DETROIT - Sebastian Jackson smiles when he thinks of the long journey it took to open his flagship Social Club Grooming Co. barbershop in midtown Detroit.
Three rejected business plans.
A legal battle with NBA superstar LeBron James and his production company.
Those were just a few of the challenges Jackson and his wife, Gabrielle, faced in launching their business in 2012.
But they persisted and their hard work is about to pay off in a big way: The couple has landed a deal with the NFL to bring their popular Shop Talk community forum to Super Bowl weekend in Atlanta next month.
Shop Talk, which launched in Detroit in 2013 at the Social Club Grooming, brings Detroiters - and sometimes celebrities and other well-known figures - together in the barbershop to talk about entrepreneurship, politics, sports, race and more. While participating in an engaging conversation, the audience looks on as leaders get their haircut.
Former Detroit Lions running back Joique Bell, art dealer and educator George R. N'Namdi, Detroit Vs. Everybody owner Tommey Walker and more have participated in previous Shop Talk forums. Others, such as Detroit native and rapper Big Sean, former NFL running back Reggie Bush and more have all gotten haircuts at the shop.
"When they come here, they're regular guys," Jackson said. "We treat them that way. I think they appreciate that - being treated like regular people. You've got a college student there, a professor and (Detroit native and singer) Dwele over there."
During Super Bowl weekend, the couple will host a discussion with past and current NFL members and the conversation will be moderated by Super Bowl XLV champion Greg Jennings, a former Green Bay Packers wide receiver and Fox Sports analyst.
"To be able to use this tool to have everyone lower their guard and have a real open and honest conversation is something we're really grateful to be able to provide," Jackson said. "There's been so much attention on issues (within the NFL) that we've all seen nationally and globally, so it's crazy that we kind of get to play the facilitator of those conversations and eventually create content that I think will engage the larger community."
Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, and two other NFL players yet to be revealed will also guide the discussion, which is expected to touch on social justice, life during and after football and more.
Details on whether the recorded conversation will be aired eventually are yet to come. The invitation-only event will take place Feb. 1, as a welcome to Super Bowl weekend for all participating players, coaches and staff.
"The barbershop has proven to be a place where men of all ages and ethnicities can share dialogue openly and freely on topics that are not always comfortable to speak on in most social settings," Jennings said in a statement. "As a former player, collaborating with the The Social Club and NFL to advance these conversations is vastly important, given the impact it can have due to their platforms, the players' influence, and our collective reach."
Jackson said the deal came about thanks to a relationship he cultivated with a University of Pennsylvania Wharton professor, who also is an NFL consultant. She introduced him to Arthur McAfee, senior vice president of player engagement for the NFL.
"She introduced us, we talked about what I was building. ... I remember thinking, are we about to get a deal?" Jackson said, adding that this is just the start of what could be more to come. "We're hoping for an authentic engagement and if it does well ... we'll continue."
Said McAfee: "ShopTalk provides players and legends an opportunity to connect in an engaging environment to share opinions on sports, entertainment, music, business, politics, culture and all things of interest to the player community."
Historically, within the black community and others as well, barbershops and salons have often been a place for conversation. The Jacksons said they wanted to go beyond just serving as a barbershop in the community. They wanted to create a cultural hub of sorts to facilitate discussion.
"It literally took two years to convince Wayne State (which owns the building) to give me a lease and another six months to renovate and get it open," Jackson recalled. "It was a long journey to get it up and going but I knew if we could get this thing going that it would be the gateway for the rest of our lives. I wanted to try and shake up the industry."
Jackson believes that the NFL deal validates the fact that Detroit's culture has a wide-reaching impact.
"I think the fact the NFL is doing this and the fact we came up with it in Detroit just speaks to the legacy of culture being created in the city," Jackson said. "It's a certain type of mentality here and a community ecosystem of creatives. People who don't have a lot of resources at their disposal ... I think that's what creates dope stuff. We're proving that barbershop culture matters and barbershops play a huge role in communities."
Gabrielle Jackson said when they hosted the first Shop Talk in 2013, they were surprised by the outpouring of support and how many people - men and women - showed up.
"I was amazed by how many people came into our space and interacted with each other," she recalled. "It really felt like a community."
Sebastian Jackson added: "Once I saw it the first time, these individuals sitting in the chair getting a haircut and telling their stories and the impact they create, I realized we can put anyone in those chairs. We need to have game-changers in the chair and it can be a TED Talk in a barbershop."
Not long after launching Shop Talk, Jackson said he began having discussions with an employee at James' company, Uninterrupted, about how they could potentially work together.
"Her and I talked for a very long time about Shop Talk," Jackson said. "We shared ideas. She shared content. Then all of a sudden they're executing what I shared and to me that speaks volumes. We talked about engaging LeBron and other people ... and wanting to have them produce Shop Talk for us digitally and they decided to do it on their own."
The conversations seemingly stalled but then Jackson became aware that James' company launched a web series on YouTube called "The Shop."
The show eventually landed on HBO and last year featured celebrities Snoop Dogg, Jon Stewart and more.
Jackson, through his company Adventure Enterprises, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan last April alleging that Uninterrupted stole the barbershop concept from him. He sought an injunction to stop production, as well as Uninterrupted's profits from the show and damages for trademark infringement.
Jackson trademarked the name "Shop Talk" in 2016.
According to a July court filing, both parties "have resolved this controversy" and the case was dismissed. Jackson confirmed the case had been resolved but declined to share details.
Uninterrupted could not be immediately reached for comment.
Now, the Jacksons just want to focus on what they've built in Detroit. The couple also owns a second location in downtown at 1515 Broadway St.
"People asked why'd you choose Detroit and it was just I want to open a barbershop in Detroit, I live here and that was that," Jackson said. "I think about this city - the best quote I've heard someone say is: It's large enough to matter globally but small enough to engage in locally. I agree with that. ... We're able to figure out how we can impact our community and I think culture here in Detroit impacts culture in a lot of places around the country and I think this next step is validating that."
Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com