This is the first in a 10-part exclusive interview series with Bo Jackson, where the entrepreneur and legendary star athlete shares stories of his childhood, what motivates him in his business career, the nature of today’s younger generation, how he balances work, family and his spare time, his philosophy on achieving success and much more. Stay tuned for the next part of our series coming this Wednesday, October 3.
Bo Jackson is a busy man.
While many retired star athletes are enjoying slower days at the golf course and taking it easy in retirement, Bo Jackson – a former two sport professional athlete, cultural icon and arguably the greatest athlete of all time – is working harder than ever.
The man born Vincent Jackson is building a foodservice and retail empire with his VEJ Holdings, LLC since its founding in 2015. The company’s Bo Jackson’s Signature Foods include the Bo Jackson’s 34 Beef Line, Bo’s Burgers and Bo’s Premium Seafood. It’s growing quickly, and as it does, Bo is not slowing down.
“I’ve been hustling all my life. This is an everyday thing for me,” Jackson told 1851 in an exclusive interview recently from the VEJ Holdings, LLC office in Naperville.
That hustle is part nature, part nurture. Born, as he recalls, “poorer than poor,” Jackson was the eighth of 10 children. His mother, who he refers to as his mentor, idol and a superwoman, provided him both the genes and the guidance to always strive for success – a family trait found also in his grandfather.
“My grandfather never bought anything food-wise except flour,” Jackson told 1851. “He raised his own meats, ground his own cornmeal, made his own sweetener from sugar cane – he did everything himself. The only thing he bought was flour to make biscuits. I’m fortunate enough to have those genes.”
His natural work ethic served a young Jackson well when he started playing sports. Growing up in a tight-knit neighborhood of relatives, he was usually playing sports with children older than himself, which only sharpened the natural abilities.
But while anyone who watched his success as a Heisman Trophy winning running back at Auburn University, his incredible feat of juggling successful NFL and Major League Baseball seasons and the viral-before-viral-was-a-thing “Bo Knows” campaign with Nike would assume that Jackson was fueled by a fire to be the greatest athlete of all time – they would be wrong.
For Jackson, sports was just a vehicle to get to college.
Jackson told 1851 that he always planned to be out of professional sports by 32. He didn’t know what exactly he wanted to do with his life but knew that he didn’t want a future that only included sports.
“I’ve got to do something that’s bigger than sports,” Jackson said he used to think.
A young Jackson would sit on the back steps of his mother’s 700 square foot home, watching planes come and go from a nearby municipal airport, dreaming of a future where he was flying or riding in those same planes.
“I’ll never forget where I come from. But I never want to go back there. So, I always strive to make myself better,” Jackson recalled, adding that his dream was always to either go into the military or attend college. Since his mother didn’t have the money to afford college, Jackson excelled at sports and was offered a full scholarship to Auburn.
For Jackson, happiness equals success and success equals happiness. His entire life, Jackson was fueled by his meager beginnings, the worth ethic and drive instilled him by his mother and a fear of failure that continues to motivate him today. He’s brought that drive for success and married it with a passion for food into this most recent chapter of his career with VEJ Holdings, LLC.
“I have always been a closet foodie. I’ve always loved to cook. I’m the cook at my house. I’m a cook at my friends’ house. I’m a cook at the hunting lodge,” Jackson told 1851. “Some people collect sports cards, I collect grills and smokers. It’s something that I enjoy doing. I can get away from being Bo Jackson.”
Jackson is keenly aware of the high rate of failure for celebrity brands. But he isn’t a celebrity that plans to just sit back and put his name or likeness on products and hope the business does well.
He is constantly on the road doing shows and visiting potential customers, doing his own presentations and cuttings of his meat, believing in the motto, “No one can sell your product better than you.” Jackson is familiar with TSA agents who he sees several times every month and recognize the cooler he takes with him with product.
Jackson noted that recently he took his products and cooked his steak, seafood and burgers for a dozen people at a big distribution company down south. As is usually the case, they were surprised that he was cooking the product – and how good it was, which gives his more satisfaction than reflecting on his career on the football field and baseball diamond. Though, he understands the value that his brand has in continuing to network and create business opportunities.
“I’m in the food business now. If talking about sports and reminiscing about sports is going to get my products on your shelves or in your restaurant on your menu, then let’s talk about sports.”
His entire focus is to grow VEJ Holdings, LLC with a long-term goal that one day his kids (Jackson has 32, 30 and 28-year-old children, all college graduates) can take it over and run it. The motivation being to create a better life for his children, the same way that his mother and grandfather did for him.
“I know that my grandfather gave me a big piece of him and my mother gave me a big piece of her and to have both of those ingredients…makes me the person that I am, and makes me want to succeed.”