Courtney Smith’s passion for fusing together art, basketball, and fashion came through at an early age. He started his first sports apparel company when he was just 24 years old. But navigating contracts and licensing for the first time was extremely challenging, and he ended up selling the business. That experience left him feeling burned, and he thought he was done with the basketball business.
When his eight year-old son told him he wanted to play basketball, Courtney was hesitant at first. He didn’t want to reopen an old wound. But his son was persistent, and just like that, being back at the games reignited Courtney’s love for the business. “Seeing kids fall in love with basketball and seeing the teams super happy, that’s one of my favorite parts,” he reflects.
As a young Black man raised in East Oakland working in tech, Courtney says he felt like a unicorn. He tried time and time again to get his friends with similar backgrounds in the door, but the answer from up top was always no. When he later worked as a contract designer for different streetwear companies, he felt a familiar disparity: “I didn’t feel the positive financial effect of the booming streetwear industry in the actual streets.”
Around that same time, Trayvon Martin was killed. Courtney saw Trayvon’s reflection in his own son, and it deeply affected him. “I started to really ask myself: ‘What can I do for my culture that’s positive, that’s a solution?’” he remembers. With renewed motivation and just $300, he decided to buy thirty shirts. He sold those shirts and kept building his business from there.
Four years later with over $500,000 in annual sales, Courtsmith has become a thriving performance apparel company with four full-time employees. It’s the one-stop shop for coaches to get team uniforms and branded apparel from bags and balls to sweatshirts and pants. Courtsmith also does in-house logo designs and they even have patent-pending footwear.
With that level of growth, Courtney knew he needed additional resources for his business. “I was looking for ways to get more knowledge and access to more financing. I was seeking bigger ways to expand and looking for the people who could help me do it,” he says. Courtney found out about the Entrepreneurs-in-Residence (EIR) program from a friend at one of his retail clients, Threadz, who are also EIR alums. Through his experience in the program, he now has a business plan that he feels confident in and the financial acumen to take it to the next level: “As a person of color, to have resources like this is amazing. The way Robert [Lattimore, Executive Vice President] shares information is just dope. I soak that up every time I meet with him.”
Before starting the program, Courtney was considering leaving the Bay Area because of the rising cost of living. “I’m in the business of basketball, so I could be anywhere. But I wanted to do it in Oakland because I love this city,” he says. For Courtney, the success of his business is much bigger than just himself: “We wouldn’t have gotten to this stage without our team. It’s mostly women–amazing women–and people of color. We have every type of person working with us, which I think makes us great.” His goal is to create a positive impact in his community, opening up opportunities that he knows are still too limited for the folks in his community.
With displacement and gentrification rapidly spreading through Oakland, Courtney is determined to create well-paying jobs for kids from the neighborhood in an industry that they are passionate about, to celebrate and push forward a culture they’re already a part of. (All of the photos on Courtsmith’s website feature local youth in Oakland courts.) “That’s why programs like the Entrepreneurs-In-Residence program matter,” he says. It’s building a more stable economic environment for the diverse, long-time residents and entrepreneurs of Oakland. “If all these big tech companies can come in here and generate that kind of wealth, why can’t a successful homegrown athletic brand do it?” he muses.
You can find Courtsmith’s apparel in retail stores in Oakland, Sacramento, and at Mission College in San Jose every Saturday, or at pop-ups inside multi-court basketball facilities. Coaches interested in contracting Courtsmith can get the VIP treatment by setting up an appointment at their headquarters in East Oakland. Browse Courtsmith’s collections of performance athletic gear on their website.