Dallas Cowboys star linebacker Jaylon Smith describes himself as “an athlete with a purpose, a purpose beyond athletics.”
His priorities include making a difference in the lives of minority youths in Fort Wayne, his hometown.
That goal was a driving force behind creating the Jaylon Smith Minority Entrepreneurship Institute, which describes itself online as a vehicle for “connecting impact investors to quality and meaningful minority-owned investment opportunities.”
Smith doesn't want youths thinking professional sports and entertainment are their only paths to success, said Michael Ledo, Smith's business manager and the institute's executive chairman. So Smith is shining a spotlight on other options.
Three local minority entrepreneurs will be among five finalists pitching business ideas tonight to a judging panel that will include Smith, a Bishop Luers High School and University of Notre Dame graduate. The invitation-only event begins at 5 p.m. at the Parkview Field Suite Level Lounge.
Smith will choose the top three finishers, based on 10-minute presentations that include their business models, anticipated social impact and growth plans. He'll come to terms with each on whether they'll receive a low-interest loan or accept equity in exchange for a stake in the company, Ledo said.
Combined investment could total up to $300,000, he said.
The contest was announced in March. At the time, Smith posted the following on Twitter: “I'm proud to announce that I'll be focusing on minority entrepreneurship in an effort to help close the economic & educational gap. I'm committed to passing along the education & opportunities others have provided me by creating the Jaylon Smith MEI.”
Finalists were chosen for the inaugural Indiana event from 65 submissions. Along with the three from Fort Wayne, one competitor is from South Bend and the other is from Indianapolis.
The event follows the format of reality show “Shark Tank,” with contestants pitching business ideas to established entrepreneurs.
The three judges joining Smith in tonight's event are Jane DeHaven, principal in Summit City Chevrolet; Gary Brackett, Indianapolis Colts Super Bowl champion and Stacked Pickle CEO; and Mark Music, Ruoff Home Mortgage owner and CEO. They will ask questions and critique the finalists' business plans.
The three will also advise Smith in private as he makes the final decision.
The audience will include 100 minority families from seven participating organizations, including Smith Academy for Excellence, the Euell Wilson Center and Girls Rock. The goal, Ledo said, is to educate and inspire youth by letting them see adults who look like them launching business ventures.
Although tonight's contest was limited to Indiana-based applicants, the Minority Entrepreneurship Institute plans to host venture pitch competitions worldwide “to make impact investments in companies dedicated to revitalizing our communities.” Smith's website includes photos of him visiting South Africa.
Smith lettered in football, basketball and track at Luers. As a senior, he won the Butkus Award, which is given to the best high school linebacker in the country, and was named Indiana's Mr. Football. Smith led Bishop Luers to a 40-28 win over Indianapolis Cardinal Ritter in the 2012 championship game, making Luers the first 2A school to win four straight Indiana state titles.
While at Notre Dame, Smith won 2015's Butkus Award, given annually to college football's top linebacker.
He was chosen by the Cowboys in the 2016 NFL draft.
Smith's local ties remain strong, including hiring Ledo, founder and CEO of Rise Sports Advisors in Fort Wayne.
He conducts an annual football camp with his brother, Rod Smith, a member of the New York Giants. Jaylon Smith also received one of this year's Red Coats from the Mad Anthonys.
The award is given to business professionals and people who have made positive impacts on communities.
The Jaylon Smith Minority Entrepreneurship Institute is a program run through Clear Eye View's charitable fund and supported by the National Christian Foundation, a Georgia organization that runs a donor-advised fund, and the Sagamore Institute, an Indianapolis think tank.
Clear Eye View is the brand of Smith's eye wear collection. The phrase has special meaning to the professional athlete.
“Clear Eye View is about the focused vision of accomplishing anything life has planned for you,” according to his website. “Wearing the CEV signature eye wear collection is not a fashion statement, but a visible belief in the world you believe, where anything is possible.”
At a glance
The five competitors in tonight's Jaylon Smith Minority Entrepreneurship Institute Indiana Showcase are:
Traction Athletic Performance, a Fort Wayne athletic training business founded by DeAundre Muhammad
Hurry Home, a South Bend financial technology firm founded by Jada Mclean
Paul's Place: Support for Families Inc., a Fort Wayne temporary housing venture founded by Amy Alfaro
DB Magnificent Events, a Fort Wayne event rentals business founded by Brenton Lockett and Damien Brooks
DeliverEnd, an Indianapolis technology company founded by Nick Turner