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Just as the Dallas Cowboys provided him a chance a few years ago when others thought he wouldn’t be the same player after a serious knee injury, Jaylon Smith is doing the same for budding entrepreneurs in his hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Money and mentorship on the line
On Friday, Smith, former Indianapolis Colts linebacker Gary Brackett and two others are judging the finals of the Indiana Showcase, a project of Smith’s Minority Entrepreneurship Institute (MEI).
Five finalists, chosen from an initial field of 65 aspirants, are hoping to win a portion of $300,000 in funding and support like mentorship, strategic planning help and access to professional resources.
It’s kind of like the hit show “Shark Tank,” but Smith wants to help minorities get the funding and footing they need to make their ideas successful. And like retired tight end Martellus Bennett, Smith wants kids in marginalized communities to see and believe that they can find success outside of sports, which is why he’s invited 100 families of color from local organizations to be in the audience as groups make their pitches.
“A lot of us want to be successful, but we don’t always have the mentorship and strategic planning,” Smith told USA Today. “Part of this is to increase the assets and provide for people who can make a difference.”
‘Chemistry. Character. Competency.’
Smith was considered a surefire first-round pick coming out of Notre Dame in the fall of 2015 - that is, until he suffered a torn ACL, MCL and nerve damage in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day 2016.
The injury cost him millions, with many draft observers believing Smith would fall to at least the third round. But Dallas drafted him high in the second, at 34th overall, knowing he wouldn’t be available for his true rookie season.
Smith played all 16 games (with six starts) in 2017, and started all 16 games last year, finishing with 121 total tackles on an up-and-coming defense.
He’s proving himself on the field, and off the field Smith is doing what he can to make a difference.
He’s looking for “chemistry. Character. Competency,” as he hears the pitches.
“Management matters so much for what companies will succeed or not,” he said. “You have to have definite criteria. Once you grow, you’ll need people to assist you. You want to be able to surround yourself with the right type of people.
“You have to understand what you need, what you want and what the vision looks like.”
Hope for expansion
For this first go-round, applicants to Smith’s MEI were limited to Indiana-based applicants, but he hopes to expand the pitch events to other cities.
While it’s easy to think that his interest in entrepreneurship grew while he was rehabbing his knee injury and away from the game, Smith says that isn’t the case. A cousin of the late Eugene Parker, who was one of the most respected agents in the the NFL when he died of kidney cancer in 2016, he’s always looked beyond football.
“I’ve always recognized the risk in football,” Smith said. “There’s risk in business, too. The biggest thing is understanding your threats. I knew that one was being injured. I had always prepared for that.”
If he hadn’t been able to come back from his injury or make it in the NFL, “I’d definitely be a businessman. Doing what I’m doing now, some of the entrepreneur projects. It’s all about growth. I’ve wanted to be an entrepreneur my whole life,” Smith said.
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