Drew Brees has been the toast of New Orleans ever since the native of Austin, Texas, came to helm the Saints in 2006. The four-time Pro Bowl quarterback kept his team on track in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when many feared the city would lose its NFL franchise and the homeless team played one perpetual road game after another. To top that, Brees led the Saints on a multiyear campaign that culminated in a 2010 Super Bowl ring and a reminder that even the worst crisis couldn't keep down the spirit of the Crescent City.
But Brees wants to be more than just a symbol of the city--he's hoping his support of entrepreneurship can help New Orleans achieve an economic renaissance.
For one thing, he's jumping in as an entrepreneur himself: Brees recently inked a deal to develop the Jimmy John's sandwich franchise in the Big Easy, and his ByU Gear clothing is sold throughout the Gulf, with a portion of the proceeds going to charity. And in the last seven years, he's helped the Brees Dream Foundation raise more than $5.5 million to fund charitable causes in his football hometowns of West Lafayette, Ind., (where he played for Purdue University), San Diego (where he started his NFL career with the Chargers) and, of course, New Orleans.
Most recently, Brees teamed with The Idea Village, a New Orleans nonprofit that fosters entrepreneurship in the city, to bring a Trust Your Crazy Ideas business plan competition to New Orleans high schools.
"Our inspiration with Drew started in the fifth week of the 2008-2009 season," says Tim Williamson, co-founder and CEO of Idea Village. "The Saints were down with one second to go, at the 1-yard line. The coach wanted a field goal, but Drew talked to him and said we should go for it. In our mind, it epitomized an entrepreneur--the years of preparation and trust and passion, and the moment the coach looked at Drew and said, 'I trust you.'"
The entrepreneurial community is trusting Brees, too, relying on his support and example to help jump-start a new class of Louisiana businesses. We caught up with Brees in May while he was scouting for Jimmy John's locations.
What stimulated your interest in entrepreneurship?
I've always felt that I'm pretty business-minded, and, certainly, I think my time in the NFL has exposed me to pretty interesting ideas. It's spurred that creative entrepreneurial mind-set on even more. I'm preparing for life after football and thinking about what I like to do and what I want to be involved in.
Has living in New Orleans influenced your entrepreneurial interests?
New Orleans after Katrina was a land of opportunity. The rebuilding efforts in New Orleans really started with creating the [economic] foundation again; there are so many opportunities to help the city grow again and reestablish itself. We've watched industry grow in areas where it hadn't been prevalent, and that creates jobs and opportunities for people. All those are great things and great opportunities for young entrepreneurial minds.
Do you feel as if you're contributing to the city?
As much as we've been able to do here with the Brees Dream Foundation --like rebuilding schools, parks and playgrounds--it's also great to establish businesses in town that are going to create jobs and provide opportunities for others and allow people to fulfill their dreams. We just retained the franchise rights for Jimmy John's here in New Orleans, and we'll be opening up our first store here very soon, and, hopefully, there will be many more of those to come. We're constantly finding ways to do things like that to build up the infrastructure and the industry and the job market and the other things in New Orleans that are so important to sustaining a really high quality of life here.
How did you get involved with Jimmy John's?
It all starts with just really loving the product. I was exposed to Jimmy John's during my freshman year at Purdue. I ate there all the time and had it delivered to my dorm room all the time. I just loved the sandwiches. But then the entrepreneurial juices started flowing, and I started thinking about the type of organizations I'd like to be involved with, the direction I wanted to go and what I'd like to create. Honestly, I missed Jimmy John's so much from my time in the Midwest, and I thought that it was a great fit for what we were doing in New Orleans. The culinary arts is a big thing down here; there are the great restaurants and the great chefs; and so much of the culture is surrounded by food and dining. It's kind of neat to be part of that somewhat by owning my Jimmy John's franchises.
What's ByU Gear?
It started three years ago when we were looking for creative ways to raise money for the Brees foundation. We had to be creative because most people in New Orleans were trying to rebuild their own homes and lives and didn't have a lot of extra money. At first, my wife and marketing manager and I would come up with ideas for T-shirts to sell, but now we're looking for designers from Idea Village to be involved. The clothes are in stores in the Greater New Orleans area. And now we offer the ByU Gear service to other businesses. If they need 1,000 shirts, they can contract with us. We structure the proceeds so a portion is going to the Brees Dream Foundation. We came out with a line of shirts designed by the team during the playoffs, and we made $275,000 in three weeks. That's an example of what we can do.
Is there an entrepreneurial culture among NFL players?
Yeah, absolutely. The one thing you're blessed with if you're lucky to play long enough in the NFL is that you should have made some pretty good money, and, hopefully, you've taken care of that the right way. Obviously most guys in the NFL are Type A personalities--that's how we got here in the first place. You need to have the drive and work ethic to get to this level, and a lot of that carries over to what we do off the field. You see lots of guys get involved in businesses. I think we're all used to being successful--we're used to being able to go out and accomplish a goal or task or whatever it might be. But you need to make sure you're getting involved in something that you're truly interested in, that you truly care about, that you're going to be able to put the time and effort into to see it through and watch it succeed. That's what I feel we do with the Brees foundation here in New Orleans and nationwide, because that's going to be one of my passions when I'm done playing.
How did you get involved with Trust Your Crazy Ideas?
We've been in talks with The Idea Village now for over a year, and we feel like they're an organization doing great things for New Orleans--attracting young entrepreneurs, giving them the resources they need to help their crazy ideas come to fruition and become solid business plans and models that not only help themselves but help New Orleans grow. Our thought was, how can we reach out to the younger generation and not just the kid getting out of college--to the high schoolers? So many of them are highly intelligent and have great ideas, and when you can give them an opportunity and the resources to really put something together and gain confidence and learn about the entrepreneurial mind-set, it's a positive thing. We're starting off with four schools. We go into each and create this brainstorm room for them where they can meet and create a business model for an entrepreneurial "crazy idea," as we call it, to raise money for a cause or project within their school. In December, we're going to have an event where all the schools and teams present their business models to us and then we're going to award the winner. The Brees Dream Foundation will match funds raised by the winning team.
How does learning about entrepreneurship help disadvantaged kids?
In a lot of ways, entrepreneurship is just creativity. Nothing is too crazy of an idea if you have the vision and desire and work ethic to put it together. You need the perseverance to get told it's crazy and get knocked down and continue to believe in what you're trying to put together. If you ask the most highly successful entrepreneurs, there are plenty of times people told them their ideas wouldn't come to fruition, and look at them now. I think everybody starts at that point. That entrepreneurial mind-set teaches so many great lessons.
Anything you've learned on the field that applies to the business world?
When you start a season, every year is a new year regardless if you have veteran players. Circumstances change, things change. It's a new year every year. You know your competition is getting better and better and tougher and tougher, and you have to evolve and get better as well. At the beginning of each year, you work to put that team together, you work to figure out the dynamics, you work out how you're going to piece it together and put everybody in the best position to succeed, just like you do with a business. Everybody has a specific role in order to make the business go. You know there are going to be bumps along the way. There's going to be adversity, but you know it's going to make you stronger, going to make you better. You have to fight through it, move forward, get knocked down, get back up. There are so many lessons that you learn in football that you can carry over to the business world.
Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.