On a basketball court there is not a situation that can arise that Fred VanVleet has not already seen or instinctively knows how to handle.
But four years ago VanVleet stepped well outside his comfort zone and opened a business for the first time. The FVV Shop is located in his hometown of Rockford, Ill., where VanVleet grew up and carries his own clothing line designed around his ‘Bet on Yourself’ motto.
The business has grown tremendously since and VanVleet, who heads into his sixth year in the NBA with the Toronto Raptors in October, is no longer the business neophyte he once was but he remembers all the stumbling blocks along the way.
It’s those stumbling blocks that VanVleet would like to help like-minded entrepreneurs looking to make the jump into the business world avoid.
Teaming up with American Express Canada has allowed him to do just that.
On Tuesday, American Express Canada launched their new initiative ‘Blueprint: Backing BIPOC Businesses. It is a mentorship and grant program designed to support the advancement of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) business owners across Canada.
BIPOC business owners are invited to review program eligibility and apply for one of 100 positions in the program by visiting dmz.to/AmexBlueprint. Applications close July 27.
The one hundred successful applicants will be enrolled in a 15-week program overseen by DMZ, a world-leading business incubator providing the kind of business mentorship VanVleet only could have wished to have when he opened up his shop. They will also each receive a $10,000 grant to help take their businesses to the next level.
“I would say I had Kyle (Lowry) and DeMar (DeRozan) and everybody like that who I could speak to about a bunch of different business dealings but I don’t think any of them had a clothing line at the time so I was just trying to freestyle it as I go,” VanVleet said.
Lowry and DeRozan were VanVleet’s vets at the time with the Raptors and while helpful with the experience in the business world that a younger VanVleet would not have had, they were not necessarily ideal mentors for what he was going through.
“I learned a lot, made a lot of mistakes, but that aspect of having mentorship and having someone to lean on and share ideas with and bounce ideas off of, that could go a long way,” VanVleet said.
But as tough as starting out might have been for VanVleet, he knows it has to be that much tougher for another BIPOC entrepreneur who doesn’t have the advantages VanVleet had starting up.
“The idea was easy,” VanVleet said of his earliest business memories. “It was ‘OK, I’m an NBA player. I’ve got this brand of clothes and I’ve got fans and how do we make that work?’
“That was the easy part,” he said. “The hard part was like mostly, you want to find a store? OK, then you got to find a real estate agent. Do you want to rent or do you want to buy? So we ran into a bunch of hurdles and a lot of them I was able to get around because I knew people and people knew who I was. I could call the mayor of Rockford and tell him I need a permit for this, this and this and it gets done the same day. But everyone can’t do that.
“So I know how hard it was for me and I’m very privileged and lucky and blessed to be in this position so I was able to move around (and make it work). But I think about the regular person who doesn’t have the access to all that.”
This AMEX initiative falls in line almost perfectly with what VanVleet wants to do away from the basketball court.
VanVleet was a strong advocate of all the social justice and playing field-levelling initiatives the NBA took on when they returned to play in Orlando following a pandemic-necessitated shutdown. Inside the league-created Bubble in Orlando those initiatives flourished but with the league back operating throughout the US again this past season, the same traction didn’t seem to be there.
For VanVleet this type of real help for BIPOC business owners was a perfect continuation of the kind of work the NBA was doing inside the Bubble.
“This is a layup,” VanVleet said. “I think this is kind of what we are speaking to — actionable items that can actually be followed through and something you can see as tangible. Anyone can put out a statement or anyone can write a nice post on Instagram or Twitter and make it pretty or do a cool video, but this is something that actually means something. They are putting up $1 million which is not a small amount of money and it’s going directly towards people who wouldn’t have had this access or these resources so it’s a pretty cool initiative that they are doing and I’m just happy to be on board.”
Before launching into this initiative, AMEX conducted a survey of both BIPOC and white business owners to determine what type of barriers BIPOC business owners faced in today’s economic environment.
Among the findings were more than half (53%) of BIPOC respondents described the barriers they’re currently facing as “significant” compared to 37% of white business owners. As well, 66% of BIPOC business owners say they have difficulty accessing capital and financing for their business.
VanVleet is now challenging other AMEX-like sized corporations to follow suit with similar initiatives that will level the business playing field for all future BIPOC entrepreneurs.
“We need the mainstream large corporations to step up and not put out a statement or something cute that says we are going to do this, this and this or we are going to do inclusion training or something like that,” VanVleet said. “We need to see what they actually mean and so far, from my experience, AMEX is doing that.”