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He’s won an NBA championship. He’s an NBA All-Star. He’s signed to a four-year, $85-million contract, one of the largest ever for an undrafted player.
Fred VanVleet has achieved more than he or anyone could have imagined when he was overlooked at the 2016 NBA Draft after a stellar four years at Wichita State University.
Six seasons later, he has established himself as a premier NBA guard and now leads the Toronto Raptors’ talented young core, taking the mantle from his mentor and good friend, Raptors’ legend Kyle Lowry.
And like Lowry before him, VanVleet understands the importance of giving back to the community that has made him and his young family feel at home in Toronto.
“I think there’s a lot of promise and there’s a lot of opportunity to help people out in different ways that haven’t been done before,” VanVleet told Yahoo Sports Canada. “Being in Toronto for six, going on seven years now, I just wanted to start to put my feet down in the community.
“I started doing that a couple years ago as I got more comfortable and acclimated and I’m gonna continue to do that forever, really, because even when I leave, I’ll still have those relationships.”
A year ago, the 28-year-old decided to use his business acumen for the greater good, partnering with American Express Canada and starting the Blueprint: Backing Bipoc Businesses program, “a mentorship and grant program designed to support the advancement of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) business owners across Canada.”
The initiative will select 100 entrepreneurs who will take part in a mentorship program, where they’ll be provided with the necessary tools and resources to sustain and grow their business, as well as a $10,000 grant, contributed by AmEx Canada.
Blueprint is powered by the DMZ, a Toronto-based incubator that equips tech entrepreneurs and startups with the resources they need to build, launch and scale their businesses.
Eligibility and application deadlines can be found here.
According to VanVleet, the program was highly successful in its first year of operation, sharing that 94 percent of participants significantly benefited from the mentorship resources. He also said that one in three entrepreneurs reported they were able to grow their business, whether that be hiring new employees or adding new products.
“I was able to meet with three of the participants who had success in the program last year and you could see first hand the type of impact that it can have,” VanVleet said. “So we’re back to do it again.”
Participants will have access to a 15-week curated mentorship and training program by business experts and mentors, all delivered virtually, while also receiving tailored oversight to help with industry-specific challenges and proven strategies for success in their sectors.
The program will also connect the participants to one another through small group training and social events.
“What AmEx is doing, creating a community for people to branch out and create those relationships, could go a long way with trying to sustain a successful business,” VanVleet said. “There’s just certain information that’s not readily available online, in books or otherwise and sometimes you have to go through people who have already done it to obtain that.”
Born and raised in Rockford, Ill., a town of approximately 150,000 people, VanVleet understands the importance of small businesses in a community, and why they’re worth investing time and money into.
“When you go into some of these stores and shops, these are real people with real stories and they are depending on this business to support their livelihood,” he said. “If you keep that in mind, I think it creates a different community and going in to support your local shops can go a long way.”
While he’s made a lot of money with his skills on the court, VanVleet has not been shy to put himself out there in the business world, notably starting his own clothing line, FVV, in 2017.
And while he may not have faced the same challenges that some of these small businesses have or will, getting involved with the Blueprint program has still taught him valuable lessons on entrepreneurship.
“When I started, I was just so focused on the money that I never really thought about the mentorship aspect of it, and I didn’t have access to someone who had done what I’ve done already,” VanVleet said. “I think the mentorship and the relationships go a little bit further than the actual money.
“But obviously, everyone needs money to make money, that’s just how this world is designed.”
According to a survey commissioned by AmEx Canada last year, 53 percent of BIPOC entrepreneurs described facing “significant” barriers in operating their businesses, compared to only 37 percent of white business owners. Additionally, 66 percent of BIPOC business owners report having difficulty accessing capital and financial help.
VanVleet, who is biracial, has been a figurehead for the Raptors as a social justice advocate and community benefactor, notably focusing on advancements in education and business in local BIPOC communities. In December, VanVleet announced the creation of a scholarship for Black and Indigenous students at the University of Toronto.
Last month, VanVleet was recognized for his community engagement when he was nominated for the NBA’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice champion award for “demonstrating a push towards empowering groups that are marginalized and systematically disadvantaged.”
As a BIPOC businessman himself, he is well aware of the obstacles that minority entrepreneurs face regularly.
“As people who identify as BIPOC, they’re gonna face certain adversities, challenges and barriers that most don’t,” he said. “So I think it’s a cool initiative to be able to help alleviate some of those problems.”
The Blueprint program is not the only avenue through which the star point guard seeks to help aspiring entrepreneurs, having launched a podcast in October 2021 called “Bet on Yourself”, the motto he’s made popular since entering the NBA.
“With this podcast, we hope to pay it back and empower the BIPOC community here in Canada and beyond by bouncing around ideas, helping to solve problems, and giving these incredible entrepreneurs a powerful platform from which they can grow their businesses,” VanVleet said in a release when the podcast was revealed. “I wanted everyone to be able to hear the important conversations we’re having.”
A proven leader on the court, VanVleet is just as eager off it to share some of his wisdom to help some of his teammates maximize their potential on the business side of things.
“I had great vets and mentors and big brothers who passed knowledge down to me, so it’s my duty to pass it down to the next generation,” he said. “So I keep Malachi [Flynn] pretty close to me, for many reasons, but there’s other guys, like Scottie [Barnes], who ask a lot of questions.”
VanVleet averaged career-highs of 20.3 points, 6.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game in the 2021-22 season, en route to his first NBA All-Star Game selection. On the court and in the locker room, VanVleet’s leadership is indispensable and crucial to the Raptors’ success.
But it’s his leadership in the community - motivating, supporting and inspiring others to bet on themselves, just as he did after his NBA dreams were crumbling before his eyes only a handful of years ago - that will cement his legacy as one of the most impactful athletes in Toronto sports history.
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