In 2019, Dallas Cowboy and NFL Top 100 linebacker Jaylon Smith signed a $64 million contract extension to remain with the Cowboys through the 2025 season. Just three years before, Smith was a junior at Notre Dame University in Indiana when he tore two ligaments in his left knee during the last game of the season.
Prior to his injury, Smith was a projected NFL top 5 draft pick whose dreams did not come true on day one of the 2016 NFL Draft. Teams weren't sure whether Smith would be able to play again, so he fell to Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys early in the second round. Smith sat out his rookie season before he was healthy enough to get back on the field. The athlete has openly expressed appreciation for Jones and the Cowboys, who took a chance on him coming out of college.
According to Forbes, after Smith signed his contract extension, he said, “You took a risk, a $4.5 million risk, had I never been able to play again,” speaking to team owner Jones and Cowboys CEO Stephen Jones. “So me understanding that, it was my duty for them to get the return on their investment.”
Smith's description of himself as an investment says a lot about the Notre Dame graduate’s mindset; he is an unequivocal businessman. Yes, he just so happens to be one of the best football players in the NFL, but Smith is also the founder of the Minority Entrepreneurship Institute, which hosted a Shark Tank-style venture capital competition for minority investors on July 10, at The Star in Frisco. Smith and his group of investors raised $600,000 in capital to help five out of the 10 finalists grow and expand their businesses.
On Smith’s website, he says he created the MEI to help minority entrepreneurs gain access to capital and mentorship to grow their businesses.
“I’m creating a marketplace for minorities Black and brown, providing them with the financial funding, mentorship and strategic planning,” Smith said. “My vision was wanting to be able to close the economic and education gap, so that’s why I started the MEI.”
The showcase started with investors ready to dish out $350,000 into three companies, but after the sharks heard all 10 pitches from finalists, they regrouped and decided to instead invest a total of $600,000 into five companies.
Dallas native Marcus Cooskey finished in third place and was awarded $70,000 in investment capital for his company Duke AI, artificial intelligence software designed for small business owners.
“Duke is a virtual robot that does bookkeeping and accounting,” Cooskey says of his product. “It’s a simple matter of uploading documents and Duke reads and extracts that information from the documents. It will automatically organize and generate reports for you.”
Cooskey graduated from H. Grady Spruce High School in Dallas, where he played basketball.
“I really didn’t have a pathway into college, but I always knew I wanted to be a software engineer,” Cooskey says, "but the only thing I had going for me was basketball.”
He used his skills to earn a roster spot on the team at Eastfield College, but at the start of his sophomore year, he had to choose between pursuing a D1 basketball scholarship or chasing down his first love of becoming a software engineer.
He chose tech, and it seems to have been the right decision.
“[Basketball] was my pathway to get into school and once I got there and started focusing on engineering, I wanted to focus more on that instead of basketball," Cooskey says. He transferred to the University of Texas at Arlington and got a degree in computer science and engineering.
Cooskey says his experience at the showcase was "amazing," and while he sat in front of the sharks and listened to other minority entrepreneurs make their pitch, he couldn’t believe he had made it into that room with them. “Seeing that caliber of businesses that were minority-owned was fascinating,” Cooskey says.
Amidst the global pandemic, George Floyd’s death and endless conversations on racial inequality, Smith and his team at the MEI brought some motivation and inspiration to minority entrepreneurs in Texas.
Investors Andy Baldwin and Stephanie Fischer are a husband-wife duo who say that working with Smith and his team at the MEI is about more than making money.
“My husband and I were struck by the fact that as white Americans, we have been complicit in maintaining the warped status quo in this country," Fischer says. "Highly privileged with spare time, among other things, we began to look for ways we could disrupt the system we have been benefiting from our whole lives.”
Fischer says she and her husband started educating themselves by listening to friends, peers and community leaders to understand more about the challenges minorities face in this country. Then everything started to fall into place for them.
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Fischer's husband, a die-hard Cowboys fan, came across a tweet from Smith in which he shared information about the MEI.
“We learned that Jaylon felt that his successful football career afforded him the opportunity to escape some of the inequities he faced growing up in Indiana, and that he was inspired to found MEI as a way to uplift minority entrepreneurs whose often limited resources may not produce the favorable circumstances he found when he was drafted by the NFL," she says. "In the long-term, Jaylon is passionate about taking steps to close the gaps in education and wealth that keep so many other talented, intelligent, driven minority people from realizing success in this country. We were so inspired by his mission and intrigued by the Shark Tank-style competition.”
Fischer said prior to investing in the MEI, she and Baldwin had supported the Black Lives Matter movement during recent protests, but that investing in MEI was a way that they could directly support minority entrepreneurs who are dedicated to solving problems in their communities. She also praised the MEI’s unique model of impact investing that obliges any invested funds that are returned to them be reinvested or distributed to other social ventures or nonprofits.
“Essentially, investing in the MEI is not an opportunity to profit from minority advancement,” Fischer says. “It is an opportunity to invest and continue to reinvest in the advancement of minority communities over time to bring about tangible change.”