“Wendell 8.0” - Wendell Davis
Wendell Davis has always shown tremendous persistence, whether during his six seasons with the Chicago Bears or in starting, and quickly dissolving, seven different businesses. While he readily admits his entrepreneurial career—like his tenure as a pro athlete—has contained some abrupt stops, he approaches both business and sports with equal tenacity.
After sustaining a career-ending injury in ’93 while coming off his best two seasons with the Bears (he posted a combined 115 receptions, 1,679 yards and 8 touchdowns from ‘91-’92), he started a company with a teammate marketing sports memorabilia—the type of chotchkies that populate many stadium kiosks. From there began a continual process of reinvention, including everything from motivational speaking to opening a barbershop franchise. This time Wendell seeks to change the game by applying the business principles acquired through Sunshine Enterprises. He sat down at Greenline Coffee to talk about the process.
SE: In your sixth season with the Chicago Bears, you sustained a career ending injury in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles. That moment was over 20 years ago – do you still think about it?
WD: “Not a lot. When I think about my career I think [instead] about the good times I had, what it took to get there, and people I met along the way—my teammates and our successes. I had to understand that a career can end at any point—not always when you want it to. I had to accept that. It wasn’t easy. I had to do a lot of soul searching but I ended up coming to terms with it.”
SE: Your last direct involvement in pro sports was on the coaching staff with the 49ers, prior to your former teammate Jim Harbaugh taking over as head coach in 2011. What was it like working with the 49ers? How did you feel about eventually leaving professional football in any capacity?
WD: “It was a big learning experience for me. I got into coaching late in my career. I had experience at the high school level, but it was an adjustment. Mike Singletary had approached me about coaching at the pro level. After a lot of thought and prayer, we moved our family out to San Francisco. I learned quickly the difference between coaching and playing; playing was fun but coaching is a [tough] job! I learned a lot about myself and a lot about coaching—especially in the process of getting fired.”
SE: What was that like?
WD: “It was scary, but I’d been there before. Each time I’ve been there you think, ‘what’s going to happen?’ But as I reflect back I see God [working] through it all. It was kind of our ‘desert experience’ that God ended up using to bless our family in a lot of ways.”
SE: When did you first get connected with Sunshine?
WD: “I first got involved through a good friend of mine, Leslie Frazier, who used to coach the Vikings. He had a friend on Sunshine’s board at the time. [This was when] Sunshine was operating in Cabrini-Green. I saw the work they were doing and I got excited about getting involved.”
SE: Would you consider yourself an entrepreneur?
WD: “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I first got into business with a teammate of mine, working in marketing [sports products]. After I got hurt in ’93 I played in Indianapolis for one season. I realized I couldn’t play anymore, but I had kept the business going. I did that for a few years. We also had a motivational speaking company called Transition of a Lifetime with the goal to help young athletes transition from high school to college.”
SE: You also had a barbershop at one point, right?
WD: “Yes, I had the barbershop as well. Back at LSU I was the team barber, so I had that skill-set in my back pocket. I’ve always enjoyed the barbershop experience. I had fun, but didn’t make a lot of money. My wife jokes with me that I’m ‘Wendell 7.0’ [since] I’ve reinvented myself so many times.”
SE: Sports Illustrated released an article in 2009 about former pro athletes undergoing financial hardship after retirement that stated nearly 80% of NFL players have either gone bankrupt or faced harsh financial difficulty within 2 years. Why is that?
WD: “One is because of [lack of] knowledge. When athletes reach that professional level, the majority of players are focused on their playing careers and they haven’t thought that far ahead. They think they’ll end up playing for 10-12 years, when the average is more like three years. It’s a lack of foresight. I include myself in that. I think the guys that end up doing well afterward have exposure early on to something else other than sports. But I do think it’s changing. Players are starting to get smarter.”
SE: What was your experience like going through the Community Business Academy?
WD: “I’ve been in (and out) of business [for years]. But I’ve never been to business school. A lot of what I learned was ‘on the fly’ from watching and learning from what others had done. When I [heard about] Sunshine Enterprises it seemed like a great opportunity to gain knowledge about doing business. A lot of the things the instructors discussed—it really validated things for me. I’ve been to a lot of business seminars where they talk over your head, [but] I think they explain things in such a way that those with no business background can understand it. The business simulations were also spot on. It gives you a feel for exactly what you need to do. It gets your gears turning.”
SE: What is your current business venture?
WD: “I have a couple going on (laughter). One is a software application called Great Call Coach that provides real-time analytics for coaches to help them game plan more effectively. It’s designed to help coaches make good use of data and streamline the process for them. I’m also looking at another venture to partner with the University of Chicago to provide medical supplies to the hospital. I’ve had several good meetings there and I think they’re very interested.”
SE: How are you working toward success this time through?
WD: “I’m still learning what works and what doesn’t work. I’m also continuing to learn a lot about myself. For the coaching app I know our biggest competitors and we’re developing something highly interactive and much more detailed than what’s currently out there.”
SE: What advice would you give to others about starting a business?
WD: “If you truly want to be in business, you have to be dedicated. You also have to know your strengths and weaknesses, know what you’re good at. And like we talked about in coaching, you always have to be willing to learn.”