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“How I Thrive As An Athlete Turned Entrepreneur” with Ming Zhao & Ellakisha O’Kelley

As an athlete you are an entrepreneur. You are the “CEO” of yourself. You are the business that you have to be accountable to. You have to put the right team around you; you have to develop a vision and execute; you learn what it means to sacrifice; you quickly turn losses into lessons; you […]

As an athlete you are an entrepreneur. You are the “CEO” of yourself. You are the business that you have to be accountable to. You have to put the right team around you; you have to develop a vision and execute; you learn what it means to sacrifice; you quickly turn losses into lessons; you have to be as mentally strong just as much as your physical prowess; you learn to prevail in spite of your haters and along side your supporters. I can go on and on, but my story is taking all the principles and practices I developed and honed as a professional athlete that lends themselves to the sport of life.


As a part of our series about how successful “athlete turned entrepreneurs” thrive both professionally and personally, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Ellakisha O’Kelley. Ellakisha is an award-winning sport, entertainment and business attorney. A former collegiate and professional athlete, she draws on her past experiences to empower athletes and entrepreneurs by protecting their talent and navigating the politics of the sports and entertainment industry.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

Igrew up in a close knit single parent household with two sisters and a hard working mom. I grew up in the type of neighborhood where neighbors knew each other and you can “borrow” sugar and butter from one another. I grew up playing with the boys climbing trees and wrestling and making it home before the street lights came on. I grew up playing video games that had cartridges that I wouldn’t turn off so I didn’t lose my spot. But most importantly, I grew up around people that believed there was something special I was meant to do in life. I would hear that a lot and get praises for my academic and athletic ability. So, I grew up with that thought instilled in my mind and it gave me a resiliency that was beyond my comprehension.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high level professional athlete?

It all began when I stumbled upon the sport of track and field in middle school. I used to race the boys in middle school and beat them. I participated in our end of the year field day and ran extremely faster than every kid in the sprint race. My gym coach insisted that I considered joining the track time in high school the following year. I did. I then started watching track on TV and admired athletes like Gail Devers, Gwen Torrence, Sandra Patrick-Farmer, Christie Gaines etc… My high school and summer coaches really guided me in my journey to take running seriously. I saw it as an opportunity to ‘run’ my way out of my “hood” and to give myself, family and community better opportunities.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career?

Traveling the world I had to adapt to many different cultures and practices. I used to share room with athletes from other countries. When I competed in China, I stayed in a University Village. The public restrooms did not have toilets they had holes in the floor in the stalls. We had to hold ourselves in a squatting position to use the restroom. It was a whole other experience for me to say the least. Luckily my legs were strong.

What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

We need to learn and adjust to different cultural practices. Our practices or beliefs are only a part of what makes up this unique thing we call existence.

Did you ever get a serious sports injury? Do you feel comfortable sharing that story?

Yes, sure. I started having a knee issues towards the end of my collegiate career and then on and off during my professional career. I later discovered I had what they call “jumper’s knee.” An injury to the tissue connecting the kneecap to the shin bone. It caused excruciating pain in my knee. I would mask the pain throughout the years so that I could continue to compete. Then one day as I was coaching an athlete with jump drills and my patellar tendon ruptured. My knee cap detached and I had to have emergency surgery to reattach my knee to the tendon.

What was the lesson or take away that you took out of that incident?

Don’t ignore or mask the pain, one day it will all catch up with you. This is in life too.

As someone with a background in ‘wellness’ I’m interested in stories about interesting wellness experiences. Do you have a story about the weirdest or most humorous wellness experience, treatment, practice, or practitioner that you’ve ever partaken in? If you do, we’d love to hear it.

When we travel to compete around the world, we are given luxuries at some of the better venues that include perks like massages and other recovery treatment. One of my first experiences getting a massage as a pro athlete was by a masseuse that didn’t know english so she started stripping things off of me with no communication as to what was going on. I snapped and she knew enough english to tell me “be relaxed.” I had to look around at other athletes around me and they were stripped down with a towel and very comfortable as they were being worked on. After I calmed down, it was one of the best recovery massages I had. Now I don’t want a massage any other way.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. Can you tell us the story of your transition from a professional athlete to a successful business person?

I’ve always been a successful business person. As a professional athlete I always communicated with my coaches as an athlete and business person. As a professional athlete I always communicated with my agents as a business person. I eventually represented myself in business deals, competitions, endorsements while competing as a professional athlete. The only transition that took place, was when I stopped competing professionally, the successful business person was left standing.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting new projects you are working on now?

I am now a certified NFL agent and soon to be CFL agent. I launched a talent agency where I will be guiding talent in there business endeavors. Right now I am representing two football players and in the interview process with a few more. I look forward to growing my agency that will offer these athletes services from a very unique perspective.

Do you think your experience as a professional athlete gave you skills that make you a better entrepreneur? Can you give a story or example about that?

Yes. As an athlete you are an entrepreneur. You are the “CEO” of yourself. You are the business that you have to be accountable to. You have to put the right team around you; you have to develop a vision and execute; you learn what it means to sacrifice; you quickly turn losses into lessons; you have to be as mentally strong just as much as your physical prowess; you learn to prevail in spite of your haters and along side your supporters. I can go on and on, but my story is taking all the principles and practices I developed and honed as a professional athlete that lends themselves to the sport of life.

Most athletes have not been able to transfer their success from the sports arena to the business arena. But you have. Can you share with our readers three main strategies you have used to help you succeed?

From my experience, a lot of athletes who are not able to transfer their success is because there is a disconnect in the expectations. Three strategies I used were 1. I acknowledged that what it took for me to be a successful athlete, especially at the pro level, didn’t turn off when I was aiming for goals outside of my sport. 2. As an athlete, I used the platforms I gained to increase my opportunity for growth in my knowledge, skills and relationships. 3. I used my unfortunate experiences to identify a need in my industry.

In my work, I focus on how one can thrive in three areas, body, mind, and heart. I’d like to flesh this out with you. You are a very busy leader with a demanding schedule. Can you share with our readers two self care routines, practices or treatments that you do to help your body to thrive? Kindly share a story or an example for each.

One routine is meditation and prayer. Meditation is me letting go and prayer is me requesting something. My meditation is done throughout the day. Sometimes, I just do breathing meditation anywhere at anytime. If I find myself super busy or overwhelmed, I carve out 30 mins to do visual or positive affirmation meditation. As far as my routine prayer, I take time to say a specific prayer either during my morning or night shower. As I pray, I use the sound of the water to bring me to my place of serenity. My second routine is saying NO. I learned to say no a lot more to request, and I say it when I just need to reset.

Can you share with us two routines that you use to help your mind thrive? (Kindly share a story or example for each.)

Reading. I read on a regular basis. I usually read two books at a time each month. One is usually industry specific and the other is usually a biography or inspirational book. The other routine, in addition to meditation and prayer discussed previously, is exercising. I do hard core workouts at least 3 times a week. It gets my mind right!

Finally, can you share with us two routines that use to help your heart, your emotional or spiritual life to thrive? (Kindly share a story or example for each.)

Again, my prayer and meditation routine. Additionally, I assess my circle periodically. I do a cleansing if needed. I also add people to my circle that may be needed and aligned with my vision.

You’re a high achieving business leader, and you also have family and loved ones that may require a different side of you at home. How do you leave the executive at the door, and be the most loving family member at home?

I just leave it. When it is family time, it’s family time. I’m just as eager to leave it behind as anyone else who may want me to leave it behind.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like to think I am starting a movement with my non-traditional approach in representation. I have targeted individuals in the sports and entertainment industries. I am focused on empowering and enlightening them, so that they not only have the knowledge but are put in a better position to do something impactful with their platform.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“I come as one, but I stand as many”- Maya Angelou. Every time I am negotiating a deal. Every time I am an advocate who has a “seat at the table.” Every time I am the only woman, black person, or black woman in the room.

What are the best ways our readers can follow you on social media?

They can go to www.allaboutella.com and every social media platform that I have, or anything that I am involved in can be found in that one place.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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