How Zaileen Janmohamed’s Olympic-Sized Curiosity Inspires Technical Innovation
WiST talks to women and men in sports and sports technology who are setting the benchmark for their peers and future generations.
By Alysse Soll, CEO underdog advisory and WiST Board Chair
MEET ‘Z’ THE DISRUPTOR
Zaileen Janmohamed has always been a bit of a disruptor. Growing up and sneaking out to play hockey in Vancouver wasn’t the normal activity of a young girl from a traditional Indian Muslim household. Born to immigrant parents from East Africa who believed she should wear pink and perform ballet, her core DNA made her challenge and question the status quo very early on.
As Zaileen or ‘Z’ puts it, “I'm a bit of a disruptor. What I went through as a kid has been so impactful throughout my life. I teach my own sons it's okay to be different. Bring something unique to the table, whether that's a great idea, a new way to re-engineer an old model, or just a silly joke to break the silence. Share the opportunity to look at things differently; this can result in a full course correct or just a different way to approach a problem.”
Zaileen leveraged her ‘be the Z’ disruptor nature throughout her life, from her early school years, through her Masters. This DNA has naturally turned her into an agent of innovation across the sports ecosystem – from Agencies to Global Brands, to the LA28 Olympic & Paralympic Games.
Whether working for GMR Marketing driving Olympic sponsorships, or for Visa leveraging their own Olympic properties, Z’s curiosity was a truly unique lens into the organizations’ operations. Her job focus at Visa, exploring their Olympic sponsorship activities, activations and operations led to a redirect of how they leveraged this relationship to give and get, more out of it. Now at LA28, she is responsible for driving innovation with Team USA’s commercial partnerships and initiatives, with a passion to improve the entire ecosystem and experiences for Olympic and Paralympic athletes through a wholly new approach to sports sponsorship.
Z has always been highly regarded for her technical and innovative perspective. Her problem-solving strategy and innate skills to discover interesting responses always lead to successful results. Zaileen’s lack of a formal technical background didn’t inhibit her inquisitiveness about technology. Living in Silicon Valley with her husband, a venture capitalist, she has an appetite to read, learn and understand how technology solves problems. Coupled with her love of sports, playing hockey and soccer she articulated, “You don't need to have a specific type of resume or education to do sports and to be at the cross-section of sport and technology, at least not yet.”
And yes, Z sees her disruptor DNA as a positive, not a negative. “I have a bit of a rebel streak. While I truly appreciate feedback and constructive criticism, it does not change my axis. I like who I am, and the constant challenge makes me very good at what I do. When it comes to my job and mission in innovation, being different and doing things differently is a plus, not a minus.”
AMP-ING UP THE OLYMPICS & PARALYMPICS
Ever the innovator, Zaileen now works for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Properties (USOPP), the joint commercial venture between the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee USOPC and LA28. Her team just solved a huge problem for the stakeholders, athletes and sponsors alike. Z is the leading force in revolutionizing the ability for more athletes to access individual endorsement opportunities through the Athlete Marketing Platform (AMP). Launched last year, AMP is a digital marketplace where Team USA Olympic and Paralympic athletes and sponsors are matched together for local, national and global engagement. This tech-first platform is solving a major pain point for athletes and sponsors – providing a bridge to each other that had never existed to leverage the unique attributes of the athlete and the unique needs of the sponsor.
With a background in working across the Olympic and Paralympic ecosystem, Z brought her exceptional insights to unlock the opportunity of AMP from many perspectives. Just because it hasn’t been done before doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Zaileen remarks, “The interesting story about AMP is not that we had really unique, great technology. The interesting part for me is that amongst all the pushback and all of the naysayers, people saying, no it can't be done, we actually got it done. That for me is a storyline.”
Curiosity drives Zaileen to discover what problems can be solved, prioritize them and highlight where adding technology makes sense. Though designing the AMP technology was challenging, Zaileen shared, “The hardest part for me was actually the change management that came along with it and making sure everybody was comfortable.”
Change management often happens when new technology comes into the marketplace. Decision-makers must be willing to embrace change. As Zaileen says, “ I can identify the problems and frame the solutions, but sometimes the hardest part is securing buy-in.”
DIVERSITY HIRES DIVERSITY
It’s so easy to hire people who look like you, act like you, grew up like you – this is an age-old practice with a built-in comfort zone. But this age-old practice does not drive long-term growth, sustainability and profitability. Diversity – of thought, people, networks and practices – is what builds strong foundations that can scale and sustain.
Over the next 6 years, the headcount for LA28 will swell to thousands, and hiring managers, like Zaileen, will have the opportunity to cast the widest talent net possible with the only barriers to entry being ability and capability.
As Zaileen puts it, “I am so very fortunate to work under the Olympic and the Paralympic umbrella, which, by its very definition, is an inherently inclusive organization. Diversity is our strength, and our starting point. This makes it easier to operate, manage and hire incredibly talented people from all walks of life. Diversity and inclusion is the filter for how we bring the best talent to the table to join our organization.”
The ability to eliminate inherent bias in hiring and access best-in-class talent is a delicate balance. As more diverse talent pours into the sports ecosystem than ever before, hiring managers in this space must look beyond the norm (and their inherent bias) to embrace this diversity. As Zaileen explains, “People still need to be very deliberate and to use their voice to make decisions that might be a bit harder without a filter in their head.”
With that balance in mind, Zaileen believes that the diverse foundation upon which the USOPP and LA28 have been built will drive diverse hiring at scale because of who is doing the hiring. “Equilibrium is only achieved with the diversity that already exists, and that diversity hires diversity.”
WiST: You are clearly comfortable operating in companies and roles across the sports ecosystem. Starting with Major League Soccer (Property), to GMR Marketing (Agency), to VISA (Brand/Sponsor), and now on the biggest stage of them all, the 2028 LA Summer Games as Head of Partnership Development & Innovation. The ability to work across the different stakeholder spokes in the sports landscape is a unique skill set that few have the capacity for. What is it about the sports ecosystem that is so compelling to you?
When I was young and graduated with my master's, I loved sports but wasn’t sure where I would land. Yet, every place I landed taught me a different side of the sports business. At MLS, I learned what it was like to be in a young sports league, what the intention was, and what they wanted to build. When I was at the agency, I learned how to ideate. When I was at the brand, I learned what it was like to be a part of a bigger corporate system, the politics, and the budgets.
Number one, I'm a sports fan. There’s a calling to everyone in sports to stay in what drives us, what we're passionate about. That said, throughout my career, I have always followed my heart, I let that set my path.
I'm inherently curious. I want to know how things function at a company. What part of the value chain do they provide? The only way to figure it out is to go work there. Along the way, I wonder what sits around that corner.
Those pieces expand my skillset. My curiosity allowed me to move from place to place crisscrossing the industry, but also be really successful in each job. Curiosity isn’t about what's next, it's about what can I do in this job that is going to be different? What does this industry need? How can we change and innovate?
The sports industry is ripe for change. Someone who loves to think about doing things differently sees so much opportunity. But you have to find the right place, the right tone, and the right approach to make an impact and drive true value. It’s like a perfect match or puzzle pieces fitting together.
It's easy to figure out what you're good at and stay in this safe space. The hard part is to let in the fear and push out of your comfort zone. When you do that, be very diligent and have the wherewithal to explore new places and new spaces.
This is what I call being comfortable in the gray; a little bit scared, admitting I don’t have the answer, and then diving in to see if the problem can be solved. It’s usually the very people who don't know the answers, that come up with the best solutions because they go in without any sort of bias. If you don't know, everything is a possibility!
Sometimes things come across my desk and I truly have no idea what they are. Instead of saying, that's somebody else's job, let them figure it out, my team and I take the initiative to figure this out in some way, shape, or form. We are going to read, learn, and talk to people, and then decide what path to take. So much opportunity is lost because people kick the can down the road. That diamond in the rough could very well be the diamond of your future success.
This accountability is what I believe makes me a better human, mom, and employee. Go where you’re not and don’t be afraid of what you might find.
WiST: You are a change agent; someone who identifies problems and sets the path to solve those problems. The solution is often rooted in technology which can be daunting for legacy verticals, sports among them. Can you share your roadmap for identifying the problem, framing the solution, and getting buy-in from the decision-makers to actually implement change?
Problems are like rides at an amusement park. Some are easy to solve like the Ferris Wheel (you always know where you are going) and some are more challenging like a roller coaster (up, down, side, spin, straight). As you’re standing in line, waiting to get on the ride, you listen and learn from the cues of what people are saying. You’re also watching people getting off. There’s excitement, raw energy, nervous anticipation and sometimes fear.
The Why: I see what’s going on around me and identify the reasons ‘why’. I just listen, find the insights, not even finding the problems. Some are things you can control and some are not, some will have the highest value if you can fix it and some will have the lowest. The reason that you have to ask yourself why and come up with all the factors is like AMP. The whys underneath are multiple, various, and can't all be solved. If I pick the wrong why to solve, the impact could be negligible.
The Build: Once you identify the why, you need to consider how to build the solution. This solution has a number of parts and people. Who needs to be on this ship? There's a difference between being an engineer and a VP of Product. The engineers are building the code, making great technology. The VP of Product with the VP of Sales needs to know - how am I going to talk about this? What is the change I'm actually doing and trying to develop, educate, and coach people about? How are they going to adopt this technology?
The Iteration: The first time that you build it, don’t assume that it is going to be built right. I don’t enter any innovation process with the pretense that I’m not going to have to change and iterate it after it’s done. That means that you have put an MVP in front of the market and wait for the market to respond so it helps you make it better.
Test and Feedback: Build to solve the immediate problem with the intention that you're trying to test some things. Feedback at the end is essential. The users are telling you, hey, this was good and we can make it great or this was bad and you need to change it. Assume this is going to happen; it’s part of the cycle.
Like a roller coaster, you’ve got a couple of nose dives that you probably weren't expecting. That gives you information to do it better, again. The second time I rode the roller coaster was better than the first. The roller coaster yields better innovation. You need the stamina to get through the first or second time, and that's the hardest part.
When I build something, I want it to be amazing. Even if there are fixes and features that we still need to build, I want people to say ‘that was awesome!’. I want the people taking my roller coaster to keep getting back in line to do it again. There is an emotional piece and it’s the part that keeps us going. You want to experience it again and again, no matter how hard the build was. Go back to that place where you had this nervous energy.
WiST: Following your problem/solution framework, you recently spearheaded AMP (Athlete Management Platform) for Team USA Olympians & Paralympians. This is a HUGE tech leap forward for all USOPC athletes who seek to leverage their momentum and position in the sports marketing landscape. Can you share this specific journey?
AMP or any great new platform that you want to launch wouldn’t have been possible for me if I didn’t have leadership at the USPOC and USOPP/LA28. I am very lucky today to be in a place where I’m trusted. The leaders of those organizations, both of whom are female, have a passion for evolution, innovation, and doing things differently. Credit goes to them for making this happen, to Kathy Carter and Sarah Hirshland. You need leadership’s blessings with approval, insight, and feedback along the way to navigate political obstacles. You need support at the top.
For AMP, let’s return to the ride analogy. I’m standing in line, paying attention. That's how I learned that 60% of our athletes make less than $25,000 a year. Hearing that piece of information, my jaw dropped. I thought, “How is this possible?” Why are athletes not making money?
Athletes focus on training, not on business. Yet business is what generates sustainable income to power their training. The voice of the athlete was changing in the US and their voice was saying, “Listen to me, I have a story and I need an avenue to share that story.” This is the heart of NIL, athletes owning their name, image, likeness and it is opening up avenues to monetize who they are and what they do.
The why became clear, focusing on what the athletes need and want. This is where the AMP solution could have its greatest impact. It took about eight months to go through the journey of listening, pulling out insights, prioritizing the whys, and figuring out which ones we wanted to solve.
If technology is going to solve the problems, we need a technology partner. Who are we going to partner with? How do we pick a partner with the same objectives, vision, and mission that we have plus one that understands that the athletes are the center? For us, it was an easy choice to work with Opendorse, who essentially pioneered the concept and technology of the open marketplace for athletes and brands to meet, negotiate and engage in commercial partnerships. Built on Opendorse’s open marketplace, AMP was customized as a closed-loop system for Team USA and the needs of our athletes and sponsors.
The little secret is that AMP started as a partner benefit. We weren't even thinking about the athletes. My job was to deliver more value to the athletes or the partners. As I listened and I realized, that if I can solve for the athletes, the partners will benefit as well.
There’s the build phase and afterward, there’s the iteration-education phase. In the build phase, we’re listening. We build a feature, get feedback, build a feature, and get feedback. We had testers that were athletes, partners, National Governing Bodies (NGBs), and anybody that would volunteer. We wanted people to take a peek and let us know if it looked right.
The launch-education phase personally, for me, was the hardest space. I’m part of a legacy organization and making sure that all stakeholders feel we're doing this for the right reasons and building that trust is critical.
A personal pain point here. Looking back, I realized I didn’t engage the right people soon enough and that slowed the process down. In hindsight, it’s because I didn't have the right people at the table at the right time. My advice is when you're building new technology, it's hard to figure out who to bring to the table, when, without slowing things down.
That’s the part I would have done a bit differently. I had all the stakeholders at the table in that build phase, but I don't know if I had the right stakeholders, the ones with the most influence. The result was that my education timeline got extended. Thankfully, I didn't extend resources from a budget perspective, but I did from a timing perspective.
The pilot launch of AMP was in April 2021 before the Tokyo Summer Games and the close of the pilot will be in March, 2022 after Beijing Winter Games. Then we will relaunch in January of 2023 to iterate and prepare for Paris 2024 Summer Games. This is now about storytelling. In the 18 months leading up to the Paris Games, AMP will be full force, showcasing the athletes and amplifying their voices, and the voices of our partners. And the ride continues.
WiST: As a woman of color, can you share your experience gaining traction and a seat at the decision-making table in the sports world and offer insight for others who are following in your footsteps?
I'm starting from a place in this job where I have a voice. I make sure I’m using my voice at the right times when I don't feel that we are either making the right decision or putting the right thinking in place to make the right decision. You can have a seat at the table, but if you don't use your voice when you've been given it, it doesn't matter. I’m building confidence in myself to raise my hand and say, “Hey guys, I think we're missing something here.”
My advice for people in that phase of their career where they have the seat at the table is to be able to use their voice at the right time to bring in the right people to build a diverse organization.
If you're not in this phase of your career yet, there are a couple of things you can do. Number one is to be educated. Make sure you're aware of what society is facing and think about the issues in a rational, pragmatic way. So when you are asked for your opinion, you have one. You may never have to voice it, but get yourself educated enough to know what you're talking about. Because one day you will be asked and what you say at that moment can I have lots of impact.
When I retire, I need those people to continue the things that are important for us and what we're trying to do at this phase of our career. One of my side projects was starting a woman in sports business curriculum, a graduate curriculum over at UMass. Women can get not just the skillset, but the confidence to say, “I have a voice, I have an opinion. And it's important.”
It's amazing how quickly you can lose credibility if you're not prepared for that moment. Those of us in positions of leadership or managing people, especially if there are women underneath us and women of color, let’s get them ready to be asked that question.
A special thanks to Zaileen for sharing her journey with the WiST community. Prepare for the moment. Inspiration comes in all forms.