Carla Harris: I want to hear from you, our listeners. Please visit www.morganstanley.com/carlapodcast to take our latest survey and share your thoughts! We will be selecting one survey respondent to listen in on a future podcast recording, so don’t miss out!
Dhani Jones: People say all the time, in order to get more, you've got to give more. And so it's also taking a chance and understanding that sometimes your first time around, you're not going to get what you might want. So you have to be willing to bet on yourself. That's the very definition of entrepreneurship.
Carla Harris: On this episode of Access and Opportunity, we welcome Entrepreneur and Investor Dhani Jones, Chairman and Co-Founder of Qey Capital Partners. Dhani made a name for himself as a linebacker for the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and Cincinnati Bengals. He used his time in the NFL as a springboard to pursue more creative ventures in brand development and strategic consulting. Every step of the way, he makes sure to give credit to those who gave him a hand up.
At Qey Capital, he pays the favor forward by working with multicultural-owned business owners to help them scale their operations. In this episode, Dhani tells us how he applies lessons learned in the locker room to his business building strategy today, and how he uses his platform to elevate diverse voices.
Come on and join me for the ride.
Carla Harris: So, Dhani Jones, thank you so much for being here with me today. And it's a pleasure to have you on the show. So if you're ready, let's jump right in.
Dhani Jones: Let's do it.
Carla Harris: So, first of all, I want to start by congratulating you on all of your success since your football days, because not only were you successful in that world, you have ventured into everything from marketing to apparel to information tech, but with a clear focus on supporting scalable minority owned businesses. So let's take it way back for our listeners and cover how you got there, because there's somebody out there that's listening to this story. And will use your story as a playbook for how they might venture towards their success. Born on the West Coast, San Diego moved to Maryland in your teenage years. So let's talk about what shaped you in those years that led you to the University of Michigan, talk about your biggest mentors and what was your intention when you went to Michigan?
Dhani Jones: Ooh, you hit the nail on the head, intention. I think if I were to start there, most of us don't have intention. Matter of fact, most of us, I don't think understand the word or the power of intention because it's something that you wake up with. It's something that you go to sleep with and it's something that you dream about and it's something that you live throughout your entire life. And I think, you know, both my parents being in the United States military, my father was a commander, my mother, lieutenant commander. We lived overseas in Japan. I was born in San Diego. My sister was born in Okinawa. We had this instilled mentality of curiosity that was given intentionally by our parents and by virtue of them being in the military, it opened your world up to different experiences and people. And, you know, Michigan was a culmination of all of that. Both my parents, fortunately, graduated from the greatest university in the world. And I'll talk about it, you know, ever ecstatically, because I just know the power of the University of Michigan. And I would I would say that, you know, I've kind of arrived at this point because I've always taken the time to ask as many questions as possible. I always knew that with a question would come an answer that I would be able to learn and I would be able to grow from, and therefore I could set my intention on learning as much as I possibly could so that I could be a better place as I continually moved around the path that was set for me.
Carla Harris: So you go to Michigan and you say, you know, I'm going to be a Big Ten honoree or I'm going to be a scholar or, you know, how are you thinking about that when you walked in as a freshman?
Dhani Jones: I'd never really thought about football, per se. Football for me came as a secondary and maybe even a tertiary thought because the sport was more of an opportunity for me to express myself as a rambunctious kid. I had a lot of energy. Sometimes some people would say, I challenge authority. I, look, I'm a Montessori kid. So the questions came with the territory, Carla.
Carla Harris: The training, the mindset from way back, OK?
Dhani Jones: Right. A Montessori kid comes into your office. You're not leaving that office any time soon. Right. They're going to go through all the books in your office. They're going to go through and read all the papers that you have and try to find all the different ways that they can relate because that's the Montessori education.
So I went to the University of Michigan and, you know, my mother put me in the residential college, which is a smaller school, which allows people to have classes that are five to seven students and it's pass fail. And and so we're there more to learn about ourselves in our community and the experiences of life, more than we're able to focus on, you know, whether we get a 4.1 or 4.2 or, you know, sometimes nowadays people get 5.5. I don't even know where the the world of GPA exists. Right. So football became a backdrop, but football also became a partner to the world in which I live within the residential college at the University of Michigan. And it wasn't really until my junior year at Michigan. I'm in a room in our study room for the linebackers, and I remember it vividly, I was sitting on the left hand side and we have the poem from the Law of the Jungle. Right. I don't know if you know that poem, but it's an amazing one that's old and as true as the sky and the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, wolf that may that shall break it must die. Right. As a creeper that girdles the tree trunk as a law run forth and back for the strength of the pack of the wolf and the strength the wolf pack. Right. That's the poem I can remember it, it's right there on the left. I'm sitting there and he's right in front of me. We're watching the film and I see this guy dart across the field. I'm like, oh, my gosh, that guy's fast. And he's like, what are you talking about? I was like, you see that that player that crossed the field? He was like, yeah, that's you. And I said, I was like, what are you talking about? He said, you know, he's he's from Michigan. He's like, dog. That's you. I'm like, what are you talking about? That's you running across the field making that play. And it hit me because I didn't really realize the gift or the opportunity of which I was living and what I was seeing on the field. And he just said, you're a baller. I didn't even know what baller meant for all those people that are out there, baller actually means that you're good at something you're doing well, you're done good. Right. So you said you're a baller. And he said you probably might go to the NFL.
My third year in I finally realize that, you know, while I might have seen football as a backdrop and then while it might have became a partner, it became fully integrated into sort of the way that I was thinking and created this intentionality around a plan, right around building teams, around being a leader and being fast on the field and not looking at yourself as the most important, but the team as being the most fundamental piece to anything of which you wish to accomplish in life.
Carla Harris: So it was at that point that you realized it wasn't just about playing football and being good in that moment, but that it had bigger opportunity, and there was more for you to learn than just being fast and just being on the team to your point. So now you, now you're thinking now you're starting to taste, hmm, this NFL thing could happen. So it did happen, and it happened in a big way with 11 seasons, if my memory is correct. Right? So let's talk about some of the big lessons that you learned there and at what point in that journey to Dhani, did the Dhani, the entrepreneur, Dhani, the businessman start to become part of your mentality of the next thing that you were going to be intentional about? And what did you learn from the NFL experience around teams, building teams, leading teams, being a member, a contributing member of a team? Because these are all very valuable lessons and playbook lessons, I would argue, for entrepreneurs that are out there that are listening, people who are thinking about building a company because you can't do it alone, you're going to have to build a team. So let's talk about that, because from here, I'm going to go right into the Dhani, the businessman.
Dhani Jones: That is that is such a multiple leveled jigsaw puzzle piece, and years long and multiple conversation question. So I'll try to answer as as best as I possibly can. But I would say it by starting off. Every single person that plays a sport is an entrepreneur. Every single person that starts off with their parents, whether they're taking them to play it again sports or they're taking them Dick's Sporting Goods or whether they're buying something off of Amazon, they're the pre-seed investor in your potential opportunity at greatness, right? Picking up a racket, pair of skates, a stick, a ball, a net, something they're your pre-seed investors. And so I look at all people that play sports as entrepreneurs and I think one of the unfortunate thing that happens is once you leave the game, sometimes that that entrepreneurship, if it slips through your fingertips and you forget about it, when you go into the to the real world, you don't realize where you've come from. And some of the ways that you think can be a little bit disguised and different to those that are are now a part of your life.
And so. When I was first drafted by the New York Giants, you know that that was really my first step into this into this real world. And I remember vividly now I'm not going to quote another poem, but I remember walking into the locker room and I and I saw Michael Strahan in the distance. Now, look, I'm not and I haven't been one of the biggest sports fans that are out there. But I do know the people that are going to have the yellow jackets and he didn't have one then, but he has one now. OK? And so I walked into the I walked into this room and I said, you know what? I'm going make a B line towards the person that has the resume and tenure. That can be both a mentor and a sponsor to my success on the field. Now, he didn't know it at the time because I was just doing all this yip yapping in his ear and asking a bunch of questions and spending time with him, trying to trying to hang out with him next to his locker. And what would he do was kind of like the Tom and Jerry. He would just kick me out. You know, he just pushed me to the side. And unfortunately, look, my first year in the National Football League, I tore my ACL and so I was on the sideline. And nobody really wants to spend a lot of time with someone that's injured. That's the world of sports. It feels as if you kind of live in a different type of bubble because there's a mentality of invincibility that you are as an athlete. And if someone comes into that world that seems as though they've been broken, you might feel as though something might break with you as well. So, you know, people try to push you back, but that's OK. I'm going to keep coming closer to you anyways because I feel as though I'm going to bring energy to your life and help you become better, whether you know it or not. And Strahan continually kicked me to the side.
But he did say one thing. He said, “Dhani, New York is an amazing place. You have an opportunity to meet some powerful, powerful people, say ‘Please,’ and say, ‘Thank you’ and look people in the eye and shake their hand and take their card and build relationships with people.” And so, that was one of the most important moments in my football career, because then that therefore set up a chain of events where I spent time with Jay Glazer. And a lot of people know Jay Glazer is now on Fox and he was over at MSG and he was working alongside with Strahan. And then they have a sort of a storied partnership career along the way. And then when I was in the city, I met a lot of people. I spent a lot of time at Alvin Ailey. And so I met a lot of influential individuals, whether they came from the arts or they came from the finance world and they came from the business world. And I maintain those relationships. Stephen Ross, Related Group. Right? So I can kind of go down the lines of how that one instrumental moment kind of translated or transcended an opportunity for me to see what that entrepreneurial child was always looking for in the same way that Zeus brought that moment to me in the linebacker room at the University of Michigan. Strahan brought that to me in the locker room on the Giants. And so that translated from, you know, being on the Giants. And then I was there for four years. I stepped away and I went to the Eagles, got another contract. And that's kind of when I left the coop.
Right, I wouldn't say that college is you're out of the coop. I think we're still, I think you're still in the house. OK, and your first year in the league, you're kind of still in the house. You're still young. You're trying to figure out what are the walls look like to this house. But when you get your first contract now you want to build your house, right? Now you want to really double down and invest in this marketplace, which is you, of which now you have a perceived amount of control over. And it went OK. We went to the Super Bowl, so I'm happy about that. I got that on my resume. We lost. So that too was on my resume. Yeah. But I met a lot of people in Philadelphia along the way. I met a lot of people even despite the fact that we parted ways after three years I got fired. Every entrepreneur needs to know that they too can get fired.
Carla Harris: Yeah, of course. Because you have a board to deal with, you have investors to deal with.
Dhani: You have a board. Exactly.
Carla Harris: Every CEO has a boss. And it's called the board and investors. That's right.
Dhani Jones: So that entrepreneurial journey came from the Giants and went through Philadelphia. And I'd like to say that the Giants raised me, Philadelphia taught me some valuable lessons, and then I ended up in Cincinnati. And I really start to see the opportunity, or I keep talking about these opportunities that I keep seeing, because I think that there's revelations along the way. This this road of intention along the way, and there's people along the way, along the way that you have to continually ask questions along the way because it's an ever evolving journey of understanding not only you and yourself, but also the surroundings and what's on the horizon that you may or may not know, because sometimes when you're too close to it, you can't see the forest through the trees. And so you need the community of people around you to give you some perspective.
Carla Harris: And sometimes you don't have the line of sight from a position. Right? I tell people you need to have forward motion because you may be standing on, you know, spot number one and you say, I don't want to move forward because I can't see. But if you would move forward and get to spot number three, now you can see completely over the hill, which you couldn't have seen there from spot number one. So it's worth continuing to move forward because your vantage point matters a lot to your vision.
Dhani Jones: I would say when I was in New York, I had a youthful vantage point. Sometimes it's not just the position, sometimes it's the time.
Carla Harris: Agreed.
Dhani JonesL Right. And when I was in Philadelphia, I had sort of this empowered position that had yet to check my ego.
Carla Harris: Ah. OK.
Dhani Jones: And then when you get fired. All of a sudden, things come into focus really, really quick.
Carla Harris: Like humility.
Dhani Jone: Humility, there it is. The humility comes into play and just like they do at the optometrist's, you know, one or two.
Carla Harris: That's right.
Dhani Jones: Two or three. Three or one. And all of a sudden you realize that you have to adjust your focus. But also the world around you is adjusting to the way that you are living too. And I think when I got to Cincinnati, you know, my first year, you're there -- matter of fact, my first day there I didn't think I was going to get a contract. And then, you know, two or three days later, I'm playing my first game in Seattle after only learning several of the plays, but from that moment on, I think with those more mature eyes and a little bit more of that intention, if you will, of being successful and knowing that the game that is not for long is not only an opportunity, but a springboard to transition to what is next and and whether it was media or whether is business. That last bounce, right, was in Cincinnati. And that's why I love that city so much. I love my coach, Marvin Lewis, so much. And I love, you know, my defensive coordinator, Mike Zimm, because, you know, he empowered and gave me this freedom and flexibility to be who I am. And I think that as an entrepreneur, you have to understand where you fit into this jigsaw puzzle of a question that you are asking me. Where do you fit into this painted opportunity that so many people are a part of?
Carla Harris: So you now have more maturity. You now understand the power of your platform. Intentionality is key, which should be key for every entrepreneur. Talk to us about VMG Creative. For context, that was an advertising and design firm you started with Luke Raymond -- why was that the first venture?
Dhani Jones: VMG, creativity was always at the core of the things that I love to do, whether it be photography or whether it be art. Or whether it be, you know, helping my friends find a creative way to talk about who they are, the brand that they're building, maybe a product that they could be selling or an idea that might be just a germ of a thought. And so going to the University of Michigan and meeting so many Michigan alumni. A young lady named Jan Raymon had a son named Luke Raymon, who lives in New York City, and she said, you know what, Dhani, you should meet my son, Luke. I think you all would like to do some work together. He's really creative, operationally focused, you're creative, but idea-focused and maybe the two of you all can start a business together. Now, truth be told, you know, I've started businesses before, but it wasn't really until this moment that I really understood sort of the formation of a company and really what opportunities might be out there. And I knew that he had business experience and where I did as well, we were able to support each other and understand and recognize each respective talent and how we could build something strategically together.
And I think at the end of the day, when you think about business and think about from a leadership standpoint, you know a lot not a lot of people spend enough time trying to identify their partners.
Carla Harris: Yeah. Now, no question about it. Yeah. And you bring up a very interesting playbook point for our entrepreneurs. And this is a struggle, I think, for a lot of entrepreneurs. You may not be the person that can be the outside person. Maybe you are an inside person. But for somebody who is like you, who has great relationships that could certainly be the external person. It's a good partnership. And most entrepreneurs don't want to admit that there's a gap, because I'm a CEO, I don't want to say that there's a gap or, I'm a CEO. I don't want to say that I don't really enjoy being on the outside selling. I'd like to make sure that the trains run on time and make sure that the company is doing what it's supposed to do. And I think it's very valuable to kind of really own and understand what your value add is. And if you're a founder, you can find somebody and you should be finding somebody that fills your gaps. That being said, as an entrepreneur, you also have to think about sharing the spoils, right? Because 100% of zero is zero. So you can't have somebody else bring an equal value to the table and you're not sharing the pie, 100% of zero is zero. Right? So is it important to to understand that? What did you sell to P&G? How did you land that piece of business in your first six weeks of starting VMG, when, in fact you all were a first time team with a first time company, which is usually the reason large organizations say, ‘no’ to smaller emerging companies. So what was the value prop that you sold to them that made them do business with you?
Dhani Jones: It was always who and how can I just spend time? And when we first positioned ourselves towards P&G in our conversation, it wasn't a first time discussion. And I think entrepreneurs say to themselves, well, you know, I can't figure out how to close this deal. Well, you just met them the first time. You got to build relationships over time.
People build relationships with those and work with those that they know, like and trust. Trust takes time to get to know you, takes time. And so that was how the opportunity came about. It wasn't, make a phone call, which I've done before, which I have a whole way of doing that to which I love cold calling. And it's my favorite. But the conversation had to have happened before that so that when we sat down, someone that believed in you, who believed in me, believed in us could say I trust that you will do this for me. That will make us both look good because it has to create a certain level of mutual benefit. And I think entrepreneurs forget that, too. When you sit in the chair of a CEO or you sit in the chair of an executive, how are you helping me, just as much as I'm helping you? And sometimes there's a selfish way that people look at it. Always wanting to take. You know, people say all the time, you know, in order to to get more, you've got to give more. And so it's also taking a chance and understanding that sometimes your first time around, you're not going to get what you might want. So you have to be willing to bet on yourself. That's the very definition of entrepreneurship.
Carla Harris: Well, that's another good play point, because it wasn't about a specific value add argument that you guys made in a specific pitch. It was leveraging a relationship that you had already built. So when you did say, here is our idea and here's what we can do for you, they were almost listening through a different ear, the ear that was already predisposed to say this guy can literally run through walls. This guy can make it happen. He's brought a pretty smart, creative guy to the table. We can give them this piece of business on Febreze sport, and I think they'll be able to get it done.
Dhani Jones: And I hope we come back to that, because I think that's a challenge that so many first-time entrepreneurs and persons of color and and women owned companies and diversified businesses struggle with because sometimes, you know, you look at that as an obstacle that you can't get over. And I look at it as an opportunity to run through it.
Carla Harris: So now we have Dhani, the entrepreneur, the man who has built a business with a partner who is now intent on being Dhani, the investor. Let's talk about how did you decide that -- you know what? -- I want to be involved as an investor here. How did you insert yourself into the ecosystem so that you could have great entrepreneurs and great companies coming your way? Because when you're going to be an investor, the key success factor is being able to find the deals and then being able to pick the best ones. So how did Qey Capital come into play and how did that expand into also having an accelerator?
Dhani Jones: So I saw the business of VMG. And my natural inclination is to just continually ask questions. I can't stress that enough. Like, I will go to sleep asking myself questions and wake up, you know, asking more and more questions. And so I was just continually obsessed with trying to figure out, “How do we grow this business.” Right? Even though it takes time. You still trying to figure out, “How do I just gain traction? How do I put this rubber on the road and it not slip?” You know, I don't want to be a drag racer. I want to do 24 hours at Le Man, you know, I want to make sure my tires last regardless if it's hot or cold or if it's raining or if it's a bright, sunny day. I want to make sure my car hugs the road. I started looking around and at that time I was riding my bike. I didn't even have a car in the city of Cincinnati. But finally I decided to get a car and move it to an area called Mount Adams. And I started looking around. I was like, OK. And I started meeting a lot of different people. And I started learning. I started asking more and more questions and I started finding out about minority owned companies. And so that started me down a very, very unique part because, you know, I grew up in Maryland and so we were in Montgomery County, OK, PG County, there is more African-Americans in PG County than there probably were in Montgomery County, but that probably isn't the right answer is probably more wealthy because there was an influx of minority owned businesses that came from the city of Washington, D.C., because minority businesses started back in the late 70s and 80s when the government decided, you know, look, if you're going to have these contracts going to work with the government, you're going to allocate X amount of dollars towards minority owned businesses. And then everybody started their company and then moved out to to P.G. County. You know the story. But a lot of people don't know that. People don't know that story. Right, because there's a lot of ways that we think about minority businesses that are now that weren't before. But that's a whole nother conversation. That's a different conversation. Right, Carla. So I'm in Cincinnati looking around having these discussions. And I said, OK, well. If I started one business, that's great, I'm affecting change with two people, but if I can be the middle linebacker, Carla, OK, which by the way, I want to know what position you play on the football field. If you if you if you played football, which position would you play?
Carla Harris: Quarterback.
Dhani Harris: OK, I know I wasn't going to say anything less than that. I'm always going to be your linebacker. OK, Carla, I'm gonna be your linebacker because when the defense we got to get you back on the field. Right. And so my job, I believe, as middle linebacker is to look around at the team, understanding my strengths, but most importantly, understanding my weaknesses and how we can accomplish that three and out right. That three and out allows you, Carla, to get back on the field and score more points. And so I needed to figure out, “How do I get more people on the field?” Stop trying to be the quarterback, go back to your position, play the linebacker and get off the field and let somebody else come on, invest in them. And so that's when I decided to say, “OK, how can I utilize my gifts and the time that I've been able to spend as an operator to bring together those relationships that I have throughout the culmination of my career in the NFL and bring people to the front that may not have had those relationships invest in them so that they can to build businesses?” And then instead of being the only quarterback on the field, I can allow the League to be populated with more quarterbacks. So that we can all collectively win. And I think that's how you move things forward. You see one but one is not enough, in my opinion. Carla, you're not enough, and what I love about what you've done is, as you say to yourself, you know what, you know, I'm not enough. And you surround yourself with other playmakers, right? And that's the mentality that we all have to carefully carry and carefully curate, because at the beginning of any business or any opportunity, that foundation sets the framework for the future and it's got to be solid as possible. So that's how I got to Qey Capital.
Carla Harris: I got to tell you, I could not agree more. And that is the way to create the multiplier effect in your life. So, you know, Dhani Jones, the football player, the person who had the aha moment in his intentionality, then transferred to the NFL player who was extraordinarily successful, had a maturation process there, continued to meet people, hold those relationships. And so I want to as we go to a close, I want to get to another playbook point around not only starting relationships, but fertilizing those relationships and keeping them fertile enough. So when you want to harvest, when you have to use them, you can access those relationships at the end of the day.
And then that person who became even more curious about how I can be more successful as a as an entrepreneur said, aha, I can now amplify what I've been doing by helping other people to do it, because as one successful business owner, I can create some jobs, but I might be able to create some wealth if I can help other people get theirs. And then that brings us to the end that because we're right here at time and I want to make sure that our listeners get an opportunity to know you even better. I don't have as much time to go into the curious caddy, but I want to tease our listeners a little bit to read Dhani's piece online about his aspiration to be a caddy and to continue fearless curiosity, as he calls it, throughout his life. And I would strongly, strongly recommend that you kind of keep, you know, fearless and curious caddy at the forefront of your brain because it will absolutely propel you. You know, I think of myself as a pretty assertive, aggressive, kind of, kind of gal. And I will tell you that I found it very inspirational, Dani. And it's something that I think about all the time in terms of the curious caddy, because a caddy means you have to be humble enough. So, you know, I give you credit for learning that and how humility is actually very powerful and every entrepreneur ought to think about that, why you need to have some confidence. Humility is powerful. And I'm curious. So I'm going to pepper you with questions. I will leave it there on the fearless, curious caddy. Read it. And we're going to go to the Lightning Round. We have a tradition on Access & Opportunity where we ask you some questions and we want to get your immediate response so that our listeners get a chance to know a little bit more about Dhani Jones. Are you ready?
Carla Harris: Are you ready?
Dhani Jones: Yes.
Carla Harris: Twitter or Instagram?
Dhani Jones: Instagram.
Carla Harris: Book or film?
Dhani Jones: Book.
Carla Harris: City or countryside?
Dhani Jones: Countryside.
Carla Harris: Winter or summer?
Dhani Jones: Winter.
Carla Harris: Coffee or tea?
Dhani Jones: Come on, coffee.
Carla Harris: Me too. Me too, brother. As you can see. In your office or working from home?
Dhani Jones: You know what? After this past year, I really enjoy working from home.
Carla Harris: OK, personal mantra?
Dhani Jones: Carpe diem.
Carla Harris: One word to describe your legacy?
Dhani Jones: Curious.
Carla Harris: Dhani Jones, thank you very much.
Dhani Jones: Thank you, Miss Carla Harris.
Carla Harris: Thank you all for joining us on this episode of Access & Opportunity. That’s all for this season highlighting influencers in the sports, media and entertainment fields who've committed to reframing the narrative for women and people of color. What did you learn today from Dhani Jones? And what were some takeaways from the season as a whole? Send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org . We would love to hear from you. Subscribe to Access & Opportunity on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Thanks for coming along!