hani Jones’ resume reads kind of like an adventure novel.
Cincinnatians and football fans probably know him best as the former Cincinnati Bengals linebacker and tackler extraordinaire; the rest of the world might recognize him from his adventures as host of Travel Channel series Dhani Tackles the Globe, wherein he travels from country to country, learning international sports and soaking up foreign cultures. He’s cycled in the Alps, he tried out lucha libre wrestling in Mexico City and he once rode a yak in Nepal.
Oh, and he’s also owner of BowTie Café in Mount Adams, is a founding partner of VMG Creative, a New York City-based creative agency, and occasionally writes for ESPN.com. All in a day’s work.
Today, he’s settled down in Hyde Park, although his working days are long from over. Jones has transitioned into the philanthropic world as founder of BowTie Cause, a foundation that teams up with non-profits to act as a sort of publicity pusher and community fund, all fueled by the power of one thing: the bowtie.
The BowTie genesis occurred some time after Jones discovered a good childhood friend, Kunta Littlejohn, had been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Littlejohn, as Jones describes, was an unwaveringly supportive friend who never let him “fall through the cracks” on his journey to football stardom. And he happened to also be a bowtie fanatic.
“One day he was like, ‘You know, if you want to be somebody, you got to rock a bowtie.’ And I looked at him like he was crazy and I didn’t want to wear one,” Jones says. “And then [later] I found out that he had cancer, so I immediately went to go put on a bowtie to support him just like he had always supported me in the past.”
Littlejohn’s cancer disappeared, but his motto — and the bowtie — never did.
Jones founded the BowTie Cause in 2010; it started small, as a platform to tell Littlejohn’s story of perseverance. Today, with its increasing visibility, Jones is working to evolve the bowtie into a mainstream embodiment of human compassion, open conversation and a genuine love and appreciation for exchanging stories.
Here’s how it works: A nonprofit approaches BowTie Cause and solicits them to create a customized bowtie for their organization, which, in turn, the nonprofit purchases for a reduced rate. BowTie sells them to the nonprofits for around $20 each — depending on the size of the order — and the nonprofit agrees to sell the bowties for $57 each — Jones’ NFL jersey number.
The whole process, from the drawing board and design to production and delivery, usually takes about 12 weeks.
Each bowtie is created to be specifically tailored to the non-profit’s cause or mission; some are prescribed, others are more eccentric. Aside from being visually appealing, the designs are intended to tell a little part of a story; just enough to make you want to ask and hear more.
There’s one tailored for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation with zig-zags, similar to an EKG; those ups and downs represent a diabetic’s ongoing struggle with sugar highs and lows.
It was only a matter of time before BowTie Cause set its sights on Cincinnati; Jones, who’s been — literally — all over the world, speaks with a fondness for the city, a place that’s taken care of him since his early days with the Bengals.
“When I first started playing here, I didn’t realize there was so much talent, so much consideration for philanthropy and so much consideration for the arts, and for community, and really sort of a collaborative environment,” he says. “I want to see Cincinnati succeed, I want to see Cincinnati grow.”
The bowtie recently custom-created in Cincinnati’s honor is a simple one, emblazoned with Cincinnati’s city flag, which is white, colored with flowing navy lines and a red imprint of the Cincinnati seal.
“All of them incite a little bit of mystery and conversation, and that’s what it’s all based around,” Jones says.
Much like Jones was at first, some of his peers and colleagues were skeptical about the potency of an article of clothing, particularly one traditionally associated with the good ol’ South or a stuffy tuxedo. It’s exactly that disrupt that gives the bowtie its inertia.
“The nontraditional aspect of the bowtie itself causes conversation to ensue and develop, so when people all the sudden come up and ask you, ‘What’s up with your bowtie?’ And that gives you an open door to be able to talk about the cause that you support.
“I think that we live behind sort of this digital divide; even in midst of conversation we all start to text and engage with our iPhones, Blackberrys, smartphones, Android phones. I do it all the time. But something happens when you’re able to sort of put that away and focus on something that greater than yourself.”
Now, the BowTie Cause is establishing its own non-profit entity, the BowTie Foundation. Profits from the sale of the Cincinnati Flag Bowtie will go toward the community fund managed by the BowTie Foundation, which will be used to give other non-profits the ability to produce and tell their story with their own signature bowtie.
They’ve made nearly 30 different bowties so far and there’s no sign of slowing down; to Jones, hopefully that means sparking more conversations, more connections and more understanding.
“I think people are scared to talk to one another,” Jones says. “Your biggest fan, your one true love might be right there, but you’re afraid to go talk to them. Someone that you want to do business with might be right there, but you’re afraid to go say hello. Why not soften the blow by welcoming them with a bowtie?”
To learn more about the BowTie Cause, visit bowtiecause.org.