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Leading A Team Of Underdogs With Nicole Jeter West

Nicole Jeter West Picture
Leading A Team Of Underdogs With Nicole Jeter West

Over the past five years, there has been a focus on increasing funding for businesses owned by women and BIPOC individuals. However, despite progress being made to close the funding gap, women-owned businesses in the US still only receive 7% of venture funds. Nevertheless, more companies and venture funds are being created to support underrepresented communities. In this episode, Lance interviews Nicole Jeter West, CEO of Underdog Venture Team, a next generation agency that provides an integrated mix of brand building services while investing in and partnering with ahead-of-the-trend startups within the sports industry. Underdog Venture Team aims to increase diversity in the sports industry and invests in businesses owned by BIPOC or women at a rate of 66%. They are a team of passionate underdogs, who build brands and create value, with a social impact model at the core of all they do.



Leading A Team Of Underdogs With Nicole Jeter West


I’m excited about this episode. I have the distinct pleasure of interviewing Nicole Jeter West. She is the CEO of Underdog. She calls it the anti-agency, but it is an agency that builds brands. I’m excited to hear about that. I can remember the last time I was with her. We were coming out of the city with Mike Ondrejko, President of Legends. We were in his car and we were dropping Nicole off at the train. When Mike discovered SiriusXM Fly, we were listening to that station and talking about it. Nicole goes, “I might remember that.” That was the last time we were together pre-pandemic. Nicole and I have talked about a lot of things from leadership to how to sell and how to manage over time. Nicole, welcome to the show.


Thanks, Lance. I’m so excited to be here and happy to see you face-to-face. It has been too long.


Nicole, tell the audience what Underdog is. I love the name of it. It invokes a lot of things.


Full credit to one of our Cofounders, Dan Mannix, for the name. I too love the name. I’m a proud underdog. I get to be CEO of all the underdogs, which is fun. We say we are the anti-agency and that we consider ourselves brand builders. We build brands in two different ways. First, we build brands in the services we provide, which will feel very agency-like, marketing, partnerships, strategy, experiential, and focusing on how we can help grow and build brands in a way that is a bit unique and different. The other aspect of how we build brands is through our venture studio. Our venture studio is how we invest in early-stage startups. We make micro-investments. We are not doling out the big bucks, but we are making significant investments in those early-stage companies.


We play in spaces we know and love, like entertainment, health, wellness, and anything sport culture. We are working to make sure we are not just helping invest in those companies that everyone else is looking at, but we made a commitment that 66% of the portfolio will be focused on investing in women-owned businesses as well as people of color-owned businesses. That is because we know the venture dollars aren’t going there as much as they should be. Between the services and the venture side, that is how we help build brands.


I have three questions off that. I know what a CEO does, but I don’t know what the CEO of Underdog does. I would assume, from what you said, you wear a couple of different hats. The agency is how old at this point?


We are a little shy of a year in 2023. We are babies.


In your role as a CEO, you talk about making investments, and that is seeing around the corner. That is what a CEO does. At the same time, you are trying to grow the firm organically. What hat are you wearing more? What part are you spending more time on?


Being a CEO is about hiring great people. Yes, I wear lots of hats, but I have an amazing group of teammates who have come on board. They took a leap to go and leave what might be a corporate role, or you might say, “It is more stable,” I don’t know anything more stable in this environment, and come to a startup. A lot of those folks are veterans in the industry.


“Being a CEO is about hiring great people.”


Although I’m wearing multiple hats and I’m focusing on how we can grow both parts of the business, I’ve got amazing people like Alysse Soll. She heads up our advisory group. She is laser-focused on looking at and understanding founders in the space, working with accelerators, participating in judging panels of startup pitches, and making sure that she is in the know of where and who we should be working with. She develops the core relationships at the startup founder level. She is the person who I’m talking to and saying, “What is happening in our portfolio? How do we feel about these groups? Where do we want to put more of our efforts in if it is a particular category?” She has got her pulse on all of that.


I’m in it to the extent that I’m working with her, understanding, and I get to be part of some cool demos. She pulls me into the accelerators. I love this side of the business, but on the other side of it, there is a lot that we, as veterans in the industry, can help bring to those founders. Something that has been a lot of fun too is being able to work with these founders and startups and say, “Marketing, partnerships, PR, understanding where and how you bring your product to the market.”


The market for them, a lot of times, is sports properties, teams, and leagues. We’ve got a wealth of knowledge across the team, from Megan Allison Hughes, who was at Genesco for several years, to Sara Toussaint, who headed up sponsorships with Wells Fargo and MLS. We’ve got some folks who are well-versed in a lot of areas of the business. We bring all of that to bear on the service side and help some of these founders out.


 You are looking at that portfolio where you are looking what the same with each of these organization’s portfolios and say, “Where do we need to put the resources and assets and help in making sure it is predictable and scalable so they can move and build their brand?” It sounds like you’re inside and assembling the right talent, which is the place to start because where our biggest connection is and how we met is that team of rivals and experts coming together.


It sounds like you are not in hypergrowth, but you are moving. I saw you speak at a sports business journal conference on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and I was like, “I haven’t seen Nicole for a while. It sounds like there are a lot of things going on.” I believe you guys sponsored that event or were involved at some level.


Let’s go backward because your career has been about connecting with the right people. When I was doing some homework, the first thing I could find is you were involved a lot in sports early. You go where first? What was that first role? How did you land there? How did you figure that out? Everybody would be interested in that because the journey goes from basketball to landing at the Olympics. Underdog is like that little superhero dog. That is the other thing I was thinking about which is the whole theory in my mind. Start there for us.


I started right out of college. I didn’t know I wanted to be in sports or even that there was a business of sports. That wasn’t something that I focused on. I went to school at the University of Delaware.


I bounced at the Stone Balloon for a summer.


What year?


It was ‘93 and ‘94. My buddy lived at Paper Mill Apartments. Look at us dropping. How about that?


This has gone to the next level, Lance. There has got to be a whole separate blooper reel in which we talk about the Stone Balloon.


Nobody knows that the University of Delaware has the only female mascot in all of the NCAA.


Drop the gems, Lance. Let them know. I had no idea because it is not often you get another person, especially if they are not a Blue Hen, to be excited about Delaware.


I love Delaware.


It is Joe Biden.


I used to live near Christiana Mall as a kid. The first football game I ever went to is a Blue Hen football game. We are having a whole different conversation. We are having drinks over that.


Was Tubby there at that time?


Tubby Raymond was there. I even know who that is.


That was my test. I wanted to make sure.


I know exactly who you were talking about.


I went to school there. I focused on marketing. Coming out of school, I wanted to work for an advertising agency. My dream was to go to New York, get in with one of the big ad firms, and be the person who creates the Dove commercial. That was what I wanted to do. I was like, “That is going to be it.” I have been in marketing since high school. I was in DECA programs. That was my thing. I came to New York and started interviewing with all the agencies, like the Jack Mortons, Rapp Collins, and all those guys at the time.


I was in the city in my one interview suit, a blue suit, skirt, and top with the pinstripe buttoned down and my leather padfolio. I was there meeting with interviews and had all of these great agencies. My good friend, Matt Pazaras, who is over at the Milwaukee Bucks now with Peter Feigin, he was at the Knicks. He had started his work at the Knicks in partnerships early stage. He was like, “Let’s grab lunch. Come meet me over at The Garden.” I was like, “Great.” I’ve been a huge Knicks fan my entire life, like my dad. We grew up watching fourth-quarter heart attacks and the whole deal.


I went up there. I’m waiting in the reception area. I can vividly remember all of it. I was sitting there on the fourteenth floor. This wonderful woman named Gyvonne was the receptionist. She is the sweetest woman in the world. She was like, “Baby, sit here. You will be fine. He will come out.” I was like, “Okay.” I’m waiting and sitting there looking like I’m waiting for an interview. A gentleman walks by and he was like, “Are you here to interview? Are you waiting for someone?” I was like, “No, I’m waiting for a friend. I’m here to have lunch.” He was like, “You look like you are here for an interview.” I’m like, “Yes, I came from interviews, but I’m just here waiting for my good friend.”


He goes, “Do you have another interview in you?” I’m like, “Am I being punked?” It was before MTV Punk’d. I don’t even understand what’s happening. I was like, “I guess.” He was like, “Great, come on.” He takes me back. I’m walking the halls of MSG and I’m like, “What the heck?” He walks me back to a corner office and proceeds to interview me.


I had my padfolio and resume. We start talking. I don’t even know what I’m interviewing for. Afterward, he was like, “We will be in touch.” I’m like, “I don’t even know what you are going to be in touch about.” My good friend, Matt Pazaras, came and he was like, “I have been looking for you. Somebody told me you were back here.” I was like, “Yes. This guy decided to interview me.” He was the VP of marketing for the New York Knicks. That was my interview.


A few weeks later, I got a call saying they wanted to hire me for a marketing trainee position. A marketing trainee at that time at MSG was a glorified intern, but it was an internship for a year. You weren’t promised a job afterward. You were on a crappy hourly salary. They were like, “You probably won’t get hired. We don’t hire people full-time because there are no front offices like this small.” Nobody realizes that they are that small.


I also got in two offers from other ad agencies, full-time offers, salary benefits, the whole nine. I’m starting at the bottom, but still a full-time offer. My parents were like, “What are you going to do?” I was like, “I’m going to work for the New York Knicks. I could work for any agency. I’m going to live at home with you all because I can’t afford to do anything else. I’m going to ride the bus from Leonia to New York every day and live the dream.”


I asked anybody that has been a marketing exec or an ad exec, if you had to choose one thing, is it your creative ideas that are great, or is it your pitch that is not good? I’m going to assume both are good.


I enjoy storytelling. For me, that happens on both sides of it. The creative aspect of coming up with what that idea could be and envisioning that. I love getting in the room with other people and feeding off of them to figure out what is that. The pitch to me is I get to reveal and tell you the story. I love doing that. Put me in a room and let me tell the story. What I didn’t realize, and it didn’t fully hit me until I got to the USTA, thanks to Lewis Sherr, that is actually selling.


If you author the story, you earn the right to tell the story and sell the story. I have an interview after this. Her name is Coach Dar. She is a performance coach for athletes. We talk a lot about adrenaline in different business situations, those endorphins, and things that go off. What causes a rise to it? I could imagine a young Nicole interviewing. You probably sold yourself well. You get in there and engage people. It is not like your body language has changed. You are engaging me to talk. I wonder what does it for you?


The more that I’m talking it out with you, it’s probably the pitch.


I distinctly remember breakfast at Ohio State when you were with the Legends. We all sat there. There was a pitch that day. It was at the hotel there. I think I said, “Can I come? I won’t say anything. I want to watch.” You guys were talking about the pitch. I was like, “I want to be involved with this at some level.” I was having breakfast with you guys.


It was you, Ondrejko, Estis, and Chad. We all call each other by last names. I was trying to make sure people knew.


It was a big pitch to Ohio State.


It was also one which we dreamed up. We were like, “Let’s go birth the baby and see if we can get somebody to buy.” Thank God for Kim Smith.


The crisscross of marketing, advertising, and sales ends up being the pitch because the idea gets birthed, as you said, and you’ve got to pitch the whole thing. I was always curious about what it does for you. You do a first run at the Knicks. From what I can see, that is a 2 or 3-year run. You leave there and you boomerang back at some level. Talk about that space.


I called them tours of duty. I did that for five years on my first go. I was fresh out of school in 1999. There were still Knicks that you knew on the court, Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, and Sprewell. It was marketing for fun at that time. I learned a lot about branding and marketing and creative. We didn’t have a sales team in-house or out-of-house. We had no tickets to sell. We were still in the sellout streak. There was a mile-long wait list. For several years, people have been waiting on this list.


I had a lot of fun learning about engaging with fans, what subscriptions were like, and how you retain people. It wasn’t anything like when the second tour happened. That was the first tour. I left for life reasons. I was young and got married while I was at the Knicks. We decided we wanted to start a family and tried a couple of times while I was at The Garden. I had a few miscarriages. It was a hard go. At that time, working at The Garden, you didn’t just work for any one team. You worked on everything. I was burning myself out early. I was trying to climb the ladder and do all the things. I was a go-getter. It would be hard to tell me like, “Slow down. Stop.” I had to make a decision, “I need to shift out of the environment.”


I went down the street. I feel like I’m the kid who was like, “I’m running away.” I went a block away to an agency called The Mixx. It was one of the agents we had worked with. A woman by the name of Robyn Streisand was the founder. She was like, “Come work here. It will be amazing.” It was a group of a majority of women, which I had not been in an atmosphere like that, a badass founder who was like, “We are going to go take over the world.” Everything was non-sports for the most part. I got to work with Nickelodeon, NYU, and Prudential Insurance. I got to watch a founder manage and run a business. I was like, “This is interesting.” I became pregnant within weeks or months.


What is interesting about what you say is when you talk about a woman’s journey through business, and my whole executive team is women.


You are smart.


That is why my company is good. I’m dead serious. I’m not a woman but I observed that you got to play a long game. It is a patient thing, but you had to be like, “I got to take this fifth gear, which I’m used to running. I might need to go on third gear and extend it out a little bit.” You almost got to go a four corners offense and play the clock a little bit. I’m not saying everybody wants to raise a family, but if you want to raise a family as you did, you get to be like, “I got to spread it out and think.” I almost have to play way more chess.


I had to be strategic. It is anything. If you want to raise the family or you want to have more personal time, it is about, “How do I work smarter, not harder now? How am I strategically thinking about the next move and where I am?” I realized once I had left MSG and sports, there were other ways to be in the sports world and not have to work 24/7, 365. That is what I learned. I was like, “I have seen now what that looks like for an entrepreneur to run her own small agency, grow that, and still get to work with amazing brands. I want to take a year where I get to be with my son at home. I get to mix the world up because I love sports, and I miss that.” I started my own consulting business and I did that for two years.


That was your own thing. I didn’t realize that so this was your first tour of that.


The Mixx was a small entrepreneurial startup so I got to watch somebody else do that. I was like, “I want to have my baby, be home and manage, but still be in the space and still work in sports.” I had my marketing consulting business. I did that for two years. I worked with athletes and their foundations. I worked with brands like Nike and Boost Mobile.


I had a lot of fun. I connected with two other women in the sports industry who were doing the same thing, Ayala Donchin and Erica Stanley. We came together. We created all of these amazing NBA All-Star events. It may be bringing you back, but Magic Johnson and Alonzo Mourning had these big billiard events that they would do as fundraisers, and we got to put those on and develop those. We did the same with Carmelo Anthony and the others. We had a good time.


I was doing that for two years and I probably would’ve kept doing it. I got a call from Steve Mills, a mentor, a friend, and somebody I admire in the business. He reached out to me. It was back in ‘06. He was like, “We miss you at the Knicks. We are looking for that creativity and that storytelling. It is a whole different team and group. We got to sell tickets. It is a different environment. Would you come back?” I was like, “I don’t know. I’m a mom. I got my own business. I’m picking and choosing projects.” He is like, “Come in and talk to the guy I have in charge right now in the marketing group.” I said, “Okay.”


Hunter Lochmann, who is now at Monumental Sports, was at the Knicks. He was heading up the marketing. I went in and had an interviewing and a conversation with him. I knew Hunter from back in his team, NBA days. He is a salt-of-the-earth person. He is one of the nicest people, genuine, and a lot of fun to be around. I was like, “I would come work with this guy.” Steve calling me meant a lot, but being Hunter who was there was different. He was a family guy. It was a different atmosphere that he created. He was like, “I know what I know. There is some stuff you do that I don’t do. I’m cool with letting you run and do that stuff. We can be partners in this.” He approached it that way, and I love it.


This is the second phase because it sounds like the first phase was in with The Mixx. You got your own consultancy and that is foundational. Is that the next phase of your career because it is a long stint this next time?


It is close to the same. I have been shy for several years, the second run.


You started getting management there.


At that point, I was in the director of marketing role. Digital was big at that point. I’m figuring out the website and email marketing. We also had tickets to sell. We built the first in-house sales team for The Garden with Bobby Gallo, who is over at the NFL, Bill Goldstein, Brian Lafemina, and Janet Duke. We built out the first sales team for the Knicks and the Rangers, which never had been done before.


Those things were completely new and challenging. It forced me to grow outside of marketing and make things look nice in packages and design. I got exposed to sales for the first time in a big way. From the marketing angle of it going, “We are focused on quality assurance, but I’m also listening and learning on how they are pitching, selling, writing scripts, helping them write scripts and thinking through that.” I did not realize it at that time, but I was going through a Sales 101 of my own. The marketing side of selling the story is getting to the sales piece.


I have enjoyed that tremendously. Life happened again, and I was like, “I’m going to make another pivot.” There are lots of detours. It is how somebody explained to me one time about my career. I was like, “I never saw it that way. I saw there was life happening” I was like, “I have to strategically make a different decision.” Some people are like, “You made a lot of changes to go in and out of the sport.” I was like, “I never thought about me going in and out of the sport. It was where I needed to go or what I felt I needed to do for life.”


I would look at it right now as more opportunistic. As you said, “I’m going to be in sports. I like sports. I had a chain of events happen where I got interviewed, and I’m in sports. I had better job offers as I took this because it seemed bigger.” I guess back to that Knicks piece because it is important to your role right now.


When you look at Underdog, at some level, if you are involved with the investment side of building somebody’s brand, you are getting involved with a lot of these founders. Some of them have great ideas, but they don’t necessarily have practical management leadership experience. You are helping there based on your own leadership philosophy at the Knicks. You start forming it. What was it? It is different pitching an idea. You still got to sell your idea as a leader, but what do you start forming around your leadership philosophy there?


Being at The Garden, I got to see lots of leadership because there are a lot of changes across coaches, presidents, the team, how things got structured, and from one team or a group to another. I got to be exposed to a lot of different leadership styles. It is all hindsight. You don’t see it as much at the moment, but pulling the things that were working and being like that, “That is good.” Scott O’Neill was standing up there motivating a team. How he does it, how he gets them energized, and the energy he brings into a room, yes. Watching somebody more quiet and patient like Scott Layden and how he would approach things.

“Learning leadership is all hindsight. You don’t see it as much at the moment.”


Taking in from different people and saying, “I like the way that works.” I don’t know if I would do it that way, or seeing how people respond. When you have somebody like Brian Lafemina who has a team of people around him, and you are like, “These people love him. Why do they love him? What is he doing? What is it I’m watching in his day-to-day causing people to react that way and want to run through a brick wall?”


He builds a deliberate culture. It is a deliberate move. I don’t think he was in front of that curve.


The ability to not micromanage, hire smart people, and let them be smart and do smart things and not feel like you got to dim somebody’s light for you to be able to also shine and grow. That is my style.


Dim somebody’s light to make your light brighter. It is well said.


If I can make your light brighter, my light becomes brighter.


“If I can make your light brighter, my light becomes brighter.”


That is the mission of Underdog.


It is our mentality. We are scrappy and leave it all on the floor. I want to fly under the radar. I love that people don’t know we are working with Major League Soccer and Televisa Univision. Some of the clients we have are Athletes Unlimited and Netflix. We are doing things with clients that people are not yet aware of. That is okay because we were like, “We will operate over here. We are going to grow quietly and do our thing.”


It is not the engine as much as it is the nitrous oxide behind the engine. You leave the Knicks at the start of 2010. The world falls apart a little bit. I didn’t think about it this way because that is when it started to fall apart. That is when Scotty and Mike make all those improvements at MSG. All of a sudden, you are a tennis star.


I always shout out Evelyn’s Kitchen because if you are in New York and New Jersey area, it is one of the best. If you are nationally, you need to buy all their sweets because they are still out there, and they are amazing. During my time at the USTA, I started in marketing. I went back to focusing on marketing, specifically around all of their series and The Open. It was anything pro side. One thing I learned was USTA is a nonprofit. Nonprofit and sport are different. I came in running at MSG space. They were like, “She is a lot. Slow down.”


They play a little bit more defense than the offense with their brand.


What I learned in being a steward of the brand was the brand is powerful. It has built so much equity that you can play a little bit more of like, “We got this. We are the US Open. The magnitude, the spectacular nature of what it is, and the level of partnerships. The deals get done for the US Open over the course of what is now a 3-week or 4-week window because they continue to expand. That window command is what some seasons or a team would dream to command. It was done in a 2 to 3-week window. That in and of itself is a little bit jarring when you go in, and you are like, “You are getting this for two weeks that we are running the tournament. That is amazing.”


I focused on marketing for the first couple of years. The big pivotal moment for me was when Lew Sherr, who was running partnerships and commercial revenue for the US Open, said, “I want to create a digital partnerships team. I’m looking for somebody to lead it.” I was like, “Let me think of some people. I will send him over.” He was like, “No, you are not getting it. I want you to lead it.” I was like, “I know digital from a marketing perspective. I get that side of it. You are talking about somebody going to go out in one sell. I’m not a salesperson. I’m a marketer.”


I was like, “You are talking about somebody who knows tech inside and out. You want this person to be arm-in-arm with IBM and understand how to develop apps. This is not me, but I will help you find somebody.” We went back and forth for a while. Lew can be persistent. He continued to tell me like, “You should do this. You need to do this.” I was like, “I don’t want to be a salesperson.”


Sale is a bad four-letter word.


It was at that time. I was like, “I’m a marketer. I’m not a salesperson. I don’t want to be beholden to a number I have to deliver. I spend the money.” After me saying no a couple of times and I gave full credit to my husband, who said, “What are you afraid of?” If you know me, I’m like, “Who are you talking to? I’m not afraid.” He is like, “Do it,” so I did. I built a team of amazing people. Brian Ryerson and Tara were amazing groups of people. We created the first digital partnerships team.


It was hard. There were marketing partnerships already in place. Diane Faugno who runs that is amazing. We were like, “We are going to come in, upsell partners, and bring in new partners.” I approached sales like a marketer. I was like, “We are not going to sell. We are going to talk to CMOs and brand people, and we are going to listen.”


I remember writing out our approach. I was like, “We are going to go in, listen, understand their objectives, pay attention to what those are, and learn about who they are and what they are doing inside and out. We are going to come back and deliver against those objectives.


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