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  • Writer's picture Alysse Soll

Alysse Soll interviews Shawn Springs for WiST

By Alysse Soll, President NewModel Advisory and WiST Board Advisor

Shawn Springs, Former NFL Player and CEO of Windpact

Perspiration and Inspiration

Shawn Springs is an elite athlete. As a football player, he earned All-American honors as cornerback for The Ohio State University. He then played 13 seasons in the NFL, starting as the 3rd overall draft pick by the Seattle Seahawks (1997-2003), followed by the Washington Redskins (2004-2008) and finishing out his illustrious career with the New England Patriots.

Shawn’s athletic talents and inquisitive nature afforded him many opportunities. He was fortunate to be surrounded by the very best—NFL coaches, team owners, business leaders and academics who welcomed his questions, shared their wisdom and experience, and inspired his career pursuits.

When Shawn asked his first boss, Paul Allen, owner of the Seahawks and co-founder of Microsoft, about what it took to be a billionaire, Paul replied “It’s not about being a billionaire, it’s about doing something disruptive and being innovative.” That stuck with him. As Founder and CEO of Windpact, a high-tech foam materials technology company, he used Allen’s advice to transform a commonplace material into the future of impact protection.

Of Car Seats and Concussions

Shawn clearly remembers the day he realized the true impact of impact protection. As he tells it, “When my kids were young, we were in a serious car crash. My kids were strapped into their car seats and came out unharmed, without a scratch. The car was totaled.”

While few consider the relationship between car seats and concussions, Shawn immediately envisioned the connection. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a debilitating and sometimes lethal consequence of concussions from constant blows to the head. NFL players, especially linebackers and safeties, are prone to CTE. Shawn knew that better impact protection in football helmets was a critical step to mitigate CTE. Could the foam technology used in his kid’s car seats be used in sports helmets to reduce the incidence of concussions?

In fact, it could go much farther. As Shawn puts it, “I quickly saw the value foam technology could have for impact safety across verticals, from consumer car seats and sporting goods to transportation and even the military.” The foam technology used in car seats was the catalyst for the creation of Windpact.

Windpact—Making Foam Products More Productive

Sporting goods manufacturers lag significantly behind other industries in materials testing methods and, as a result, product efficacy. By comparison, companies in the airline and auto industries like Boeing, Ford, and GM, use sophisticated modeling and exhaustive testing on materials to minimize failures and optimize their safety and utility. Foam is the #1 padding solution for sports equipment, accounting for over 80% of impact protection material. Shawn believes Windpact’s immediate goal is to bring commercial grade materials testing, modeling and machine learning to the sporting goods business to significantly improve the efficacy of protective gear. On this, he is crystal clear: Better materials build better protection.

Established in 2011, Windpact’s Crash Cloud technology has already gained traction and adoption across sports manufacturing with support from the NFL, the military, and the auto industry.

Windpact is disrupting the foam materials industry by generating machine learning models to characterize foam materials across grades, products, industries and utility. The information it collects across all these data points will position the company as the ultimate repository and database for all things foam. Shawn likens this to “putting the processed data onto a cardkey that unlocks the value of future materials.”

By transforming Windpact into a Materials Technology Company, Shawn’s goal is to “start selling the software to all companies that use foam for padding and protection across all verticals.” He is driving the process and building an ecosystem to make foam products more productive.

Q and A with Shawn Springs

Shawn credits the mentors and role models throughout his life who have helped shape his journey as an NFL player and a CEO. Shawn’s narrative is driven by his quest to be the very best at what he does, to learn what he doesn’t know, and to seek out those that can add value to his mission—to make the world, not just athletes, safer through best-in-class impact protection.

Some Q and A with Shawn helps us appreciate his journey and how his mission continues to unfold.

WiST: Who are your most important role models, as an athlete and an executive? What lessons did you learn from them?

There are so many people who played a role in helping me find my path and excel as an athlete, entrepreneur and executive. I understood then, as I do now, that there is much to learn from people who are willing to share their knowledge and experience.

As an athlete, both parents were role models for me. My mom, Teresa Thomas, who served in the U.S. Army, instilled discipline and a strong work ethic. It wasn’t easy to be a woman in the military in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but my mom believed the choices she made were what her family needed. My dad, Ron Springs, was an NFL player who always encouraged me. “Just go for it. Don’t be afraid to fail. Learn from your failures and go from there.”

As a student, I was fascinated with Black History Month. Garrett Morgan, African American inventor of the three-way traffic light who held several groundbreaking patents, inspired me. That taught me that anyone could create value for everyone.

As an executive, Paul Allen opened my eyes to innovation and disruption. And you can’t utter those concepts without recognizing Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. I see them as visionaries who embody the future.

WiST: How did you successfully manage the transformation from world class NFL player into a world class CEO? What attributes from your sports career did you transfer to your business career?

I always push the boundaries of how I can be the best. This comes from learning and doing. Call me the perpetual student: what I don’t know, I learn, very quickly. You need speed, agility and efficiency to add value, on the field and in the workplace.

If you analyze leaders across industries, you find consistencies:

1. Work ethic. Whether its sports or business, you need to embody the relentless pursuit of excellence and the will to work. If you work smart, you can add value as quickly as possible.

2 EQ. One of the most important attributes is having the emotional intelligence to promote a culture of success though inclusion, contribution, process and recognition. It is always a challenge for a leader to realize they may not be the smartest person in the room, for a subordinate to value constructive criticism, or for a teammate to understand their specific role in the process. It is essential to seek out, acknowledge, and motivate the people on your team and organization, to bring their best to work every day.

3. Details matter. Pay attention to the small things, the outliers that can make a huge difference in the outcome. In sports, it could be something as simple as bringing your rain cleats to a rainy outdoor workout. In football, where plays move so fast, we call it “bad eyes” when the defense is looking at the offensive quarterback instead of the receiver and gets beat. In business, processes are put in place for a reason: to gather, share and distribute information to drive efficiencies. Everyone needs to follow the same detailed playbook.

WiST: You have achieved many goals in your life: successful NFL playing career, CEO of a startup with great potential, parent, thought leader in safety and head trauma, among others. Which experience has been the most rewarding to you? And the most surprising?

I’ve done many rewarding and exciting things in my life—from football, to investing in successful companies, to raising a family. Turning potential into opportunity and opportunity into success is the fact pattern across my life. What surprises me is that this fact pattern is universal across all of my most important experiences.

Before the 1997 NFL draft, I was told that if I ran a 4.5 40-yard dash, I would be picked in the top 10. I ran a 4.3 and became the #3 draft pick. I turned potential into opportunity. During my NFL career, I worked hard, paid attention to every little detail and brought value to my team. I turned opportunity into success.

With Windpact, I see that same fact pattern. There is an opportunity to harvest the potential of foam to create a materials database to build better, safer products for companies and consumers. The excitement I felt on Draft Day is the excitement I feel when I consider the future of Windpact. The potential, the opportunity, the success is all there. We just have to make it happen.

WiST: As an employer, how do you overcome unconscious bias towards women and minorities as you seek to form a best-in-class team in the competitive worlds of sports and technology? As a black man, how do you overcome this bias with internal and external stakeholders and investors?

As a young CEO and a minority, I believe intelligence and diligence are colorblind. I have been that guy in the boardroom who had to announce he is the CEO of a company. It is not a given. That said, talent comes in all shapes, sizes, races and genders.

When you are a small company, you need to be agile in sourcing the very best talent you can find, at a price point you can afford. This is a fact of life in startups, often the most experienced people are not available to you at the price point you are offering. We hire hungry, intelligent, hard-working people who want to be a part of something very exciting.

Even though we are young, our team has to operate like a well-oiled machine, like an NFL team in the heat of battle. I aspire to generate a culture of inclusion and growth. If you are good enough to be on the Windpact team, you are rewarded for your contributions to the team.

WiST: What legacy do you hope Shawn Springs brings to bear?

Dare to dream. I hope my story inspires people to just go for it. No matter what path you choose, be inspired, be patient, be resilient, be humble, work hard to overcome failure, appreciate the small wins and most of all, ask questions!

A special thanks to Shawn for sharing his story with the WiST community. Ever the perpetual student, Shawn’s greatest inspiration always starts with “why.” Inspiration comes from many places.

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