Tom Zelibor wants to triple the size of the Space Foundation during the next five years.
In addition to hosting the city's largest convention, the Colorado Springs-based nonprofit plans to add a more extensive menu of educational programs and other events for its government and business members, Zelibor said.
The retired Navy rear admiral served in a variety of space-related posts during his nearly 30-year military career, including director of global operations for U.S. Strategic Command, Navy deputy chief information officer, director of the Navy's Space Information Warfare, Command and Control Division and commander of Naval Space Command. He graduated from the Naval Academy with a degree in oceanography and was a pilot before moving into space and information technology. He also was dean of the College of Operation and Strategic Leadership at the Naval War College.
Zelibor also was the director of the eSpace Incubator at the Center for Space Entrepreneurship in Boulder and CEO of Boulder data company Flatirons Solutions. He still serves as executive chairman of Lightwave Logic Inc., a Longmont-based publicly traded company that produces materials for use in optical devices in the telecommunications and data communications industries.
The nonprofit has 58 employees with an annual budget of about $10 million and operates the Space Discovery Center at its headquarters off Garden of the Gods Road. The group describes the center as "an interactive, education-focused destination that advances science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics in the exciting context of space exploration, development and utilization." Zelibor took over as the foundation's CEO nearly a year ago and was interviewed last week as the group prepared for its annual symposium, which attracts nearly 14,000 participants.
What attracted you to take this job?
I was the CEO of a publicly traded company based in Colorado, and I got a call in October 2016 from a recruiter on behalf of the foundation who said they were looking for a new CEO. Because I am a big advocate of space and educating people about space, I threw my name in the hat. I started educating myself about the organization and found it an opportunity to take a great organization and make it better. There has never been a better time to be in the space industry - it is exciting, innovative and government interest on what is going on in space is very high.
What changes have you made since you became CEO?
This is my third CEO job, and I also used the same strategy while I was in the military. I like to watch for a few weeks and spend a lot of time talking to people at every level of the organization. My first job was to have a strategic plan. The organization had tried for a while (to develop one), but it was too long and bulky to make sense. I saw an opportunity to develop a plan and take the lead with education. We took this on as a team and got board approval. If the organization is not marching in the same direction, it makes us less efficient. I found out that there were a lot of little issues nagging at people. An organization that is focused on little stuff will not get to the big stuff. Whatever bothered people, we addressed. We came up with five pages of stuff that was easily solvable. Once that was out of the way, we had less in the way of solving our strategic issues. A good example was the processes in the organization - small nonprofits tend to have issues with things as simple as time sheets or policies. The foundation had never reinvested in technology, so everything was done manually. We invested in an enterprise resource planning system because people said they didn't have time to do what they needed to do. People now have more time to focus on the right things. Our next phase will be taking a look at the type of organization that has more impact and better outcomes. We will have an offsite meeting after the symposium to move to that next phase.
What changes are coming for the foundation?
I think our business model is off. I'm very focused on business because the only difference between us and a for-profit business is that we don't pay taxes. We have to have a clear vision on how to generate and utilize revenue. When I got here, all I heard about was the symposium - and for a good reason. But I am worried that most of our revenue comes from one event. We are restructuring to have two parts. I want us to be three times the size we are now so we can have triple the impact. One part of the organization is the program or delivery side, and the other is the revenue- generating side. The program side includes products and services, members, space education, our next generation programs and overhead. Right now, we have an imbalance. I have talked to people outside the organization for six months, and they didn't realize we were a nonprofit or did anything else but the symposium. That shows that our outreach and communication are lacking. We don't want to be seen as just an event-planning group, but also a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) organization.
How do you fix this problem?
We already have earned income from sponsorships, memberships and our educational programs, but we lack in philanthropic support and don't have a sales and marketing force to support that. Philanthropic support includes grants, endowments and unrestricted funds. We recently received a big endowment that is very education- oriented. We are going to tell people what we do and why we do it. There should be a 50-50 (percent) split between philanthropy and earned income. If you are heavily reliant on government support or a specific section of the space business, it puts you at risk. There isn't anything more important than inspiring the next generation of workers in the space industry. I'm already seeing that we are focusing more on national and international education programs. We do education with a space spin to about 30,000 schoolchildren a year. We did a 10-day program in Tulsa, Okla., earlier this year for 15,000 kids. We have to show we can scale our programs and find ways for people to get involved with us. We want to have more revenue coming in to apply to our programs to have more impact. I have asked our senior leadership what the ultimate organization should look like to do that.
What will the Space Symposium look like in five years?
The symposium is way bigger than it has every been before - significantly bigger. There is an opportunity to do something different. We are loyal to Colorado Springs and The Broadmoor; they provide a great venue, and the local economy is improving. But we have to figure out if there are things in the symposium that can be split out. We are reaching our theoretical limits and had to shut down registrations for some parts of the program because we don't want to get to a point where the quality goes down. We have dozens of companies in the exhibit hall, and there is a waiting list, even with an expanded pavilion. The technical track has really taken off, and I believe the young, innovative companies and entrepreneurs could be split out and get them with investors or potential acquirers. We are looking at things like that for the symposium. People who attend the symposium say they get more work done there than they do the rest of the year. If you look at our numbers, we have approached 14,000 participants and expect to exceed that this year. We are up by double-digit percentages in many of the tracks, and that just shows the value people place on coming to this event. The symposium was started by visionaries who wanted to connect the military space people with industry. We could use twice the exhibit space, but I expect the symposium and the foundation to stay in Colorado Springs.
What is your vision for the Space Foundation?
When I arrived, it bothered me that both internally and externally, people didn't know why we exist. They gave an answer, but it wasn't clear or succinct. A lot of people didn't know we did education; we weren't clear in our purpose or mission. You have to live it and tie it to people's goals and objectives. The reason the Space Foundation exists is we believe in dealing with space today for a better tomorrow. We have to show how to do that, how space touches lives every day and that we are viable and valuable to everybody. When I asked about our programs, I only got what and not why. We have to eliminate things that don't make sense. Two examples are the Space and Technology Investment Forum we held in San Francisco, which wasn't profitable and was a lot of work for little return so we stopped it for now, and the Space Heroes Hall of Fame, which was a lot of work and not very helpful so we replaced it with a reception at the governor's mansion.
Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Contact Wayne Heilman: 636-0234