Shawn Springs: You know, in sports we say you got to be coachable. As an entrepreneur, you always got to be able to understand that the higher you are or the more leadership or whatever your title is, you always got to be getting better. You always got to be looking to add value.
Carla Harris: On this episode of Access and Opportunity, we welcome Entrepreneur Shawn Springs, Founder and CEO of Windpact. You might know Shawn from his 13 year NFL career as a pro bowl cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. But ever since he was a young sports star, he’s had the entrepreneurial bug.
Now, his company, Windpact, focuses on something near and dear to him; impact protection in various industries, including sports, military and automotive industries. Since founding Windpact in 2011, Shawn has leveraged the lessons and connections from his time in the NFL to evolve his business. I had the pleasure of working with him last year, when he took part in Morgan Stanley’s Multicultural Innovation Lab in our 2020 cohort.
In this episode, Shawn tells us how events in his own life inspired him to create technology that can change the lives of others, how he leveraged the relationships and lessons from his NFL career, and how his vision for Windpact has changed as the company has grown.
Come on and join me for the ride.
Carla Harris: Shawn, thank you so much for being here with me today. Now, many of our listeners know you from your 13 season career with the NFL, but I want to start with your company, Windpact, which was founded in 2011. So tell our listeners, what inspired you to start Windpact?
Shawn Springs: Yeah, well, I was retiring from playing in the NFL for 13 years, and I just felt compelled because around 2010, 2011, Congress had called a lot of these helmet manufacturers on the Hill because so many soldiers and football players, and all these athletes were coming back with traumatic brain injury and PTSD. And I actually had a teammate that I played with, Junior Seau, who I had one year to play with in Bostonm who committed suicide, so it was close and personal for me. And I just wanted to do something different. I didn't want to be part of the group that was complaining. “How can I help solve the problem?” was my initial thought when I started Windpact.
Carla Harris: How did you start though? That's quite a journey to say I want to do something. This is my buddy. To convince yourself that you can do something. Now how did you go after it?
Shawn Springs: I had developed a relationship when I was in New England with an executive from Dorel Safety 1st. He came to a game and he gave me some baby car seats and he gave me a lot of stuff at the time, when my wife was pregnant, and one day I was looking at this new car seat, and I saw the initial technology in the baby car seats from Safety 1st. And I was just like -- this is amazing, if you can protect a baby's head in a car accident, could this technology be repurposed for something like football? -- and then when I was thinking about it, I was just like, maybe the innovation has to come outside of the sport.
Carla Harris: Wow. OK, so let's go beyond that, because you had some experience in starting a company before you actually got to Windpact. So talk to our listeners about Springs for Life Foundation.
Shawn Springs: One of the most fortunate things that happened to me was being drafted to Seattle, because there was a guy who was purchasing the team and his name was Paul Allen. And most people know Mr. Allen because he founded Microsoft with Bill Gates. And when I got drafted to Seattle, I was like, well, it's kinda cool, the team might be in Los Angeles, but Mr. Allen was putting up $300 million of his own dollars to keep the team in town. So I was like, all right, this is cool. And one of the things that changed my life about entrepreneurship and really backing it up is I was a draft pick and we would drive around to little small towns and in Redmond, Washington, and Issaquah, Washington and say, "Hey, we got this new, exciting leadership. I'm putting in my own money. We need to pass this bill in May for an additional $200 million dollars of funding for this new stadium downtown. And I'll develop Seattle.” And I just remember, it's like, wow, this guy's amazing. And I asked Mr. Allen, "Did you know you would be a billionaire, sir?” -- and he says, "Shawn, it was not about becoming a billionaire, it was about how could I and Bill, how could we do something disruptive to change the world on the Internet?” It wasn't about money. And Carla it opened my eyes because I was just like that's truly it. It's truly innovation disruption in technology. And I start to look around and I'm standing in my apartment in Bellevue, Washington, and I had one buddy, I said "Man, I know how I can afford to live here. How can you live here?" And he said, “I work for a company that's selling books online.” And I was like, well, I don't know how smart that is. People buying books online? [laughs] Amazon, right? Then I had another friend who said, “Well, I work for the same company you work for. Mr. Allen owns Microsoft, so I work at Microsoft and we create a millionaire every 12 days. So at 21, 22 years old, I started to see, and Seattle was a whole, the silicone force was a whole different animal. It was just companies after companies, and that entrepreneurial spirit was way beyond what I had seen in athletics and it just kind of, right place at the right time. Being 21, 22 years old and seeing my buddy, like, “Dude you just made like, what you just sold a company? And it was just amazing. It was happening. And this is 1997, and you had the crash and stuff, but the companies they were just coming out of Microsoft -- seemed like every week a new company was showing up. And that was my first introduction to entrepreneurship. I loved it.
Carla Harris: Alright. So that started Springs for Life Foundation. And what sparked that idea?
Shawn Springs: In life, I believe everyone is put on earth to provide a service to others. So for me, you know, being a professional athlete, how could I inspire the next generation of people and start a foundation that's giving back to underprivileged youth, you know, to make sure that they have a chance? And I said, “How can I use my influence and who I am to really make a difference and change, to bring awareness to like, there’s people in our own country, in this city, who are unfortunate, who are starving, who need help?”
Carla Harris: So that's probably where you first started to understand the power of your platform and the power of your voice and using the other parts of Shawn Springs. What did you learn about starting the foundation, about running the foundation, about interacting with the foundation, that impacted how you got Windpact started?
Shawn Springs: Yeah, well, the biggest thing for me is, you know, any time you're dealing with a foundation or a nonprofit, you want to make sure that everything is set up and organized in a way. So the biggest thing for me is making sure I had the right professionals, the right team around me. I was fortunate enough that I was doing so much community service with the Seahawks. There was a lady named Kaarta Maron there, and I just grabbed her away from the Seahawks and she kind of helped me with my foundation. And what we did was not only use my celebrity to raise money, but I was also a Nike athlete for 13 years. So what I wanted to do was say, “Hey, you know, Nike, I will be a spokesperson, get all the free stuff, but I need to support inner city kids. I need Nike to support me with the equipment, their shoes or cleats.” So what I learned is one, that the structures' everything and make sure things that were set up to be efficient, and two, leverage your network.
Carla Harris: Yes. So that's another playbook point that I would like our listeners to hear, is around the power of relationships, leveraging the relationships and frankly, the power of the ask. You don't ask, you don't get. So let's talk about that journey. When you decided to get Windpact started and that journey of getting people to listen to you and frankly, to divorce their athlete or whatever perceptions they had about an athlete versus a business man that they could invest in.
Shawn Springs: So, one of the things I think is important to know for me when I started Windpact in the early days is I spent the first three years doing my own business intelligence, independent studies, working on it, looking at who was building products and how they were building products. Talking to all the sporting goods companies and how they built products, who owns them, what's their influencers? And then, I wanted to know how some of the most innovative companies in the world are developing products. When you think of a good product, automobile, that’s when you think about innovation. They are the best one, because safety is a premium and two, because they are always looking for innovation and they're the foundation of our country when it comes to engineers and innovation. So I spent the first couple of years meeting with Harley Davidson, GM, Adient, going to all the sports guys before I even went out to any really outside investors. Maybe one or two friends, but I put the first half million dollars of my own money in it. Since then, we have raised dollars from high net worth individuals and institutional investors. And I mean, quite honestly, it was a challenge. It's been a challenge in the sense that, I've been able to raise a little bit over 6 million bucks. But it's been like one of those things over the years. I always had the milestone, I always had to prove it. I never got the lump sum up front. And the reason it was a challenge to me, because when you come from sports, here's a common theme in sports to win. If I work hard, if I discipline myself, if I detail my work and I surround myself with a good team and network, you win in sports, usually, right? You know, you win in sports. It's a case in business, but not always a case in business. And that was frustrating to me. And quite honestly, I learned more about just understanding the storytelling and the message you need to be able to portray to investors in the last probably six, seven months. Being at Morgan Stanley was one of the best things that came out of just being a part of the cohort.
Carla Harris: Let's unpack that a little bit for our listeners, because I think there's some playbook points and some parallels that we can draw. You said in sports, in order to win, if you work hard, if you discipline yourself, if you surround yourself with the great team, then you win. But let's talk about: if you work hard. And I think that's where the disconnect is. Because in sports, if you work hard, that means conditioning your body. But the definition of working hard as an entrepreneur? Define that, now that you know that game.
Shawn Springs: You know, when you think about business is still talking about building that muscle, and you're still going through the journey where you're playing youth football to high school, to college and ultimately pro. Same thing with business, you start off as a start up and there're milestones that you meet. You get to the point where you're building up enough muscle and that's working out your strategy, right? Then you say, well, let me fill in a few blanks here. I need a lead engineer. I need a director here. I need this type of person. But all that comes as you, you got to meet these steps. And when I think about my journey in business, I was fortunate because I always joked, I have, personally, probably more attorneys and accountants than my company did. So they gave me good sound advice on, here’s some of the things you need to do to build a brand. And I had an opportunity to go meet some of the best advisors and leadership people that I surrounded myself, but no one is telling you like, “Hey, you know, you still have to roll up your sleeves a little bit, and some of the decisions that you're going to make, we can't make for you. We can share our experiences, but you need to be able to make those decisions on your own.” And there's a lot of lessons that, same in football. I can tell you guys, “Hey, here's some of the things: I can tell you need to be disciplined in your work. I can tell you need to be good in school. I can tell you all that, but I can't make you go talk to your teacher, to make sure to make sure that you're getting that grade,” you know, nobody's going to tell you that some of the mistakes that you're going to make, you're the only one who can do it. So over the last year, or seven really years, I've built a muscle up, and there’s a lot of lessons learned.
Carla Harris: And Shawn, can you talk a little bit how important it is to make sure that you surround yourself with the right team at the right time, if for no other reason, but to show some credibility, if you will, to investors as you talk to them. Because they want to know that you understand where your gaps are and where the holes are, right? They don't expect the CEO necessarily to know everything, but they expect you to be self-aware enough to know where your gaps are and to have been smart enough to grab somebody that has the expertise. Can you talk about how that played as you talk to investors?
Shawn Springs: You know, in sports we say you got to be coachable. It's extremely important to be coachable, to know that I don't have all the answers. But if I go get this person, they can fill in my gap. Because I don't have the finance experience, you know, but I know that is important, because when you're talking to investors, they want to know that somebody has the financial chops that can not only speak the language but that can actually build a model to execute on and you do what you say you're going to do from a financial point of view. So as an entrepreneur, I think probably one of my best qualities, and it probably is coming from sports, is I'm always looking to learn. You always got to be able to understand that the higher you are or the more leadership or whatever your title is, you always got to be coached. You always got to be getting better. You always got to be looking to add value. What am I doing? What am I doing personally, and what do I need to do for the business to add value and to be the best version of myself? And surround yourself with those type of people who are doing it. Raise your hands. Say, “Hey, I want to go talk to the guys that you know,” -- sometimes it's a major company like GM and sometimes it's another startup in California that, you know, that’s a rocket ship.
Carla Harris [00:23:53] I hear that. So I realize we've been talking about Windpact, as if everybody knows who and what Windpact is. So let's define it. Let's talk about your first customer set and how you use that to go into your next customer vertical.
Shawn Springs: Yeah, yeah. So for those out there, we started off almost as an ingredient technology saying we had this Crash Cloud solution. But we like to say we're a technology material science company that focuses on integration, analysis of impact padding solutions. Wilson came to us probably about two years ago at the time, and umpires were being hit in the face with 110 mile per hour pitch off the bat. And a couple of these well known umpires in the league were threatened to retire because they were afraid of concussions. And when they came to us and they needed help and we said, “OK, we can help you guys. Let's look at what the problem is.” And we worked together with their engineering team, with my engineering team to come up with a solution, a padding solution that was able to withstand the impact of 110 miles per hour pitch into the catcher's mask and catcher's helmet and reduce those forces. And what’s so unique about our padding solution or the technology that we’re talking about is that it absorbs energy and it disperses energy away from the head or the body part that's being impacted. We took six months to develop the product with those guys and it was on the market. Now it's the hottest product in baseball. And the good thing about what we do, Carla, when we solve in that space, solve in that vertical, we solve for the catcher's mask for EvoShield and Wilson, but guess what? Under Armour came right to us. So not only can we go deep in the technology of different products within a client, but we can go wide in that space and say, you know, because we already saw this. So we don't have to really go through the exercise of re-engineering again, right? So you know, it's more, now it's copy and paste, right?
Carla Harris: That's right.
Shawn Springs: Copy and paste into, you make minor tweaks to their solution. So we were able to do that and over 2020, even while we're in discord, I think we picked up like 12 new clients.
Carla Harris: That's outstanding. Congratulations. Let's talk about the military when they came calling.
Shawn Springs: Yes, and the military is our biggest one, the military product, we worked two years with the Department of Defense. Eighteen companies came to the Department of Defense trying to solve for their new impact standard. And after the first year, only one company was accepted to continue to go on. And that was Windpact. We just found out we're in line to be the new standard for the padding solution for that helmet. We just got one more box to check off with the military. Unfortunately, some of the soldiers can't come on base to try the sizes on. But once we check off one more box, it's going to be off and running with the military. And that's near and dear to me. It's amazing when you start a company -- and we’re all about, you know, making money. Everybody dreams of going IPO or having a big company. But when you can provide a service through some of the things that we're working on in NASCAR to the defense, or you know, just protecting your loved one and your daughter. So we’re providing a service while building a great company.
Carla Harris: So talk to us a little bit about how your vision expanded, because I think one of the issues for entrepreneurs very early on...there's two issues, Shawn, that I want you to speak to. Number one, one of the things as an investor in early stage businesses, one of the things that I search for when I'm assessing a CEO is: will this entrepreneur be able to resist style drift? Meaning you came in to do this one thing, but now, because you can, you do all these different things and you walk away from your core competency. So that's one thing I want you to speak to. The second thing I want you to speak to is: when your vision expanded for Windpact, your ‘Aha!’ moment came around protecting football players with the impact that they get day in and day out. But at some point your vision expanded to, “Oh, we could actually be in other sports besides football,” and “Oh, we could actually now be in cars because they protect consumers from crash impact.” “Oh, the military, they take hits all the time.” So talk to our listeners about how your vision expanded and how you acted on that.
Shawn Springs: When I first started off, even though I knew it was football, what I quickly realized just from an understanding of impacts and everything -- injuries can happen in a lot of different sports, we're saying. And like, wow. Then I start saying, “Well, that's football. I mean, who else gets injured?” Hockey, equestrian, military. A lot of these different places are getting injured. So we knew that the universe of the total addressable market of impact protection looked like $290 billion today and expected to grow to $300 billion in the next five years. We knew that was a big market, but my ends were in sports. That's where I knew that we would build a brand. I knew that's where, you know, you get an NFL commercial or win three awards with the National Football League -- people would take you seriously. So sometimes, even though I know that sports is not the biggest area for us to address, it is what garners their attention and what people get excited about. And we leveraged sports to build our brand. But we knew that the advanced concepts would come out of the armored research lab, and using that government funding, and DOD. So focused with sports, military, and eventually we get to think. But the core competency, which we started off with, was we have this just basic technology in the Crash Cloud. But one of the interesting things that we found out as we were developing, and continue to build out the Crash Cloud, our patented padding solution, was we have a strong understanding of materials in general. So our core competency is just to understand materials and how they perform, and we are hyper focused. We started with helmets, understanding sports and military. But to my engineers, to those guys, a chest protector that’s solving for a baseball hit, and a chest protector that’s solving for a bullet, to those guys, it's just numbers and materials that address a certain standard in force.
Carla Harris: Yeah. So in many ways, if I can underscore the Playbook Point: you went from micro -- I want to help football players be safer with respect to crash impact -- that's the micro, to the macro -- “Oh, wow. Look at all the other sports and just life things where you need protection around your head and frankly, around your body.” So you went to the macro and then you went to, I'm going to call it the hyper macro, where you said it's not just about the Crash Cloud and the foam, it's about how do you actually solve problems that are around impact and the way that we do that -- the how -- not the what now, the how is now the value, right? And so, again, I just want to underscore that evolution for our listeners as they think about being a CEO with a vision and staying ahead of even the company that's at hand, always sort of thinking about how you make it bigger or how you make it more specific. There's value in both ends of that. Fair?
Shawn Springs: Yeah.
Carla Harris: OK, so I want to ask you this question. We have entrepreneurs, institutional investors, venture capitalists, high net worth individuals and even policy makers that all play an important role in the startup ecosystem. What role do you think they each play in reframing the narrative and breaking through the barriers around unconscious bias? And what makes it so difficult for entrepreneurs of color to access the capital? What can each of them do?
Shawn Springs: There's more innovation and growth and disruption when people are included in diversity. That's what sparks new ideas and thoughts. Whether you're a black male or a black woman or a Hispanic woman, white male or whatever. But the collection of all these unique backgrounds and perspectives is what makes us better. So as a country, I think, and you know, 2020 has been a challenging year, obviously, because of you know, not just COVID, but the social pandemic we are in with Black Lives Matter, I think we all know that it needs to be addressed. We need to look at how we are contributing to not being diversified. And we are starting to ask, everyone is now starting to ask some very difficult questions, you know, that probably would have never had before. Like, why is there only one woman on the board? You know. So when I think about entrepreneurship and this whole ecosystem between the VC, you always gotta ask yourself: Am I just focused on people I can identify with? Am I just supporting the people that I feel comfortable with? And if and if that is the case, you're probably limiting yourself to a whole new world of potential and possibilities if you aren't asking yourself that question. And sometimes you've got to make a conscious decision to go out and say, “You know what, I don't have anyone with a Latino background in my portfolio, let me go check.” It's not easy. You know, even though you may see five thousand proposals a year, whatever that number is, you've got to make a conscious effort. And say, I'm going to look for this certain population. Like an investment thesis, right? We invest in fintech. But how about fintech with minorities, right? As an entrepreneur, I think the biggest thing for entrepreneurs is the mindset of just being convicted in your belief and saying, “You know what? If I do believe I have a great idea, I want to make sure that, you know, I'm exhausting all my possibilities and leveraging my network and the people, and going after that,” and don't just go to the people you feel comfortable with. A big challenge for me is I made a lot of money, so it's hard for me to ask for money. But I know it's not just about the money you asked for. So some of those people who are giving money can open up doors even beyond my network.
Carla Harris: That's right. All dollars are not created equal. And the reason why I want to bring up that point is as an entrepreneur, when you are strapped for cash, you're looking for the cash. But one of the things that I try to remind entrepreneurs of is all dollars are not created equal. The hand that is giving it to you matters. And you should always look beyond the dollar to figure out what other value is being offered besides the dollar.
Shawn Springs: That is such a valuable point to all the listeners out there and that needs to be talked about far as just in the eyes of entrepreneurs and VCs, you know, that matching up is very important. And the third thing, you start to think about networking policymakers and those types of people. We need everybody to contribute to help make rules that're just not beneficial for one group of people. Real innovation comes when there's diversity and inclusion. I need you to help me and I can help you, and I bring something to the table. And then we all need to be in sync, you know, because I heard one of the most powerful things, you know, when you talk about our country, like, we're going to be in a better place when people who are having success, when they're reaching back and giving to people. That just makes the world better because if somebody is starving, then that means that there's risk to you, right? So we have to be honest with ourselves, like the reason why we are helping others and pulling others in is because we want to make it so that everybody is feeling good and they have a place in society and they can have the ability to dream and imagine a better place.
Carla Harris: So Shawn, what is the one big piece of advice that you would give our entrepreneurs that are listening today?
Shawn Springs: So, what I would tell all the entrepreneurs out there is like the mental toughness and drive that it takes. I can give a whole speech on that but that drive, that building of that muscle. Hey, you might be a bigwig as something else, but you starting all over baby in business and you in youth football league. You got to learn. It's work. You've got to enjoy the process. You've got to be convicted to it. You've got to believe in it. And if you aren't willing to hear 'no', if you're not willing to embrace failure, and you only want to enjoy the good times. You only want to enjoy the good times, then it might not be for you. And that's OK.
Carla Harris: There you go. If you're not willing to strengthen that hustle gene, just like you pumped all that iron, the hustle gene needs the same kind of workout.
Shawn Springs: Yeah, and I work on it. It's always been coached. Being empathetic, looking at yourself in the mirror and saying, “What can I do to be better?” And part of the challenge is you have to die to yourself. You gotta die to your ego.
Carla Harris: Die to your ego, I love it. Alrighty Shawn, we have something that is called the Lightning Round, where we have our listeners learn a little bit more about Shawn Springs, the man. So I'm going to ask you a few rapid-fire questions and you tell me the first thing that comes to your mind. Are you ready?
Shawn Springs: All right.
Carla Harris: OK, watching a movie or listening to music?
Shawn Springs: Listening to music.
Carla Harris: Winter or summer?
Shawn Springs: Summer.
Carla Harris: Coffee or tea?
Shawn Springs: Coffee.
Carla Harris: Working in an office or working from home?
Shawn Springs: Working in an office.
Carla Harris: Twitter or Instagram?
Shawn Springs: Not on social media at all, but Instagram.
Carla Harris: Seattle or D.C.?
Shawn Springs: Both. D.C. is my home. D.C. is my home.
Carla Harris: That's fair. What is your favorite moment in history broadly?
Shawn Springs: When my twins were born.
Carla Harris: If you had a talk show, who would you want to be your first guest?
Shawn Springs: You know what? I am a huge Barack Obama fan.
Carla Harris: I heard that. And one word to describe your legacy?
Shawn Springs: Relentless.
Carla Harris: You know what I thought you were going to say? Impactful.
Shawn Springs: Oh, that would have been completely impactful, right?
Carla Harris: Yeah, all the puns intended.
Shawn Springs: That's right. That's right. Impactful. I love that.
Carla Harris: Excellent. All right, well Shawn, thank you for giving us the privilege and the honor. It's been great.
Shawn Springs: It's awesome to be on your show. And it was great being around you the limited time we did have. It's been awesome.
Carla Harris: Thank you all for joining us on this episode of Access & Opportunity. Be sure to stay tuned this season as we speak to more influencers in the sports, media and entertainment fields who've committed to reframing the narrative for women and people of color. You won’t want to miss it.
What did you learn today from Shawn Springs? Send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to hear from you. Subscribe to Access and Opportunity on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. Thanks for coming along.