(The NFLPA is a proud partner of Front Office Sports)
Roughly 20% of businesses in the United States are owned by women or minorities. In today’s climate, professional athletes are finding ways to advocate for these groups as entrepreneurs and to highlight their contributions to the business world.
Earlier this year, the NFLPA hosted a Pitch Day event where nine diverse companies pitched a panel of judges for the opportunity to obtain marketing funds, mentorship, and NFLPA licensing rights. Athletes from a number of sports also discussed their off-field ventures and plans for the future, including Chiney Ogwumike of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, and Jaylon Smith of the Dallas Cowboys.
The two took part in a panel where Ogwumike detailed her experience negotiating the WNBA’s most recent collective bargaining agreement. Smith spoke of his many experiences supporting minority entrepreneurs, and in particular, his creation of the Jaylon Smith Minority Entrepreneur Institute.
Smith knew around the age of eleven that he wanted to pursue entrepreneurship after witnessing the career of the late Eugene Parker, his cousin and a former NFL agent. This gave him an appreciation for the business side of sports and a passion for continued education. With the platform of the Jaylon Smith Minority Entrepreneur Institute, Smith has been able to connect impact investors with quality, and meaningful, minority owned investment opportunities.
“I feel like we’re all in the same boat and we have to be together,” Smith said of his inspirations for these ventures. “So, to be able to close the economic and educational gap as it has been, has been a focus in mind.”
Through his institute’s work with the National Christian Foundation and the Sagamore Institute, Smith feeds his passion for providing resources and education to minority entrepreneurs and for showing investors the benefits of creating a diverse investment portfolio.
“I had a venture pitch last year in my hometown in Indiana,” Smith recalled. “There were over 60 applicants, and I was able to narrow it down to five competitors and we had three winners. We raised over $250,000, so that was wonderful for the first year… I’ve committed to over two and a half million dollars over the next decade.”
While Smith dedicates significant financial resources to supporting these entrepreneurs, dedicating his limited time can be challenging. For him and Ogwumike, it is critical to strike a strong balance between ventures on, and off, the field.
A child of Nigerian immigrants, Ogwumike also gained an appreciation for hard work early in lifShe learned the importance of sports as a platform and a vehicle for success in high school. The increased visibility of athletes in the age of social media also gave her an idea of the importance of setting a positive example. The accessibility of the WNBA only magnified this importance.
“In the WNBA, we’re very intimate,” she explained. “So, we build these really great relationships with our fans. We know that we have to fight for respect in everything that we do….Being here [after negotiating] our CBA…it’s sort of humbling because we know we are the best at what we do. We are the best 144 women basketball players in the world and we’re trying to tell them why to invest in women when it’s something we should already have done. As women and minorities, you have to work twice as hard to get justice.”
Ogwumike, who is also a full-time analyst for ESPN and active in the WNBA Players Association, helped earn a nearly 50% increase in maximum salary for the league and a myriad of other new benefits to help WNBA players advance their lives and careers off the court.
“We now have up to $60,000 for women who are playing to the ends of their careers and might need to freeze their eggs or put towards surrogacy or adoption,” Ogwumike said of the new CBA. “There are so many little things that we felt should have been standardized. Like women getting maternity leave pay, full pay. That doesn’t exist in society in every company. I think that’s why a lot of people sort of understood what we were going through.”
Jaylon, Chiney and other athletes committing their time and resources to support young entrepreneurs has proven to be especially empowering, as evidenced by the examples explained at Pitch Day. Even small contributions can make a huge difference, especially in uncertain economic times.