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Inspiration Abounds at Inaugural Business Ownership Summit

By: Julie Nelson


“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Proverbs 27:17

It is no secret that COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on all businesses, especially small businesses. In light of these unprecedented times, Ascending Athletes, with the help of the NFL and NFL Player Engagement team, has worked diligently to bring professional athletes engaging virtual events.

They recently hosted the Business Ownership Summit. The purpose was to bring current and aspiring business owners together to share best practices and discuss the importance of financial literacy, the crucial aspect of branding, both business and personal, and the most vital thing entrepreneurs should focus on in a post-COVID-19 world.

“The Business Ownership Summit had been a dream of mine for years,” said Andy Schroeder, President of Ascending Athletes. “There are programs to help players transition into careers and business opportunities, but it is critical to foster growth and success. This only happens through ‘iron sharpening iron’ and resources.”

The centerpiece of the Summit was a panel led discussion that included a dynamic roster of NFL Legends and industry experts, Kevin Lockett, Ray Mickens, Chris Gronkowski, and Brian DeMarco.

Each of these former players brought their own experiences to the table. They shared their success stories and what they overcame to get to where they are today.

Kevin Lockett - Panelist

“I thought the panel was fantastic,” said Lockett. “I love having the opportunity to share some of the good and bad experiences that I’ve had business wise that hopefully can keep these athletes that will soon be former athletes maybe out of a bad situation. The good thing is that with this population, they are all  going to leave the game, the majority of them with significant disposable income and the fact that they are already thinking about how they set themselves up for life, I think is a very important feature. The more insight that myself and others can share with them to give them a better chance of being successful then hopefully the better off they will be.”

Former athlete turned entrepreneur, Lockett was selected in the second round of the 1997 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs and went on to play seven seasons with Washington, Jacksonville, and the New York Jets. The former wide receiver continues to encourage other athletes to generate opportunities to meet with successful business owners that are in their communities while their name recognition is at its highest level.

“I was encouraged to take a business professional to lunch once every other week on Tuesdays on our day off, and it just builds your network,” said Lockett. “That leads to the second important factor which is to try and find good partners – not just financial partners – but good, smart, value-added partners that can help you not only grow the business but also mentor you so that you can learn and become more aware of what’s required to have a successful business.”

He also urges aspiring business owners to be thoughtful from a financial perspective and an operational perspective so they can start to think about ways that they can minimize outside events that can have a potential negative effect on their business.

“COVID-19 is going to do a couple of things,” said Lockett. “COVID-19 is going to damage or slow down some business lines, but it is also going to present interesting opportunities in other areas as well. I would say as these young men are looking for opportunities, take into account situations like COVID that may be impactful both positively and negatively on the type of business that they’re looking to start both in the short-term and in the long-term. Understanding this information before they put money in and actually start the business is just another layer of the diligence they should perform that will help them understand how certain pandemics or catastrophic situations are possible and can greatly effect what they are doing.

I believe all businesses should build a business continuity plan to better understand how they are going to continue to operate and survive if situations like the current pandemics take place. It may be as simple as putting three or four months’ worth of operating expenses aside so that they have a nest egg for the business.”

Lockett currently serves as Partner at Fulcrum Global Capital and has years of experience in financing, managing, growing and investing in early-stage companies. He is a Kauffman Fellow, completed the Venture Capital Executive Program at Berkeley, and earned a BS in Accounting and Finance from Kansas State University.


Ray Mickens - Panelist

“I thought the panel was perfect because it was informal,” said Mickens. “It felt like more of an informal locker room type of talk. I was encouraged to see that we engaged new entrepreneurs and those entrepreneurs that are just starting out so it wouldn’t be too intimidating.”

Mickens established himself as a successful cornerback in the NFL for 11 seasons after being drafted in the third-round by the New York Jets in the 1996 NFL Draft out of Texas A&M University.


However, his second act might even be more grandiose than the first. He knew it was never too early to start thinking about life after football.


It all started with a $15,000 investment in a kiosk stand at the Philadelphia International Airport during his playing career with the New York Jets.

“That was my first investment while I was playing just after my third year,” said Mickens. “I’m in six different airports today, but that’s where I started, and I grew from there.”

He started Mickens Inc in 1999 with his first investment and changed his business from an S-Corp to an LLC with the launch of M2 Concepts in 2011.


For the past nine years, he has worked diligently to create a thriving business and he has certainly accomplished that by owning several franchises including Chick-Fil-A, Qdoba, Einstein Bagels, Caribou Coffee, and more that are located in several airports across the country.

As far as advice Mickens has for other business owners during these uncertain times, he believes that there are going to be a lot of opportunities due to businesses that were not fiscally responsible. He encourages other entrepreneurs to be careful and walk themselves through it.

“Don’t run to the opportunities,” said Mickens. “Walk to the opportunities that are going to present themselves. Everyone is looking to build from within right now, not necessarily expand, even though there are a lot of opportunities, but expand smartly and strengthen those opportunities.”


Chris Gronkowski - Panelist

“Anytime I go on a panel, it’s really the networking that’s huge,” said Gronkowski. “Any time you can be around people who have had success, I love to do it. You learn so much from them. Connections are huge. I don’t think a lot of guys realize that. I was one of those guys where I thought I could do everything on my own. I am so competitive – born and bred that way and you never want to reach out for help. That’s kind of how it was until I got to the point where I had to. Once I did, I realized it was the biggest game changer ever. That’s really what I take away from every panel that I’m on is really the networking and connections that I gain.”

Many people recognize the ‘Gronkowski’ name through the game of football. Chris Gronkowski, one of five of the Gronkowski brothers, played ball at the University of Arizona and went on to play in the NFL but has found his success off the field as an entrepreneur and founder of Ice Shaker, a company that makes stainless steel shakers that keep protein drinks cold for over 30 hours.

The former fullback was done with his playing career but still living a healthy, active lifestyle going to the gym twice a day and then going to work and back home. He wanted to be able to use one bottle, all day, every day. The goal was to not have to get home and grab a different bottle for the gym and have five different bottles in the sink at the end of the day. He wanted an all-in-one solution, and that is what he was passionate about.

“I would say to follow your passion,” said Gronkowski. “I think passion is huge for anything you want to start. There are a lot of ups and downs, especially as an entrepreneur, and if you don’t absolutely love it and have passion for what you’re doing, it’s never going to be a winner. Definitely think passion is huge and also just leading with value.”

Gronkowski took his idea and pitched it on ABC’s “Shark Tank” in October 2017 and struck a deal with two investors, Mark Cuban and Alex Rodriguez, to alleviate many of the issues he and other avid athletes experience with standard protein shakers.

After appearing the show, his road to success coupled with his zest for his product has continued to reach new heights in profitability. Gronkowski credits this progress to leading with value.

“We had a one-year update,” said Gronkowski. “They actually came back and filmed it where we went from $80,000 within our first six months to over 3 million in sales 12 months after Shark Tank.

It took me a little while to realize this, and it was all about the sale, but once we really started to focus on bringing value to people, how we can help people, is when we really actually started to sell even more and we did even better. It really is a value play. If you lead with value and bring value to people, that’s when they start talking about you. That’s when they start talking about your product. That’s when you really see the most growth.”

During these unprecedented times, he inspires others to find new ways to get creative, be agile, and find new opportunities.

“Wherever there are challenges, there are opportunities,” said Gronkowski. “Another lead with value play… bring value to partners and customers with no expectation of no return and eventually it will come back to you.”


Brian DeMarco – Moderator

Brian DeMarco attended Michigan State University and went on to be drafted in the second round of the 1995 NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars for their inaugural season.


The former offensive lineman played for five years before hanging it up due to injuries. Today, Brian is the Co-Founder and CEO of DRAFTR media.

However, for DeMarco, the journey to CEO has not been an easy one.

After retirement from “the league”, multiple surgeries and a depleted bank account, he was told his best years were behind him. Hope for a brighter future seemed to be completely stripped away.

“17 years ago, I was in a storage unit…,” said DeMarco. “How in the world did I get here? We thought we lost it all. We were homeless. Over a three-and-a-half-year period, my wife, my kids, and I moved 33 times. We lived in vacant homes, storage units, and even cars.”

The now entrepreneur truly started from the bottom and cannot stress enough the importance of trust and relationships and the value of networking.

“I never understood it when I played…,” said DeMarco. “I tell people you have to imagine this microcosm of what we lived in as NFL players… the biggest lesson I learned is how to serve others and care for these relationships.

When it comes to business, no matter what you’re doing, having trusting relationships with people is paramount to your success. It’s important for people to understand that you’re only one person removed from what you’re looking for. Whether it’s money or a ‘big’ deal, whatever it is, you’re one person away.”

DeMarco credits much of his success and turnaround to not only his faith but also literally taking himself back to school. He realized he had to put the same time and passion that he put into playing in the NFL into running a business. His advice remains the same for other aspiring athletes wanting to become entrepreneurs.

“Retired players need to understand that you are completely back at square one,” said the former offensive lineman. “You have to put that energy and enthusiasm of all of those years you trained getting into the league; you have to put that into your work.”

For over 20 years, he has spent diligently working to provide a better life for his family. He raised millions of dollars to launch a product in 2011 called Primal 7 - a simple, variable assistance training device that enables anyone to safely increase strength and mobility through functional movement.

After a successful exit of his first company, he went on to build DRAFTR Media. At DRAFTR Media, they help their clients create and re-create new businesses, scale existing businesses to reinvent all aspects of marketing operations to meet the demands of today's “new normal”.

His advice to the up-and-coming entrepreneurs is to follow the theory of beginning with the end in mind and to treat this venture just like they did when they were in the NFL. Goals were set to make to the league. The same applies to starting a business.

“So many people chase money,” said DeMarco. “If you’re chasing money, no matter what your business is; if you’re chasing money, it never works. It will fail and flounder. You have to learn to embrace and love the day-to-day grind of running your business and establishing a smart business strategy that will help you build a truly impactful brand.”


After the panel, the participants had the opportunity to take part in QuickBooks’ training and learned how to read and break down financial statements. They also got to schedule meetings with the participating business resources and franchises to analyze additional business ventures.

For those that missed out on the event, Ascending Athletes plans to host the Summit live next year and looks forward to collaborating and sharing new ideas amongst successful business owners.

“There is something powerful that happens when you get like-minded, business-oriented, entrepreneurial athletes together sharing experiences and strategies,” said Schroeder. “We intend to build on this momentum with the format of bringing everyone together in San Diego in 2021.”

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