By Gregg Hoffmann Special to Published Jun 28, 2005 at 5:36 AM

{image1}Kay Koplovitz, founder of USA Network and a leading female entrepreneur in the country, grew up in the 1950s and '60s in South Milwaukee and attended high school there.

After earning her bachelor's degree at UW-Madison, Koplovitz received her masters from Michigan State, doing her thesis on the potential for use of satellite communication for commercial TV, unheard of at the time.

Over the next decades, Koplovitz founded what became USA Network, the Sci-Fi Channel and now runs a firm that links venture capitalists with female entrepreneurs and others looking to start businesses. She is the author of "Bold Women, Big Ideas," which she wrote to inform and inspire women entrepreneurs.

It's been "a life journey," which she has thoroughly enjoyed. Koplovitz sat down with OMC before delivering a keynote luncheon address at the recent Wisconsin Entrepreneurs Conference at the Hyatt Regency Milwaukee.

OMC: Tell me about your early years in Milwaukee. Your parents told me you took over your kindergarten class.

Kay Koplovitz: I grew up in South Milwaukee and went to kindergarten in Cudahy. That's true (about taking over the class). It actually wasn't even my class. I was three at the time and for some reason unknown to me to this day I decided that was where I was supposed to be.

OMC: So, you went to South Milwaukee High School?

KK: Go Rockets. We could never beat Whitefish Bay, though. I've always been a big sports fan. I remember the Braves years here very well. I became a huge baseball fan and a big Henry Aaron fan. I can still recite the lineup of the team that won the World Series.

OMC: You live in New York now and travel the world. Have you stayed in touch with Milwaukee?

KK: My parents still live here, so I get here a couple times a year. I'm aware of what is changing here. I see it when I come to town. Milwaukee is like Pittsburgh and other towns that were heavy manufacturing. They have to make changes to keep up. You have to reinvent yourself.

You have to have the knowledge base. There are a lot of fine educational institutions in Milwaukee and Wisconsin so that helps. There is a lot of educational DNA here.

OMC: Where did you head after high school?

KK: I went to Madison. I was a science major and interested in communications. So I took courses in that field, too. Between my junior and senior year in college, I went to Europe. At the time I was primarily interested in partying and fun, like most college students. But, I did attend some lectures. I wanted to learn something along the way too.

I happened to be in London when a gentleman was giving a lecture on geosynchronous orbiting satellites. You might say, "gee, that's really sexy a topic when you are 20 years old." But, this was the '60s, and it was something that was not familiar to people yet had the power in increase communications around the globe. It would make it much easier to communicate, even beyond the border of despotic governments. You have to remember this was the Cold War. The world was quite different, and of course we had only three broadcast networks.

He was talking about how they (satellites) would be the next powerful tool in communications. I thought this was such a powerful message. I was so motivated by his message that I just decided that was what I was going to do. I was going to figure out how to launch a program network via satellite. I didn't know how I was going to do all that, of course. By the way, this gentleman was Arthur C. Clarke, the science fiction writer. He is probably the best science fiction writer as far as grounding his work in science. He was a scientist before he started writing.

I came back and I thought about it. After I graduated from Madison, I actually came here to Milwaukee and worked as a producer at WTMJ. I was the first woman to do that. I was in an environment where people thought that was great. I figured "these people are very nice, but they don't see me as the manager of this station or as the president of a company, or as the president of NBC, and that's what I want to be." So, I left here.

I had applied for graduate school. I wanted to write my masters thesis on satellite communications. It was a very esoteric thing at the time. I had plenty of professors at Madison who would have taken that as a topic, but I wanted to go to another school to get that experience.

{image2}OMC: So where did you end up?

KK: I wanted to go to Stanford, but nobody could find a professor at Stanford who would take my topic. So, I started looking around at Northwestern and elsewhere, and finally found this professor at Michigan State who was in international law. He said, "Look, I know nothing about that topic, but I do know that if what you are telling me happens it will have a huge impact on international law." So, they offered me a scholarship, and I went to school there.

OMC: From Michigan State, where?

KK: I wrote the masters thesis and went to work in the satellite communications business in Washington D.C. I was always looking for an opportunity to figure out how to launch that programming network. I was thinking more in the terms of news at the time. My husband at that time was in the television business. He's a lawyer and knew the field, so that was helpful.

I figured if anybody was going to do this (launch a network) it was going to be the cable business. This was in the early '70s, and cable was relatively new and needed programming.

OMC: What was your big break? How did you finally get into the network launch?

KK: On Sept. 30, 1975, the night that changed television occurred. It was the "Thrilla in Manila," the fight between (Muhammad) Ali and (Joe) Frazier. I was working with a man named Bob Rosencratz at the time. He owned cable systems around the country.

We were able to bring in a feed of that fight from the Philippines into Vero Beach, Fla., via satellite. The Congressmen and Senators were all there. We were trying to convince them to allow the use of satellites for commercial television. It was a very convincing evening. I remember Bob Rosencratz telling me, "Kay, this could be the chance to launch that network thing you've been talking about." It turned out to be Madison Square Garden Sports. That's how I got into it. It grew. Madison Square Garden was the big time. You didn't have to live in New York to know what it was.

OMC: Why did the concept work?

KK: The brilliance of that was we introduced a second revenue stream into the industry. At that time, television was supported only by advertising. We introduced a fee to the cable operator for the program network as a second stream. It was a new economic model. That's really why you have so many cable networks today, and so many have been financially successful.

OMC: Madison Square Garden Sports became USA. How long did you stay with it?

KK: We grew the network and spun off some other things from it. It sold in 1998 for $4.5 billion. A couple years later, it sold again for $14 billion. I left in 1998.

OMC: Today, you're involved in what?

KK: I run and work with a couple organizations (Springboard Enterprises and Boldcap Ventures) that are promoting women to become entrepreneurs and providing capital funding for technology and life science companies. We link venture capital with women starting businesses. We work with men too, but my main concern is that women become involved in the process. It hasn't really been rejection in the past, but more of a disconnect for women.

OMC: The pioneer thing for women is almost becoming an old story now. But, it certainly wasn't at the time you were doing it.

KK: How improbable was that? A woman starts a network, and in sports. I just had a passion for it. I truly believed there was a lot more people could access and enjoy. The cable industry was there and needed programming. It just came together.

When I speak a college campuses and to young people, I have to set contexts now because they can't fathom a time when there were only three networks and that. People expect everything everywhere now. You can get it today. You can get it on your local phone, on the Internet, everywhere.

OMC: Even though things have changed, is it still tougher for women out there?

KK: It depends, on what area you are getting into and with what companies and people. I think women bring a lot to the table. For example, one thing I do think women have brought to the venture community is a stewardship for capital. They bring many other things.

I think part of it has been that women have had to learn to play the game. They needed to learn the rules and get into the game, especially when it comes to going after venture capital.

OMC: If you had to tell people who have an entrepreneurial spirit two or three things, what would they be?

KK: Find something you feel very passionate about. It's a rough road. It's not a comfortable one. It's an exciting one. So, you should really love it. That helps when you are putting in the 20-hour days.

You have to have a risk appetite. You also have to really feel like you have a product or service that is needed out there. You have to network and meet the right people. You also have to know how to watch the cash flow. It's not an easy road, but it's worth the journey.

Gregg Hoffmann Special to
Gregg Hoffmann is a veteran journalist, author and publisher of Midwest Diamond Report and Old School Collectibles Web sites. Hoffmann, a retired senior lecturer in journalism at UWM, writes The State Sports Buzz and Beyond Milwaukee on a monthly basis for OMC.