26 Jul 2018
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Running the Numbers

A sports trailblazer uses analytics to help companies relate to people in ways that benefit both customers and the bottom line.
by Deborah Blagg

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Jessica Gelman (AB 1997, MBA 2002)
(photos by Neal Hamberg)

Jessica Gelman (AB 1997, MBA 2002)
(photos by Neal Hamberg)

Jessica Gelman (AB 1997, MBA 2002) had a passion for basketball that dated back to middle school, a stellar record as a high school player, and an extraordinary college career as co-captain of a record-setting Crimson team that won her acclaim as Harvard Female Athlete of the Year. Yet, despite all that, when the talented point guard was approached to play professionally in Europe at the end of her senior year, she recalls, “It had never occurred to me that I could play professional basketball.”

In 1997, the Women’s National Basketball Association was a recently launched, little-known organization, and Gelman had accepted a promising post-college job as a strategy consultant with the Mitchell Madison Group in New York. But her decision to defer the consulting job, and instead spend a year internationally as a trailblazer in a sport where women’s teams were still a novelty, was in keeping with an attitude that has since served Gelman well as a game-changing executive in the male-dominated sports industry.

“I’ve always been drawn to opportunities to help others see the world in a different way,” she explains. “Getting people to buy into a new vision or better way of doing things is my favorite kind of challenge.”

Today, as CEO of the Kraft Analytics Group (KAGR), a Massachusetts-based tech-intensive company focused on data management, strategic consulting, and advanced analytics, Gelman is “working to change the conversation around how analytics are used in the sports and entertainment business.” The job draws on her experience as an athlete, her MBA degree and undergraduate psychology major, and a fascination with technology-based problem solving that began at Mitchell Madison, where she helped implement the first intranet for a Fortune 50 company.

“That was my first exposure to the way innovative data management can transform a big organization,” she notes. “When I went on to HBS, that seed had definitely been planted.”

After HBS, Gelman went to work for the Kraft Sports Group owned by Robert Kraft (MBA 1965) and Jonathan Kraft (MBA 1990). “It was a tremendous opportunity,” she says. “The Krafts’ customer-first focus, and commitment to analytics-based decision making, fit perfectly with my interests and skills.”

As head of customer marketing and strategy, Gelman helped build the organization’s enviable connection with its avid New England Patriots fan base. Other sports and entertainment organizations took note, and, in 2016, KAGR was spun off to help outside clients such as Ticketmaster, the NBA’s Philadelphia ’76ers, and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, benefit from the company’s innovative software and approach to organization-wide data management and integration.

“We help organizations develop a holistic view of their customers and operations by tracking and analyzing data gathered at multiple contact points, including ticket sales, retail transactions, digital communications, and social media,” Gelman explains. Several years ago, the Patriots relied on similar analytics to re-invent its marketing to women, launching successful merchandising, a new online content section called Patriots Lifestyle, and social media initiatives to address the priorities of an underserved demographic.

“That’s an important example,” Gelman says, “because it shows that analytics can change how companies identify opportunities, build content and products that relate to people, and find ways to benefit both customers and the bottom line.”

Analytics and Leadership

Gelman started playing basketball in elementary school in Chicago in the 1980s. Michael Jordan was an early inspiration, and a dramatic poster of the legendary Chicago Bulls star hangs on the wall in her office at Gillette Stadium. “There really weren’t any female role models for girls who wanted to play basketball in those days,” she recalls. “I remember participating in clinics where I was the only girl on the court and vowing I would start a clinic just for girls someday.”

She kept that promise while she was working in New York, before coming to HBS. “It was my first startup, and I learned a lot of operational lessons,” she laughs. “I had to do everything—from creating a curriculum to hiring people to marketing the clinic to unlocking the doors on Saturday mornings.”

The clinic inspired more than a few promising athletes to keep playing into their college years. It also strengthened Gelman’s belief in the power of leading by example, a conviction evident in her involvement in an annual gathering that brings together students and professionals who share her keen interest in understanding and expanding the role of analytics in sports businesses.

Launched by Gelman in 2006 with cofounder and current Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference features panels, research presentations, career-building opportunities, startup competitions, hackathons, and talks from A-list sports, technology, and media executives, athletes, and academics. Now considered one of the leading sports conferences in the world, the two-day event in 2018 brought 3,500 participants to Boston in February and included a conversation with President Barack Obama, led by Gelman and Morey.

Gelman chairs the conference, working closely with student organizers at MIT Sloan. “I love the energy of the event,” she shares. “The students are learning so much and so quickly about running what amounts to a mini-business every year. On top of that, the excitement of the conference is driven by people talking about innovations in the industry, networking, pitching startups, and expanding knowledge in a field where we all have great passion.”

Lessons from Coaches

At home in a Boston suburb not far from Gillette Stadium, Gelman and her wife, Corbin Petro, CEO of Benevera Health, juggle a busy schedule of work and parenting their two young sons. “I’ve just started coaching our eldest son’s basketball team at the Y,” Gelman says. “It’s incredibly fun.”

Coaching is a central aspect of her role at KAGR, both in leading a fast-growing company (which doubled in size each of its first two years) and in her work with clients. “So much of management is about creating a shared goal,” Gelman says. “I always remember lessons from coaches when I was playing: How do you pass the ball to someone at just the right time and at the right location? If you see someone whose head isn’t in the game, how do you help them focus and play to their strengths?

“I feel very fortunate to be working for the Krafts,” she continues, “because they encourage that style of management, both internally with my team at KAGR and in our approach to helping client companies gain an edge on competitors. In sports and in business, the key to good leadership is to find the best ways to set others up to succeed.”

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2002, Section K
follow @jessicagelman

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