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Tiffany Chung

26 Dec 2020

Text by Tiffany Chung

ØLÅF CITIZENS: VICTOR CRUZ

26 Dec 2020

Super Bowl winner and record-breaking wide receiver, Victor Cruz, is best known for his explosive plays and celebratory salsa moves. Now that he’s retired, he’s showing the world his many talents extend far beyond the field. In this edition of Citizens, we talk to Victor about life after the NFL, fatherhood, and giving back to the community that inspires him.

 

What’s your life like right now during the pandemic?

“Ha uhm, life is interesting right now. Just trying to navigate this new world that everyone has to get used to and finding my joy within that. I have an 8-year-old daughter so we’re doing the virtual school thing here and still trying to manage social life. It can be a lot. But I think I’m doing a good job of just scheduling my time and making sure I’m adding new things to the portfolio that maybe I didn’t do before."

 

Like what?

“Golf is a hobby that I always wanted to start. It’s probably the only thing you can do to be socially distant right now. All the golf courses are open. So, that’s something I’m doing and my daughter has been golfing for 3 years now too. To be able to grow in the sport with her is an added bonus. I think that’s what got me even more into it."

 

Victor with his daughter Kennedy.

 

As an athlete in the NFL, you must have a lot of experience managing stress.

“There were definitely some ups and downs. Every day there was stress. I just started realizing the amount of pressure that I used to feel going into the building every day just to play football. There’s something unnatural about having that much stress on you. It’s like every day you’re fighting for your life. Especially the way my career took off. I was an undrafted free agent. You don’t know, especially that first year, when your last day could be. But I learned how to live with it and use that feeling of stress as motivation to not hold back. I wanted to look at it as fuel. I think that’s what I do now to keep myself mentally strong. I’m the type of person that has to have a schedule. I have to have things to do. The gym has been one of those things. Just staying in shape and healthy in general. I think it's about having that routine and a good support system of people you can lean on and I think I have that."

 

Is the way you train, eat, and treat your body different from what you did in the NFL?

“Well, not really because my trainer is a psychopath and still thinks I need to do football-style workouts. Which is true. We do a good job of meshing in the stuff that I would do as an athlete when I was playing and the things we do now. But I love it. I love working out, I love taking care of my body."

 

In interviews like this, what is the question you get asked the most?

“The question I get asked the most is ‘what’s the weirdest place I’ve had to salsa dance?’. Uhm yup, that happens all the time. Ha."

 

 

What is a question that you wished people asked you?

“I wished they asked me more about my foundation or things that I’m doing outside of football or entertainment."

 

You're talking about the Victor Cruz Foundation.

“Correct. It’s called the Victor Cruz Foundation and it’s geared towards STEM education — science, technology, engineering, and math. In 2013, I went to The White House Science Fair and one kid really opened my eyes. It’s the saddest story. He lost his baby niece in a car accident because the dad forgot he had the newborn in the backseat. So this kid invented a neck pillow with a device in it that would connect to an application on your phone. It not only gauges if the baby has a temperature and tells you about overall comfort in the car, but it also sends you an alert if the baby is overheating. It could have saved the baby’s life. He made this at 11-years-old. I was like wait, I need kids where I grew up to have the same kind of resources to even have ideas like this. I immediately began the foundation and started to work with the Boys & Girls Club in the neighbourhood that I grew up in, Paterson. We made it a really modern sanctuary for kids to relish and grow in. Also, with the recent renovations, we’ve done a good job of making it appealing to older kids and making them want to come back. Even if they don't want to be a part of the program, they can be volunteers, they can work there, they can be mentors, they can just come and hangout, whatever. I think that’s been the biggest feat thus far.

 

 

That’s really amazing. Are you getting your daughter involved in STEM too?

“Thank you. Yeah, absolutely. We do STEM things here all the time. We do puzzles. Obviously, throughout her school, they do a lot of hands-on STEM work too. I’m going to do a little science cooking video here with her soon. So that should be fun. But yeah, I want to incorporate her as much as possible. She’s got a lot on her plate."

 

So what requires more focus, playing in The Super Bowl or being a dad?

“Oh man. I think both need equal amounts of focus. Actually, I think I’m going to go with being a dad a little bit more because The Super Bowl is like a finite amount of time, it’s two weeks to prepare, you get ready, you got your game plan down, you’re super focused, you play the game and it’s done. But as a dad, it doesn’t end. Ha. It’s been 8 years and counting now and there is no end in sight. The level of focus to be a dad is incredible. I mean you’re always on. There isn't a single second that doesn't pass by where I’m not thinking about how I am going to make Kennedy better. Just being a father or parent in general is a 24/7 job. 24/8 job. If there’s an extra day of the week we’ll take it because it never ends."

 

Victor & Kennedy at the Nickelodeon awards.

 

You do get to have a bit of fun though, you were on First We Feast’s ‘Truth or Dab’ and Serge Ibaka’s ‘How Hungry Are You?’. Would you eat The Last Dab Hot Sauce OR Alligator claws again?

“Oooh. Uh, I would go with...the alligator claws. They were tasty. I was like, ‘this is chicken, what are we doing here? This is really good.’ But you just have to block out the claws. If I could eat it with my eyes up, I would probably try to eat it that way because of the idea of this hand on your plate, it’s a lot."

 

 

What interests you more, music of fashion?

“You can’t do me like that. They’re both so intertwined. Okay if you’re making me pick one, I gotta go with music. As much as fashion is there, I don’t do anything without music. As soon as I wake up I put music on. It just puts me in a space. Certain songs, certain energies, certain mornings. I'm in different moods and I want the music to match my mood and just wake me up. I have a rule, no rap music before noon. We need to hear Anita Baker, Shaday, Marvin Gaye, something that wakes us up like angels. Once we get in the car and I’m ready to start my day and go somewhere, then we can put the rap on and raise the energy level."

 

What did you listen to today?

“Today was a little different. Today was Nipsey Hussle, One Hunnit. Nipsey just puts me in a frame of mind. When I listen to Nip, it's like let me get my mind right today. Let me get my thoughts together and align myself. I think Nipsey does a good job of aligning your chakras with his music. It just helps you start your day."

 

Warming up.

 

Speaking of starting the day, how do you decide what you’re going to wear?

“I'm kind of maniacal about that too. So there’s a whole brain process before bed — Where am I going to go tomorrow? What do I need to put on? Do I want to wear something new? — It's like a match game in my head depending on where I’m going. Someone told me, ‘every time you step out of your house, you have to be ready to go somewhere.’ You never know where the party is going to be and you never know what opportunity may arise. You never know when someone is looking at you. There have been times where something that I have worn may have gotten me a second call, job, or opportunity. Fashion is just so important and so influential in the way that people observe you and depict who you are. They paint a whole picture before they even speak to you by what you have on."

 

Since you’ve retired, what projects are you most excited about?

“All of it. I started working with E! Entertainment. We had a show but it was canceled due to COVID. I also got into acting a bit. It was crazy because I started doing acting classes and just like anything else, like football, I want to practice before I play the game. I was attacking it from that mindset. But low and behold, wIthin two weeks my agent got me an audition for a play on Broadway. I had only taken 3 acting classes at that time and didn’t feel ready. But I went anyway. It was the most terrifying thing in the world. When I was done, they said I understood the character and have the role. Obviously, things are on hold but when it happens it'll be fun. I like to do things outside of the box, things that people wouldn't expect me to do."

 

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with New York Giants Wide Receiver Victor Cruz in the audience after delivering remarks at the White House Science Fair in the East Room of the White House in Washington, April 22, 2013.

 

So if you’re going to be remembered for only one thing, what would you want it to be?

“The person that just stayed true. That was always true to himself, true to his culture, true to his heritage, true to what got him there."

 

For our last question, can you name a person, a place, and a thing that inspires you?

“A person that inspires me is Barack Obama. I've been watching him at interviews and speaking engagements. He's always going to continue to shock the world and be a better person than we even thought he was every time he opens his mouth. A place that inspires me is Paterson, New Jersey. That’s my hometown and everytime I pass by or visit someone, it just inspires me to be better. It goes back to that feeling of knowing where I came from. It just reminds me every time. A thing that inspires me is this book I read about Phil Knight, ‘Shoe Dog: A memoir by the creator of Nike.’ If you think about how influential Nike is in so many different things around the world, it's just incredible. I think that level of ambition and the story behind how Nike was invented and created is pretty dope. So yeah, those are the three. "

Tiffany Chung

18 Apr 2021

Text by Tiffany Chung

Citizens: Ahmed Ismail

18 Apr 2021

Ahmed Ismail is an entrepreneur, political thinker, public relations marketer, and philanthropist whose purpose has always been about serving the community. In this edition of Citizens, the future-minded businessman tells us about his inspirational journey from hospitality to becoming the co-founder of HXOUSE – an incubator devoted to helping foster innovation and opportunity for young creatives.

 

Hey Ahmed, you’ve achieved a lot of career success. Where did your career journey start?

“When I was 19, I had already dropped out of high school because my teacher and guidance counselor were putting me in programming to become a janitor. They didn't care about my political IQ or my business IQ. They didn't see me. So, I dropped out and started to work as a valet at the Fairmont Royal York. That job changed my whole perspective on life forever."

 

How did that first job change your perspective?

“I got to see everybody: high roller guests, mom and pop, politicians. When you live in a concentrated urban neighborhood, like the ghetto or one of the projects, you always see the cops or people like you. You don't really see people from other worlds. Every day, I got to see what position or career I wanted for myself. I tried to ask every guest one question and learn how to connect with older people. I asked one guest who had all these cars, ‘What do you do for a living?’ and he asked me ‘Are you in school?’ I said, ‘No’ and he said, ‘Don’t waste my time.’ The first time I ever approached a Black man at the hotel, and he shuts me down. I was so mad. That motivated me to prove myself."

 

 

Did you go back to school?

“I went back to school and got into a university. When I saw that guest again, I told him which university I was going to and he said the school was garbage and I should go to Wayne State in Detroit where he was a professor. He even offered to help me get a scholarship and hook me up with a job so I could afford it. What ended up happening is once I get to Detroit, the professor ended up transferring to another school before he could help me. I didn't have the money and I couldn't ask my family for money 'cause they didn't have it. My whole plan just fell apart. "

 

How did you handle that setback?

“So, the day that I'm about to give up on university, another guest from the hotel pulled up in front of me. We talk, he gives me his business card and tells me to call him. I don’t call him. But I stay and study political science. In my fourth month at school, I was running out of money. In America, if you run out of money for school immigration deports you. What ended up happening is I was reading one of my history books and recognized a face. I'm like, why do I know this man? He was an old civil rights politician who got Rosa Parks out of jail and fought for Martin Luther King. I don't know why but something made me check my wallet and the former guest who gave me his business card, Christian Barton, was the Chief of Staff for the Congressman that I was reading about in my history textbook. So, I call him and he's like, ‘Why the hell did you wait three months? I’m at this bar, meet me there.’ We start to talk, and he offers me an internship with the United States Congress. The highest office in the country. I say yes and he mentors me. When he quits, he recommends me to replace him. That just boosted my confidence. So, I would go to work and watch them change laws and then at night I'd be studying the laws they were changing in school."

 

With @The Weekend and @Cashxo.

 

What do you think he saw in you to give you that internship?

“I think he saw that I was just really hungry. I had no baggage. I just wanted to work. He saw my immigrant spirit. He knew I had only one agenda which was to dominate and work hard and he gave me the opportunity to do that. I never let him down. When I was supposed to go home at 4 in the afternoon, I would stay till 10 at night to learn what I don't know. He mentored me. He told me what to do and who to stay away from, which is very important because nobody ever told me that people in an office could also be cancerous."

 

 

Who are the people to stay away from?

“The people only working to make a check and don't believe in what they’re doing. The ones that are only are working when the boss walks by. Everybody sees it. Management knows and they're just waiting for the right moment to dump you."

 

How did you move from politics to PR?

“I did the same thing I did at the hotel, I started to look around at other people and their positions and saw Karen Morgan. She was the public relations person for the congressman. If you look at a congressman’s schedule, they could be in 3 or 4 states a night, 2 or 3 planes a day, 10 meetings, and she gets to go tell the congressman who they’re meeting, give them the research, give them the speeches. I never wanted to be locked in an office, so I was like that's my job. I went back to school for public relations. Long story short, that opened up a lot of doors because I didn’t want to do political PR. I did a little bit of automotive PR and then I started to work in sports and entertainment because I realized it's recession proof. When people have no money, they still watch basketball games on TV. I quickly realized what I liked about being in politics and what I liked about sports and entertainment and combined them both to start a socially sustainable marketing PR firm. Helping celebrities and corporations make money, but also help them build their philanthropy or teach them how to become better philanthropists."

 

2018 Toronto Brand Star and host Ahmed Ismail begins the ceremony.

 

So, how did HXOUSE begin?

“December 2016, La Mar Taylor tweeted after winning Forbes 30 under 30, ‘There's so much talent in my city, we’re undervalued. Before I’m 30, I'm going to build a facility for young creatives so they can outshine me and The Weeknd.’ So, I called him and said, ‘Brother, two years ago I designed exactly this project, but nobody wanted it. If you’re serious about this, we can build it together."

 

Do you look for an immigrant spirit and hunger when considering future tenants at HXOUSE?

“100,000,000%. That's all I look for. I look for somebody who doesn't want me to build their dream. Anybody can have an original idea. So, I just check how hard they're going to work on it. Time and consistency equals success. Some of my friends became successful in the first 3 years of their career, I waited 12 before my career started to make sense but I still came with the same energy every day and knew I was destined for my opportunity sooner or later. You have to work. If you don't put in the work, you don't get the results."

 

 

That must’ve felt good.

“It still feels like the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my career."

 

Speaking of your career and results, can you name a few of your proudest moments?

“In my neighborhood, owning a vehicle was a big deal, all the street dudes had nice cars. So, having my first nice car and making money was a proud moment. Second, was getting the job in the US Congress because it gave me a confidence that I can't overlook ever again. HXOUSE is definitely my biggest accomplishment and I don't even want anything to be bigger. Then the icing on the cake is seeing my career come full circle, from learning to speak English by watching news about politics, to studying political science in school, to now speaking to the Prime Minister regularly and helping him come up with ideas on how to get the Canadian economy back on track."

 

Today annocuement of 200+ million to Black Entrepreneurs is a testiment of my father's two favourite teachings he instilled in me.

 

Originally, the government didn't fully support your idea for HXOUSE. So, it must’ve been a big deal to host the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau?

“Almost two years to the day that we opened HXOUSE, the Prime Minister came to make a historic announcement and offer the Black community $250 million to launch a fund to repair the relationship with the Black community that has suffered and endured systemic racism in Canada. Why that was so monumentally important to me is because it was hard for us to get a grant, it was hard for us to talk to the government, the only thing that really helped was my patience in knowing how the government works from my previous political experience in the US. It was historic because it's one thing to give a check, but it's another thing to acknowledge there was wrongdoing. To have the Prime Minister say that systematic racism is real, it's happening, and it's stopping our growth, became a wake-up call for corporations to get their act together. Now money is flowing in Toronto for Black organizations which has never happened before."

 

With co-founder La Mar Taylor.

 

That must’ve felt good.

“It still feels like the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my career."

 

Describe your partnership dynamic with HXOUSE co-founders La Mar Taylor and The Weeknd.

“A lot of respect. I feel like the little guy because when I talk to them about politics or community or partnerships it's like I'm almost over excited about it and seeing something they can't see. Then when they're talking about creative things that the world doesn't see but needs, I feel like I don't even know what they're talking about, I’m just in awe and I always try to catch up. So, we have a very supportive nature where we all help build each other's ideas."

Celebrating the opening of Hxouse with Swizz Beatz.

 

Are you more of a traveler or a homebody?

“As you get older you become a homebody, but traveling is the only way I live because it’s my inspiration. I write and my writing becomes a plan. My plan becomes a project. When my project is in a place where I'm happy with it, I like to come home and build. So, I'm a homebody when I'm building but I still travel as well."

 

Are you a thinker or doer?

“Both."

 

Zanzibar doors.

 

Any causes you think need attention right now?

“I'm in Europe and what they’re doing with migrants is appalling. Corrupt colonial countries that still haven't acknowledged their wrongdoing have benefited and continue to benefit off of bad policies that disrespect immigrants without ever acknowledging what these countries have done to those communities. So, I would love to see a version of Black Lives Matter but for immigrants. I would love to see our communities wake up because you can only be enslaved if you allow whatever they're telling you to become your truth. Canada has had to acknowledge they've got to start finding ways to pay things back. America compensates by still allowing minorities to grow, have jobs, or even become the president of the United States. I just feel like Europe has made zero concessions and is still exploiting Africa every day. Europe needs to change."

 

We like to conclude each interview by asking our citizens to name a person, place, and thing they find inspiring.

“People that inspire me are immigrants. All immigrants have a story. I'm always keen to plug in and ask them where they are from, where their journey started and why it started. It sparks my imagination and when I ask those questions, it always takes me back to when I started as an immigrant and first arrived in the United States and Canada. One of the places that inspires me is Amsterdam. It has this introverted, communal vibe. If you don't want to be around anyone you can ride your bike, you can walk the shops, check things out and have a great day. But if you want to see people, they are also very community oriented. It’s one of those places that helps recharge my battery. I think the only ‘thing’ that inspires me is I try to be a better Muslim every day. It's not easy but I feel that when I pray more, I have structured order and my life makes sense. "