MANILA, Philippines — Being a woman in business wasn’t really as bad as being short,” answers Kay Koplovitz when asked about what it was like to be a woman visionary and leader in an industry slathered with testosterone.

“Just think about this—I was in the sports business, and the NBA was one of the first contracts I negotiated, and every time I would go to meetings, I’d be talking to a lot of bellybuttons.”

Koplovitz, who currently serves as the Chairman of the Board of Liz Claiborne, Inc., changed television history in the late ’70s when she launched the USA Network—which, she discloses, the Philippines had played a huge role in.

“It was October 1, 1975—it was the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ and it was the biggest and most important boxing match in history,” recounts Koplovitz, Bwhose fascination in geo-satellites after attending a talk by sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke sparked her vision of having programmed networks on TV. “It had a wonderful impact on my personal history because it was the night that changed the course of TV history. I was part of a group of people that brought senators and congressmen to a beach in Florida to see the power satellites and how they could be used commercially. What did we show? We showed the ‘Thrilla From Manila’ live via satellite. One of my colleagues in the cable TV industry said, ‘Kay, this is the night your dreams come true.’ That was the night we launched the USA Network.”

Visionary Leadership

Koplovitz’s “little experiment” on satellites paved the way towards an entirely new economic model for television. “Those days, TV networks paid TV stations to carry their programs, and we made money solely on advertising,” she recalls. “But when we created the opportunity for programmed networks, what we did was reverse the business model of TV.

We had cable systems pay us, and we only started selling advertising when we had enough home subscribers. That was the brilliance of what we did—of course, today, we have this great plethora of television cable satellites and networks around the world. When I flew to Morocco with my husband, I saw that every home had a satellite dish on the roof, and I thought to myself that, yes, I actually had a role in making them successful.”

In a recent talk themed “Leadership Voices” organized by the Women Business Council of the Philippines and Asia Society Philippine Foundation, Koplovitz calls attention to the kind of leadership she exercised in that particular event in her life.

“That was visionary leadership, and it was driven by my interior thinking, my motivation, my passion, and I held on to that passion until I realized that vision,” she says. “I then went on to build USA network into the most popular prime time cable TV network—it’s still the most popular today—and I launched the Sci-Fi network several years later in ’92 as a homage to Arthur C. Clarke. It was really a wonderful experience, and the value of these properties today is really enormous.”

Koplovitz finally reached full circle when she started Springboard Enterprises, a non-profit organization that serves as the premier platform where entrepreneurs, investors, and industry experts meet to build great women-led businesses.

“Then President Clinton had asked me to be the chair of the National Women Business Council of the United States, but at that point, the business council was only there to measure the procurement of women businesses from the federal government. It was important, but it wasn’t me,” she recalls.

Back in 1998, Koplovitz shared that women were quite unsuccessful when it comes to acquiring loans from banks. “That year, almost a hundred billion dollars was invested in venture capital, but only about 7 percent backed women, and 98 percent backed men. I said, what was wrong with this picture? So when President Clinton came back, I said to him that I was interested in women having access to capital.” 

Leadership by Empowerment

When Koplovitz started Springboard Enterprises in January 2000, her team had low expectations of the application turnout. “We advertised applications in business schools and other organizations, and we were praying for a hundred applications because we said that 10 percent of those applications can be funded,” recounts Koplovitz. “A week before the deadline, we only had 50 applications, but when we closed, we had over 300. We eventually narrowed it down to 26 companies. Twenty-two of those companies got funded, two merged, and one woman sold her business!”

It was a spectacular liftoff that the company just kept going. “The leadership style I learned there was that the power we have is really to empower others to succeed,” says Koplovitz. “The greatest part of it is that over 5,000 people across the States have worked with Springboard in training and coaching companies, with over 400 venture funds invested. We have a strong network of people, and I think that it’s empowering when you can give your ideas away and have other people take them as their own. The power of many is greater than the power of one.”

Leading from the Middle

Koplovitz’s appointment as the Chairman of the Board of retail giant Liz Claiborne, Inc. in 2008 was the first time she worked for a company that separated the roles of the chairman from that of the chief executive officer’s. And as with many of today’s entrepreneurs, Koplovitz tended to lead from the front.

“I have strong ideas and I like putting them out there that every person who worked there thought I owned the company,” shares Koplovitz. “But being a board member and chairman, I had to address the fact that we had a divided board at that point in time. People had different ideas and I had to work on how to bring my fellow board members together to coalesce our strategies for the company.”

It was upon reading conductor Benjamin Zander’s best-selling book, “The Art of Possibility,” that she figured out what to do. “He talked about the power of the conductor to make great music, playing not one instrument,” informs Koplovitz. “I thought about that and came up with a strategy I call ‘Leading from the Middle’, which means pulling back and deciding which people will lead the company in discussing ideas that will take the company in the right direction. I have to bring them forward in the right time, and pull them back a little at the right time. It is really an interesting exercise in leadership—how to lead among a group of peers and not be too far out.”

At the end of the day, Koplovitz shares that with the many ways to exercise leadership power, the key is in finding one’s authentic voice. “Each of us leads in her own unique way. In my 40 years in business, I’ve evolved to learn different types of leadership and they’re all gratifying. But the most important thing for us to learn is to really find our own authentic voice,” concludes Koplovitz.

Published in the April 25, 2011 issue of the Manila Bulletin’s Business Agenda section