Cari Coats serves as the executive director of the nationally-ranked Center for Advanced Entrepreneurship at Rollins College. This latest venture is one in a long line of successes that has characterized her career, which included joining the Orlando Magic NBA franchise as part of the start-up team in 1987. Her 16-year NBA career included appointments as vice president of marketing for RDV Sports and president of the Orlando Magic Youth Foundation. More recently, she served as chief operating officer for CNL Real Estate Advisors. She is recognized throughout the community as not only a savvy marketing and strategy expert, but as an approachable and generous volunteer on innumerable charitable, civic and cultural boards.
EW: Entrepreneurialism is one of the most talked about words in the business community and you are certainly in the forefront of that trend. Do you see central Florida in or on the verge of an entrepreneurial renaissance or are we simply working to create one?
CC: I would like to tell you it was totally strategic on my part, that I saw this entrepreneurial wave coming and I positioned myself to catch it, but that is not the case. My experience, from an academic standpoint, is not as extensive as many who have been immersed in entrepreneurialism for years. But I can say that in the four years I have been at Rollins, there has been tremendous progress and a coalescing around it. Also, with the economy in the situation it was in, entrepreneurialism became the buzzword.
My background is in strategy, and I am a collaborator. When I came on board, there was a view that institutions like Rollins College and UCF were competing, but I said, ‘We’re not competing.’ My undergraduate degree is from UCF and I have served on boards there, so I went to them to find how we could work together. There are similarities between what UCF and Rollins do; we both educate students, but our approach is completely different and in many ways complementary. There was very little overlap and a lot of opportunity.
EW: How does Rollins differentiate itself?
CC: We are small, personal and from an entrepreneurial standpoint we concentrate on advanced entrepreneurs — those at a more developed stage in their entrepreneurial journey, whether they are dealing with capitalization or scaling. I like to say, ‘Advanced students plus advanced entrepreneurs leads to advanced action learning;’ that’s my equation for success. We are strictly focused on educating students; UCF is able to go beyond that externally to help and influence the marketplace. We relate to the entrepreneurial community as a benefit and a resource for our students, but strategically we aren’t trying and can’t to do what UCF does.
EW: How did your previous career prepare you for your current role?
CC: Well, in my two primary positions, first with the Magic and then with CNL, both were privately-owned companies, run by families, where the founder was very entrepreneurial and very much ‘in charge.’ The culture of each company reflected the personality of its founder, which lined up with my M.O.
EW: What’s your M.O.?
CC: Some people think heretical (laughing), but primarily innovative; someone who challenges the status quo. I’ve always challenged myself and challenged others. I suppose I am naturally a strategic thinker. It’s kind of in my DNA to look at the larger picture, to see how everything fits together, how to grow and where to grow.
EW: What were the key things you observed or the common denominators you saw in (CNL’s) James Seneff and (the Orlando Magic’s) Rich DeVos?
CC: They were passionate and manically focused on what they were doing. They both had the ability to grasp quickly where opportunity existed and to be very decisive in terms of ‘go’ or ‘no go.’ They both possessed amazing mental strength and the ability to articulate their plan and to motivate others; they were big thinkers, phenomenally generous and their companies aligned with my makeup very well.
EW: Moving from that environment to Rollins, what has stood out to you?
CC: It has opened my eyes to this incredible entrepreneurial community that I didn’t know even existed. I was entrenched in the downtown corporate world and I discovered a whole different world, not only of the campus and academic community, but of start-ups and innovation groups. The character of these new entrepreneurs is so enriching and encouraging. They have a sincere desire to give back, to help others avoid the pitfalls they experienced. I’ve never seen anything like it. I haven’t had a single entrepreneur say ‘no’ to me when I have contacted them and said, ‘I have a student that is interested in X, would you be willing to meet with them and talk?’
EW: Is training women for entrepreneurial success different or is your approach different than for a man, maybe not formally, but in an informal setting?
CC: I recently participated in a TED Talk for women. We were discussing the somewhat controversial book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. Its basic premise is that for those who want to work, though I’m not passing judgment on those who don’t choose that course, but if you do, you have to lean into success and not self-select out.
EW: What is meant by not ‘self-selecting out?’
CC: Often women look ahead and say, ‘One day I want to have a family and how am I going to balance all this?’ So they opt out of opportunity because of a future that they are not in yet. Sandberg advises you to lean into your career and address those future questions when you get there.
In the talk Sandberg said, ‘I want my daughter to follow her ambitions and still be likeable.’ I spoke up and said, ‘I don’t like that word, ‘likeable.’ What man in the business world worries about being likeable?’ It may be a byproduct of strong leadership or treating people with dignity and respect, but you don’t get up in the morning with the goal of being likeable. One informs your behavior versus being an object or motivation.
EW: As you look back, what is the most important decision you made that positioned or shaped your career success?
CC:In my first professional job, a television show called PM Magazine, I was the co-host and it was very popular and successful. We were the No. 1 rated show in the market. I brought to management’s attention a disparity between my compensation and that of a male peer with much less experience. I believed in doing the ‘right thing’ and assumed the company would respond in kind. Instead, I was told, ‘There are a lot of little girls that would like to have your job, so we suggest you just go do your job.’ I made the decision to leave the industry and gave my resignation. Later, they backpedaled and tried to talk me out of it, but I wasn’t going back. I became more convicted than ever to become a leader committed to fairness and doing the right thing. I firmly subscribe to the belief that to be a good leader you must be a good person. It’s worked well for me.
EW: If you could go back and advise yourself at that moment, what would you tell yourself?
CC: I wouldn’t change a thing. The next six months after I left that job were really difficult, but it helped make me who I am today.