What happens to college athletes when the final whistle blows, the buzzer sounds, or the cheers stop – when their faces no longer appear in the papers or on television? Unless they are of the very select group of athletes who are able to continue to the next level, college athletes, after graduation, quietly rejoin the rest of society. Over time, the friendships and connections that were fostered on the playing field grow distant like the memories of their last minute jumper or miracle touchdown run. But Ronald Mitchell, (HBS ’97), is trying to change that. Mitchell, a two-time team captain of the Harvard College basketball team and an All-Ivy player, recently started Alumni Sports. Alumni Sports is an association dedicated to providing services to current and former collegiate athletes through career development programs, technology and athletic events. I spoke with Mitchell recently to discuss his views on entrepreneurship and college athletics.
Harbus: When did you catch the entrepreneurial bug?
Ronald Mitchell: I caught the entrepreneurial bug pre-business school. One might argue I was born with it. I feel that way because my father had been an entrepreneur all his life and every since I was a little kid, I’ve always wanted to invent something. Unfortunately, I was not smart enough to invent something so I just started a business.
Harbus: How big of a risk was it to leave a career in private equity to be an entrepreneur?
RM: Actually my career decision [going into private equity] coming out of business school was pretty risky. I joined Provender Capital Group when it was only three people and had not raised any money. I came out of school at the start of the dot-com boom when there was a lot of money being offered by the banks and consulting firms. I passed up a lot of money to go work for a start-up private equity firm that was in itself an entrepreneurial venture. When I started Alumni Sports, which one might argue was an even riskier venture, I at least had a little capital in the bank plus several years of work experience post-business school behind me. So in essence, going out on my own was not scary. What was scary was the idea of starting something that no one really knew what it was and had never been done before.
Harbus: From where did the inspiration to launch Alumni Sports originate?
RM: The inspiration for Alumni Sports developed directly out of undergrad. I started playing basketball with a group of guys, who had all played at the college-level, on Saturdays to work up a good sweat and relive the old glory. Over the ten years that we played together, the group on the court became a powerful network of Managing Directors, Sales Managers, Entrepreneurs, Real Estate Managers and more. I realized that these connections were a valuable network that very few people were leveraging. There are networks of women, of minorities, of gay and lesbians, but there had never been a network for collegiate athletes. And collegiate athletes are a pretty big group. There are 500,000 current athletes and over 6,000,000 former collegiate athletes. In addition to building a network, I also thought that there should be some type of benefit for the commitment that college athletes put in that extends beyond their college years. That is why Alumni Sports does a lot of career development programs. Everyone thinks that athletes have an easy pass. People think all athletes get hooked up. After I graduated from Harvard College, which has one of the best networks in the world, I did not get a single job offer based on my basketball experience.
Harbus: What are the challenges that Alumni Sports face?
RM: Initially, I faced two big challenges. One, I was entering into an entirely different industry. I could not directly leverage the network that I had built in the finance community over the past ten years. I was in a whole new world dealing with coaches, athletic-oriented corporations, and sponsors, so I had to start from scratch building my network. Two, there had not been a model for what Alumni Sports does, particularly one that is easy to articulate, so at every turn I had to prove not only myself but the model. On an ongoing basis, every entrepreneur faces the challenge of managing their growth. Do I go out and try to raise money or do I try to build organically? I chose to build organically because I worked at a private equity fund and know how expensive equity capital can be. Also I feel that if you build organically, you build products and services that people really want. You are forced to pay attention to the bottom line versus just going out and spending.
Harbus: Changing gears for a moment, is college athletics important?
RM: In and of itself, college athletics may not be that important, but I feel that it is an invaluable leadership training program. What you learn in athletics is very difficult to replicate in any other way. The commitment, rigor, discipline, competitiveness, and ability to fight through trials and tribulations are experienced by very few people who do not compete at the college level or beyond. I think outside of the military, college athletics provide the broadest and most widespread leadership training there is in the country.
Harbus: Should college athletes be paid?
RM: No, but they should have the ability to be compensated for marketing their likeness. If Kobe Bryant could have gone to college and also gotten paid for doing commercials he would have probably gone to college. Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen, who are cento-millionaires, are allowed to attend NYU and still operate their business, but Lebron James can not. So Lebron is forced to forgo a college education to reap the benefits, when a college coach can market himself.
The Harbus Alumni Connection series showcases the achievements and perspectives of distinguished Harvard Business School Alumni.