiST: It’s taken you 15+ years to grow into the role of CEO at a sports tech company. With that experience, what do you see as the greatest challenges millennial women face in the sports and tech workforce today?
Young, millennial women often perceive that life or business is an equal playing field. We are not there yet and still have many biases to breakdown. Understanding and accepting where we are is step #1. Each of us need to do our job to educate those we work with about those inherent biases.
Step #2 is awareness when it is happening and appropriately, find opportunities to share that. The ability to ask for and receive support from your executives and leaders - getting “people in your corner”- is critical to overcome this bias. I have been very fortunate to have the support of Robert and Jonathan Kraft to truly learn from, engage with and, when the time was right, to lead. Their support and trust gave me confidence to think differently about how the industry could evolve. Seeing how innovative they are and having them as sounding boards, inspired me to do more.
Step #3 is paying it forward and encouraging the conversation.
WiST: You are the CEO of a successful company. You are a mom of young children. What does “work - life balance” mean to you?
I love building and creating. I love coaching and seeing people grow. I love interacting and laughing with people. And, of course, I love spending time with my family.
My kids and my wife (who is a start-up CEO) are all in this together. I integrate my work and my life where I can. For example, one of my kids favorite activities is coming to KAGR. They cheer when they get to come down and see all their “friends”. Bringing my kids to KAGR allows them to see, feel and touch where I disappear to every day and spend time with the people who make it happen.
That said, a final skill from my athlete days is the ability to compartmentalize. At work, I’m focused on work. At home, I’m focused on my family. It’s a constant effort to be present and where my feet are, but it is worth it.
A special thanks to Jessica for sharing her story with the WiST community. Jessica’s “pay it forward” motto transcends her work and her life. Inspiration comes in all forms.