Women's Inspired Leadership

Spirit of Innovation

Kirstie McCool standing with arms crossed

– Kirstie McCool –

Executive Director

GuideWell Innovation

For Kirstie McCool, it’s no coincidence that “innovation” has been part of her job title in the two most recent positions on her extensive resume. The concept has been part of her ever-growing expertise all along, even if the word has not.

As someone who wanted to be a marine biologist as a kid, McCool has always wanted to do something that matters to the world. But even though her career has revolved around STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — some might be surprised at her strong position on the definition of innovation.

“When you hear the word innovation, especially in the world of tech startups, it’s often correlated with cool technology and the creation of new products,” she said. “Over the last 10 years or so, my view of what innovation means has been transformed. I think of innovation these days as a mindset. It’s a mindset around how you can transform things that are way bigger than just a product or a cool technology.” -Kirstie McCool

Today McCool serves as executive director of GuideWell Innovation, where she helps identify, mentor and validate rapidly accelerating innovations and organizations that help people and communities achieve better health. GuideWell Innovation is part of GuideWell and its family of companies including health insurer Florida Blue. McCool’s career has included several notable positions: president and CEO of the International Business Innovation Association, executive director of Starter Studio/Firespring Accelerators, founding director of the UCF Venture Lab, and executive director of the Winter Park Angels.

She is based at the GuideWell Innovation Center that opened in 2016 in Orlando’s Lake Nona Medical City. Under her watch, GuideWell Innovation launched an annual well-being challenge that has focused on critical “drivers of health” including food security and, more recently, the intersection between COVID-19 and health equity in light
of race.

“These are complicated social problems, and an innovation mindset is the way we’ll begin to unravel novel approaches we can leverage to make the world a better place,” McCool said. “These sorts of things don’t get solved by one company or one person. It takes a village to solve them. Bringing in and connecting innovators who are all working on the problem is the way it’s going to get solved.”

McCool’s history with strategic thinking goes back to her childhood, when she and her brother were what she calls “definitely nerds,” spending hours playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. Willie McCool would go on to become an astronaut with NASA, tragically losing his life as the pilot aboard the space shuttle Columbia when it exploded on Feb. 1, 2003.

“Willie was my soulmate as a child,” she said. “He was four years older than me and an amazing big brother.” His death came about a month after his sister finished winding down an Orlando-based tech company she had co-founded, DigitalOwl. She became the family’s spokeswoman, fielding media inquiries while dealing with her grief.

Early in their careers, he was a test pilot and Naval Academy graduate. She was working as a computer programmer at Martin Marietta, which would later become Lockheed Martin, building complex black box systems that went into airplanes and missile systems.

“I used to joke all the time, ‘Yeah, you’re like Mr. Top Gun pilot dude, but when you hit those little buttons that fly your airplane, there’s something going on back there magically, and guess who built that stuff,’” she said. “I would tease him about how his little sister made him a hero.” – Kirstie McCool

McCool credits their intellectual curiosity to their mother, who raised the two through the challenge of a divorce before remarrying a man who would adopt them and take them around the world as he served in the military. McCool was in college in Texas when her parents moved to Orlando. Her mother took a position as a founding faculty member at what is today the University of Central Florida (UCF) Rosen School of Hospitality. McCool transferred to UCF and graduated with a computer science degree and later an MBA.

It was a job McCool secured as she was dealing with her brother’s death that would change the trajectory of her career. She was volunteering at the brand-new UCF incubator, where she also served on its inaugural board of directors.

“That’s when I got my first exposure to coaching and mentoring entrepreneurs. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so much fun,’ learning about all these amazing ideas and helping the baby companies that were in the incubator begin their growth journeys. So what started off as me just volunteering ended up being a full-time job to launch UCF’s Venture Lab. I loved mentoring a new generation of entrepreneurs and innovators, and that’s what I’ve done ever since.”

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