Raptors’ VanVleet looks to skip the 'mumbo jumbo' with mentorship initiative for Canadian BIPOC business owners

Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet wants to help even the landscape for BIPOC business owners by encouraging them to apply to American Express Canada's latest mentorship program, which includes $1 million in funding across 100 participants. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

As a “multi-million dollar athlete” with an NBA championship to his name, Fred VanVleet recognizes the struggle he still faces as a Black business owner.

It started off as a “long list of challenges,” from access to resources and information, to getting ahold of capital, says the Toronto Raptors point guard and owner of the clothing line FVV Shop.

“It's a very gatekeeper-esque type of industry where there’s certain glass ceilings that you run into,” VanVleet said in an interview with Yahoo Canada. “I’m still struggling in certain aspects as a business owner. So I can only imagine what the everyday [BIPOC] business owner is going through.”

For VanVleet, he credits the veteran players he’s worked with — particularly DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry — for expediting that process by acting as mentors since he started his clothing line in 2017. They’ve helped “skip all the mumbo jumbo and get to the guts of it,” teaching him how to go about his business, such as by asking the right questions to be taken seriously and ultimately make progress.

“Especially when it comes to BIPOC business ownership, we deal with a lot of fluff,” says VanVleet. “A lot of pats on the back, nice words, and then nothing really happens.”

The Raptors point guard is now looking to help other Black, Indigenous and People of Colour [BIPOC] business owners gain that same valuable experience, by encouraging them to apply to an American Express Canada (AmEx) initiative.

Powered by the DMZ at Ryerson University in Toronto, the “Blueprint: Backing BIPOC Businesses” program will be providing 100 BIPOC business owners across Canada with access to tools and resources, while bringing them into a community as part of a mentorship program. Participants will also receive a $10,000 grant. Applications will stay open until July 27.

“My story and what I stand for goes hand-in-hand with this program … This is close to my heart,” says VanVleet.

“We always hear the great key messaging, statements that businesses put out, supporting a lot of causes, but we never really see the actual effort.”

For VanVleet, this is an opportunity to help even the playing field for BIPOC business owners, as AmEx puts its “money where their mouth is” with a million dollars in funding. But instead of just a blank cheque, VanVleet is excited by the program’s focus on empowering business owners by pairing them with mentors, to help them avoid similar mistakes and obstacles.

Along with being the face of the program, VanVleet wants to hold people accountable by having the right conversations behind the scenes to call “things out and for what they are.”

“I wouldn't be a part of this program if I didn't believe in it,” says VanVleet. “I think by having me on board, it stamps it a little bit more for people who are familiar with me. Because I know this isn’t about me; it’s an important opportunity for these business owners.”

It all starts with the tone he sets as a leader. VanVleet’s motto of “Bet on Yourself” has become an anthem league-wide, after he came into the NBA in 2016 as an undrafted six-foot point guard. Now, there are all-time greats such as Kevin Durant who have sung his praises as a role model, to go along with the $85-million contract he secured with the Raptors last summer.

As advice, VanVleet says that “if you can afford it, just don’t give up.” But he notes that that’s a privilege that’s a reality more often for white business owners, who are less likely to look at their start-up as their livelihood, compared to their BIPOC counterparts.

A recent survey by AmEx reports 66 percent of BIPOC business owners face difficulty accessing capital and financing, compared to 45 percent of white business owners. Similar discrepancies are reported for areas such as accessing mentors to guide decision making, along with finding networking opportunities. BIPOC business owners were also more severely impacted by COVID-19, with a higher rate questioning if they’ll be able to maintain their enterprise if circumstances don’t improve.

“Especially when it comes to BIPOC business ownership, we deal with a lot of fluff. A lot of pats on the back, nice words, and then nothing really happens.”Fred VanVleet

VanVleet says that Toronto is the most diverse place he’s ever been to, and is a city he misses dearly after not having been back since March 2020. He stresses that we need to maintain a mindset of inclusion, making sure that “we’re looking out for everybody” as we fight any biases we have.

The initiative comes during a distressing time in history. Last year, we were woken by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a reality that has replicated itself multiple times since. Over the past month in Canada, a Muslim family of four was killed in what police and leaders call an act of terror. Shortly before, the remains of 215 Indigenous children were found at a burial site at a former residential school, with more bodies expected to surface in the weeks ahead.

The biases we have may be conscious or subconscious, says VanVleet, but they certainly play out in the daily lives of people of colour, limiting them in their endeavours.

“We need to make changes,” says VanVleet. “This business can give people a chance at certain things that they may not have had otherwise.”

The program consists of small group sessions, workshops, and one-on-one meetings with experienced program mentors focusing on the areas of sales, marketing, operations, and leadership. Along with access to online learning platforms, the 15-week mentorship program is run and supported by leaders and mentors that identify as members of the BIPOC community. It’s structured to allow participants to maintain their business on a full-time basis.

The AmEx initiative isn’t selling the premise of 1-on-1 mentorship moments with VanVleet, but that’s not unfathomable should the occasion arise, he says. At the moment, VanVleet “doesn’t even answer the phone for my mom,” as he tries to regain his footing after a gruelling NBA season.

Along with the mentorship and resources component of the program, VanVleet isn’t writing off how significant the check can be for matters such as payroll and inventory, especially amid the pandemic.

“I wish I could sign up my business, $10,000 is a lot of money,” says VanVleet, noting that he tries to operate the FVV Shop without ties to his NBA money.

VanVleet says there are many other businesses he’s attached to that don’t have his name on them. Running a business isn’t uncommon for a Raptor, with players and coaches all seemingly having their own clothing line, as they capitalize on "the best fans in the world.”

Among those businesses, it’s fair to wonder if VanVleet has a favourite?

“Nah, mine’s the best,” the point guard says with a grin. “I'm not giving my competition any credit.”

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