Interview: Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci gives advice to startups

"As an entrepreneur and a gymnast, you have to be UNWILLING TO STOP"

Nadia Comaneci was the first ever Olympic gymnast to achieve a perfect ten score – on a compulsory routine to boot. Today, Nadia Comaneci lives and works in the US, but as we reported earlier, she is also on the review board of the new Bucharest accelerator “Digital Media Catalyst”.

The Digital Catalyst Fund was  started by Cristian Burci, a leading figure in the Romanian advertising industry and the founder of national television station Prima TV. Prima was the first Romanian channel to air ‘Big Brother’, and first to launch ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire’. The fund put up 1,5 million $ for a batch of 10 Bucharest startups. We asked Nadia about her involvement in the catalyst.

Nadia Comaneci

Nadia Comaneci, startup mentor

“I frequently get asked to participate in iniatives,” she says. “In business, as well as health and education and sports initiatives. I am asked on more initiatives than I can easily do well, however. But the Digital Media Catalyst matched all my criteria: they operate on both sides of the Atlantic – in Europe, including Romania, and in the US. The team is extraordinarily visionary in its support of innovation. And I knew the team well enough to know that they’re committed to achieving results.”

Nadia herself started a small video production company specialised in sports, so she knows first hand the realities of running a business. According to an e-mail from the Catalyst Fund, her role will be to assess and coach the inner strength and tenacity of the selected founders: ”Nadia both has entrepreneurial skills and she brings an understanding of what it takes to get the best out of any individual – a CEO, COO or developer. When we vet and review investments, we take the time to understand the market and the technology. But we’ll also ask Nadia to spend some time with the entrepreneur. Will he or she do whatever it takes to get the job done? Will they push, be relentless? Are they persevering and resourceful? We thought it would take someone who has achieved excellence in a unique way to recognise these qualities in others.”

“Be unwilling to stop

Nadia Comaneci was known as a gymnast who would “train, and then train some more, and then she would train some more“: her training schedule would eventually run to 6 or 7 hours a day. Unsurprisingly, tenacity  is one of the main virtues that she preaches for entrepreneurs.

Nadia Comaneci: “I think it’s critical that an entrepreneur – just like a gymnast – builds on prior successes to achieve even further success. Perseverance is critical. I achieved whatever success I achieved because I was unwilling to stop. You can’t stop with just one big sale, or one round of fundraising, or one strategic partner.”

“You have to build on your accomplishments to achieve even more. It is probably that sense of relentlessness that is a hallmark of both the entrepreneur, the athlete, the great politician – anyone who is willing and committed to achieving transformative change.”

“To believe in yourself is not enough: you have to take action

Nadia Comaneci: “Entrepreneurs must believe in themselves, just like gymnasts. But they must also both be pragmatic. For example, it is not enough to just “believe” you can succeed, or have a vision of how you can succeed. You also have to be able to take action consistent with that vision.”

“The best gymnastics advice I ever received, was not any one piece of advice but a combination of insights. When I was a child, it was the discipline of hard work, and practice. As a young teenager, it was the courage to believe I could achieve what had not yet been done. As a young woman, it was the suggestion to keep on building, to not rest on what had been accomplished.”

“That is why I went on to encourage performance in sports, professional, and education development through the Nadia Comaneci foundation. So I suppose the “best” advice is the advice I have received at every step.”

“Be humble, and prepare to fail”

Nadia Comaneci: “I would tell first time entrepreneurs to be humble and to be prepared to fail – and then to try again. No idea, or business vision, or business plan – is perfect the first time. But if you are willing to try, and then to use what you have learned to improve – then you have the possibility to achieve great success.”

“Be a pickpocket of ideas”

“Associated with this idea of what I call the “courage to fail” is the importance of excellent listening skills. I tell young people to be a pickpocket of ideas. This means listen to everyone, keep an open mind, and then take the best of what everyone has to offer.”

“No technology is so good, no market opportunity so perfect, that anyone should think they have everything figured out so to speak. But a technology, or market opportunity, or competitive opening can be a platform for greatness – if it is used well. So listen, be prepared to not have it work the first time, adapt quickly, and then be ready to quickly improve on what you have learned – that is the advice I would give first time entrepreneurs.”

When asked whether Nadia Comaneci would invest personally in the startups, we were told by the Digital Media Catalyst that she will be allowed to participate in the fund just like all the board members, but “that she does not discuss past or present investments”.

Watch Nadia Comaneci’s “perfect 10″ routine:

You can watch Nadia Comaneci perform on the Montreal Olympics (’76) here. It’s a stunning performance. Since a perfect 10 had never been awarded in the history of the sport, the scoreboard wasn’t capable of displaying it – the scoreboard indicated “1.00″ instead of “10″, causing confusion in the audience and Nadia’s entourage at first.) Nadia is on Twitter, where she goes by the handle Nadiacomaneci10.

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Photo’s courtesy Nadia Comaneci.

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About the author

Vlad Ciurca

Vlad is a young manager and entrepreneur with over 5 years experience in retail, warehousing, business development, event organizing and product management. He is a Specification Engineer at Skobbler, working on creating map based applications for mobile devices. Vlad is the Organizer of the successful Startup Weekend Cluj event held in February 2012, and Founder of Transylvania Business Community. Prior to the above, Vlad was an Operation Supervisor at UPS and Ceva Logistics and managed a 70 person team, starting from a 4 person team. Also, he was the Co-Founder of one of the biggest online and offline communities of managers and entrepreneurs in Transylvania, Romanian Managers CLUJ, with almost 900 members. In 2011, Vlad was named a Technology and Entrepreneurship Expert in the "Young Romania Forum", a project organized by the League of Romanian Students Abroad, with the aim of getting the younger generation involved in the future of Romania. In 2012, he was a Mentor at the Imaginarium Cluj event, part of Restart Edu. You can follow Vlad on Twitter.

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