While there were plenty of technology and business leaders presenting at last week’s annual GeekWire Start Up Day, one towered over the rest: the Seahawks’ Russell Okung.
So what does a 6-foot-5 inch, 310-pound offensive lineman know about technology, the startup world, and entrepreneurship? Turns out quite a bit. And he’s hoping his relationship with our city’s tech leaders can spark a big change for countless underprivileged young people.
“We want to challenge the lack of access in the technology ecosystem,” Okung said.
You hear a lot about players giving back. Everyone from Richard Sherman to Jermaine Kearse has their own foundation.
But while many do things like building athletic fields or buying books for kids, Okung is aiming for something much loftier – helping the underprivileged break into the technology business world.
And we’re not just talking teaching kids how to use computers. Okung’s Greater Foundation is striving to help them become business leaders – the next Jeff Bezos.
“I meet some of the most amazing people. What the guys are doing at Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue [for example], it’s amazing. They’re changing the world. And I believe that same power is meant to be shared. But you have to get into the space and understand the space and take it seriously,” Okung said.
Okung demolishes stereotypes of the dumb jock. A business major at Oklahoma State, he’s working on his MBA at the University of Miami in the offseason while also investing in startups himself.
“People need to see that, hey, this is attainable. This is something that I can do. Because somebody that looks like me is doing it. Somebody that look me is creating, they’re innovating, they’re in this space, they’re educated … I think that’s the greatest gift that we can give back, by being this example,” he said.
Okung’s biggest startup just might be himself.
He’s a free agent, one of the most coveted offensive linemen available this offseason.
But rather than having an agent do the negotiating for a new contract, he’s doing it himself.
It seems like a potentially foolhardy move. But Okung says a visit to Seattle venture capital company Madrona – which has funded dozens of hugely successful startups – gave him the inspiration to go it alone.
“I walk in this building and all of a sudden I see these guys pitching their startup. But the conviction they had and understanding the value of their product and understanding that value proposition, I saw something special there,” Okung said.
“And just being able to see that displayed, you know, I kind of saw myself the same way. I looked at my value. And there’s nobody who can better represent myself than I can.”
Now he hopes to inspire young people to do the same – and give them the power to actually break into the technology world by learning everything from coding to finance.
Tonight he’ll host the official launch of Greater Foundation at Seattle’s EMP Museum. The public event features music, presentations from notable tech leaders and a chance to network with a variety of influential people from the tech world.
“We have to teach people how to fish. We can’t just give people fish and give them these resources. Those things are good … but at the end of the day people aren’t changed, people’s lives aren’t changed,” Okung said.
“I believe by doing this, by partnering with organizations that we have, we’ll create jobs. And that way they’re equipped to move forward and to change their neighborhoods and their communities as well as their families and their legacies thereafter,” he said.
And what about his own startup? Will he be back with the Seahawks?
Okung is coy. He says Seattle is now home. But he’ll go wherever he has to to get the best deal, and there’s plenty of speculation a much bigger payday awaits elsewhere for the former first-round draft pick.
“I have to just sit back and think about what’s best for me and my family,” he said.
Regardless of his decision, you can be sure Okung will remain a powerful force in Seattle, whether on or off the field.