This is the first in a series of Spotlights on Entrepreneurs in the Heartland. Our research has demonstrated that developing entrepreneurial competencies are critical to building and maintaining an ecosystem of innovation in a region. Many large firms will stagnate or disappear as technological change, mechanization or globalization disrupts their business model. Entrepreneurs are vital in a world with rapid technological change because they see the potential in the newly developed ideas. Because they are not burdened by past corporate institutional biases, entrepreneurs can recognize and exploit new opportunities. In the end, entrepreneurs are necessary to create new companies and jobs in their communities. The Heartland lags behind the rest of the country in almost every measure of entrepreneurship and start-up activity. However, there are individuals across the Heartland who still embody the entrepreneurial spirit, and who are working to turn their unique ideas into a start-up success story. This start-up spotlight aims to tell their stories.
Krystal Beachum has taken on a rather daunting task: helping young entrepreneurs who do not even own the rights to their names. Her social start-up, Student-Athletes Unite, focuses largely on helping student-athletes start businesses and maintain existing ones without jeopardizing their eligibility to play college sports.
Like all of her siblings, Beachum was a student-athlete, playing basketball at Henderson State University in Arkansas. She had the foresight to view college athletics as an opportunity to obtain a college degree and chose Henderson State for its education program. Growing up watching her father sometimes struggle to earn consistent income as a small business owner while her government-employed mother earned the same paycheck every two weeks, she was drawn to the consistent income stream of teaching. It was not until she met her first non-sports mentor at Henderson State that she saw the potential of business ownership to provide the financial security she wanted.
As discussed in her recently published book, For the Other 98%, whose title alludes to the fact that very few student-athletes go on to earn a living in their sport, Beachum began to see entrepreneurial characteristics in the traits that made her teammates successful athletes. That realization, combined with national stories of student-athletes losing eligibility and her new-found interest in business ownership, led to the birth of Student-Athletes Unite.
Beachum has taken an impressive path to grow her knowledge of student-athlete eligibility and fruitful entrepreneurial environments. After Henderson State, she went on to earn a master’s degree in recreation and sports management from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where her start-up, Student-Athletes Unite is based. While earning a degree, she immersed herself in the administrative side of college athletics as an academic counselor. She gained valuable knowledge about the dearth of information provided to student-athletes beyond basic dos and don’ts: “They know what they can and can’t tweet, but they don’t know that they can start their own business and what rules are related to that. If the compliance officer would bring [the topic of business ownership] up to them, they would know that they could reach out to the compliance officer about what they can and can’t do, instead of simply being afraid.” Beachum’s next step was to learn more about licensing in general, which resulted in a licensing internship with the NFL Players Association.
Since that internship, she has worked on spreading the word on her start-up, as well as growing the services she offers. She has become a fellow of the social innovation group StartingBloc, has conducted free workshops, and produces a newsletter filled with information on internships and other opportunities for current and former student-athletes. Her upcoming products include online courses on entrepreneurial activities allowed by the NCAA. Her work on garnering interest in Student-Athletes Unite has paid off with being spotlighted by the organization central to her efforts: “I was so excited to be featured by the NCAA. That was a huge step. Since then, people have reached out to me with questions such as: How can we get your book in more schools? How can we get your work out to more student-athletes? How can we partner you with a college? How can we bring this in as a curriculum?”
Moving forward, she does hope to incorporate her work into the standard information on compliance provided to student-athletes. However, her goals do not stop there: “A few years ago, Techstars partnered with former student-athletes for a 54-hour ‘Startup Weekend’ incubator at Oregon State. I would like to partner with them in the future to spread that across the United States.” She also wants to work with investors to create investment funds for athletes’ start-ups specifically.
Beyond her goals for student-athlete start-ups, she wants to educate athletes on the best path to career success, whether that involves entrepreneurship or not. Beachum points out that student-athletes at top athletic institutions often need to choose less rigorous degree programs to meet the time demands of their sport. She notes that for athletes who likely will not earn a living playing their sport, they “do have a choice to go to an athletically smaller school and earn the degree they want, while still having their education paid for.”
Across all of the goals she looks to achieve, a central focus shines through. Beachum wants to help the “other 98%” succeed after their playing days are over. Who better to transfer knowledge and enlighten than a former student-athlete who is paving the way for others?