Beth Comstock: Insights on Innovation

Beth Comstock, a graduate of the College of William and Mary, is the current Vice Chair of General Electric.  When she was an undergraduate, Comstock was convinced that she would pursue a career in media and would never have imagined herself working at General Electric.  However, as fate would have it, Comstock transitioned from working with NBC to working with GE.  In an incredible balancing act, Comstock has somehow managed this incredible career while simultaneously raising two daughters.

Comstock self-identifies as very introverted.  She recognizes this trait within her family and thinks that there must be a genetic component.  However, Comstock recognizes that introversion is a disadvantage in the business world, and she has really struggled to overcome her natural shyness.  Using a systematic approach, Comstock has been able to become incrementally more extroverted.

Recalling a moment of acute self-awareness, Comstock says that one day, while she was working under Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, she realized that her boss probably didn’t even know her name.  She decided at that point that she would slowly but surely just put herself out there.  With the aid of a speech coach she has really been able to become more extroverted in the business scene.

Comstock then moves on to discuss the key to transforming an idea into a successful company.  According to Comstock, the key is to take an idea and then just make it happen.  Apparently, in a company like General Electric, there is no paucity of good ideas.  The problem that GE faces is that often there is  not a lot of patience for new ideas.  Comstock explains that GE has been working on an initiative to adopt some of the methodology of startups, including the concepts of a minimally viable product and a pivot.  Even if an idea is excellent, Comstock asserts that, sometimes, the world simply is not ready for a new innovation.

Later, Comstock opens up to questions.  Upon being asked for advice by a student trying to decide between working for a startup or a big company, Comstock immediately retorts that she believes that people do not follow a single path throughout their entire career.  She explains that there is no one stopping young professionals from switching between startups and more established companies.  However, Comstock is quick to warn the audience that working at a startup is not the “hollywoodization” portrayed by the media.  In reality, working for a startup is incredibly challenging.

However, according to Comstock, even in more established companies, one can still work within a startup setting.  Comstock elaborates on a specific venture, Quirky, a small startup that General Electric had invested in.  Unfortunately, this company when bankrupt over the summer.  However, despite this failure and because of this failure, the leaders of Quirky have learned a tremendous amount of invaluable knowledge.

The conversation then shifts to the women that Comstock most admires.  Comstock immediately brings up Gloria Steinem.  She is simply in awe of Steinem and her book My Life on the Road.  Comstock recalls an animated discussion during her freshman year in 1979, during which she and her friends discussed whether or not women can have it all.  Comstock recognizes that this kind of discussion was only made possible by the barrier breaking work of Steinem.

One of the young women in the audience then asks Comstock why exactly the startup she previously mentioned, Quirky, had failed.  Comstock explains that General Electric had been looking to partner with Quirky for appliances, and that the strategy was to have co-branded products.  However, unfortunately, the model of community based organization that Quirky used turned out not to be scalable, despite the startup’s incredible product development.  Comstock asserts that the lesson to be learned from this experience is the need for extreme focus, especially in a startup.  Apparently, a good startup will not have much difficulty attracting funds, but that the difficulty is to stay focused enough to prevent the burdens on the company from outpacing the company’s growth.

Comstock then elaborates on her decision to begin working for General Electric and the reasons that she has stayed for all these years.  Comstock states that she came to General Electric through her work with NBC.  She had never envisioned herself going into business and had always fancied herself working in media.  She said that the opportunity was just so unexpected and simply “weird,” but that she simply could not turn it down.

She explains that, despite the fact that she has thoroughly enjoyed much of her time at General Electric and that she adores many aspects of the culture of the firm, her experience has not been without difficulty.  First, she identifies the aspects of working at General Electric that she has loved: the culture of meritocracy and the focus on personal development.  However, she also recognizes that General Electric is very male-dominated and that there have been several times she has considered leaving, especially during the period that she was back at NBC developing Hulu.  Comstock then reflects on how curious and rare it is that she has been with the same firm for the past 25 years.  With a smile, Comstock says that she loves it when people come to her and tell her that they are thinking about leaving.  She thinks that this shows that her employees are being reflective and considering their futures, and she sees it as a chance to try to convince her employees to stay.

A student in the audience then congratulates Comstock on her recent promotion to Vice Chair of General Electric, and asks how this new appointment has changed her role in the company.  Comstock immediately retorts, "more meetings!"  But, she acknowledges that the new title has come with a huge amount of new recognition, and that this sudden increase in recognition has surprised her.  Comstock explains that the new job also involves a position on the board, and that, in this role, she has gained new, very valuable insights into the functioning of the firm.

Comstock is then delighted upon hearing her next question. It regards how she enacts new innovations and what new innovations she is excited about in the years to come.  Comstock says that one of the most important things involved in enacting innovation is to be curious.  According to Comstock, it is incredibly important to look for things that are not obvious.  She says that, in addition to this, it is important to find ways to translate innovations and new technology into something that will actually benefit the company and make it more efficient.  Comstock struggles to pick some of her favorite rising innovations to focus on.  However, she lists off 3D printing, new brain technology, and productivity innovation, as three arenas that she will be watching in the years to come.

The closing question, is about Comstock’s personal life.  A student asks her how, early on in her career, while she had a young daughter, Comstock found a way to relax.  In this area, Comstock admits defeat.  She acknowledges that she was not very good at relaxing, and that she was often times a stressed out mom.  However, Comstock says that, at the end of a long day, she was sometimes able to lose herself and dig into some good fiction.

As Comstock’s discussion came to an end, it was clear that the young women in the room found her animating and inspiring.  At the end of a long day, the students were  re-vitalized by Comstock’s recollection of her incredible career, her eye-opening insights, and her sage advice.