Emil Ekiyor Works to Foster Innovation and Inclusion
Photographer / Amy Payne
A former NFL player is driving change and facilitating upward mobility for people of color.
At the age of 15, Emil Ekiyor left Nigeria and moved in with friends of his parents across the ocean in Daytona Beach, Florida. Ekiyor had never been away from home before.
“I was excited about my new adventure but was leaving my family behind,” recalls Ekiyor, who is one of nine children.
Sports minimized Ekiyor’s homesickness and provided structure to his life outside of school. He excelled in and loved soccer, but switched to football during his junior year of high school due to his sheer size. Playing sports helped Ekiyor gain confidence and widen his social circle. He worked hard on and off the football field, and was offered a full-ride scholarship to play football at the University of Central Florida (UCF). Three years after leaving his family, he attended college on a scholarship.
During this time, something weighed on Ekiyor. He was not a legal resident of the United States. He had entered on a six-month visa, after which he would no longer be in the country legally. He held this secret close because if he was found out, he faced possible deportation and would not be allowed to return.
“Having a college experience in the U.S. is like no other – it is unmatched,” Ekiyor says. “What you learn about yourself is so important.”
Ekiyor was team captain for two years at UCF until he was recruited into the NFL draft and picked up by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were then coached by Tony Dungy, Lovie Smith and Herman Edwards. Ekiyor’s dream was to be an entrepreneur, and he ended up falling in love with athletics and his wife, Andrea Sims. She is a graduate of North Central High School and played basketball at Tennessee State University. When they married, Ekiyor officially became a U.S. citizen and finally felt the confidence to create a business.
Playing for Dungy was an education in and of itself. Dungy and his coaching staff were rebuilding the Bucs, and Ekiyor paid close attention to their planning and preparation efforts. He experienced the high level of competition the coaches faced on and off the field.
Injuries plagued Ekiyor’s career in the NFL. He briefly played for the Colts until he tore a pectoral muscle and was placed on injured reserve. Next, he went to the Atlanta Falcons under Hall of Fame coach Dan Reeves, which Ekiyor describes as a “great experience.” His final stop was with the Oakland Raiders and coach John Gruden. Ekiyor played with Hall of Fame inductees Jerry Rice and Rod Woodson.
As an upside of playing in the NFL, Ekiyor was financially able to bring his family to the states. His parents were able to see their son play in the NFL from the stands. Two of his sisters graduated from Columbia University, one sister graduated from Harvard Law School, one of his brothers graduated from UCF, and another sister was a fellow at Stanford.
During his time with the Raiders, Ekiyor decided to retire from football and pursue his passion for entrepreneurship, but wasn’t sure where to begin. After settling in Indianapolis, Ekiyor’s first local engagement was coaching football at Warren Central High School. He witnessed many young people who were not engaged, so Ekiyor created a proposal to draw in students and create a better experience. Superintendent Eugene White, then superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, embraced Ekiyor’s plan to leverage sports. Improved graduation rates was a side effect.
“In our black communities, we need to create opportunities for youth so they discover their potential,” says Ekiyor, who realized as a coach that some students were being told for the first time they were good at something. “Nigeria has the largest population of blacks in the world. I was surprised to not find similar excitement about opportunities in the U.S. from friends. I was unaware of the history of systemic racism in the U.S. since I didn’t grow up with that.”
Ekiyor organized and created the Indy Youth Sports Foundation (IYSF) to leverage organized football as a tool to build community, inspire youth and teach critical life skills. More than 1,000 kids across Marion County engage on Saturday mornings to play football, in non-pandemic years. The IYSF leaders set a price of $75 for kids to participate, which covers officiating. Ekiyor and his friends utilized their NFL connections to cover the cost of equipment. He saw many young black males coaching in the league who did not have leadership roles before.
“I realized the league is for [the coaches], possibly more so than it is for the kids,” says Ekiyor, who is proud to have created an environment for character building and togetherness. “Kids should enjoy their youth experience in sports and we encourage them to conquer the world, and to dream big.”
Ekiyor decided to launch InnoPower, an organization that focuses on leveraging the power of innovation to elevate black communities.
“We must communicate a different message to our people than what the systems and society tell them every day,” he says. “They actually can overcome systemic biases and artificial deficits. They can own homes, land, businesses, and investments that yield positive returns. They can acquire transferable assets and generational wealth.”
InnoPower leaders started a conference two years ago, and more than 400 people were in attendance. The inaugural InnoPower conference proved that many people of color were yearning for a shared platform to support others.
InnoPower is developing a culture in the U.S. and Nigeria that encourages and celebrates entrepreneurship. Locally, InnoPower leaders have worked with the Indianapolis Recorder newspaper, and Eleven Fifty Academy and Ivy Tech Community College are working alongside InnoPower with Rooted School. These organizations are creating talent funnels for people of color.
“We cannot talk about entrepreneurship and not discuss human development in K through 12,” Ekiyor says. “We need to prepare them for the future, and design education around that because we cannot look backwards.”
Rooted School, supported by Eastern Star Church, represents one of many efforts to elevate the local black community. Their students are immersed in technology.
“We hope to create clear pathways to sustainable careers in tech through mentorship,” says Dewand Neely, chief operating officer at Eleven Fifty Academy. “With students seeing people who mirror them in the tech field, we hope to show them what’s possible. Emil and his efforts in bringing us all together is a testimony to his dedication to others. We are all in this together.”