My introduction to the startup community in St. Louis came by accident. I stumbled into it while looking for stories of innovation and positive change in a city labeled as racist and backwards following protests in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. The negative news cycle felt suffocating, so I started a podcast called STL Community Cast, in which I interviewed local innovators to share the stories of their work.
My first interviews were with people working in nonprofits. St. Louis has the most nonprofits per capita of any city in the country, so this was an easy place to start. Soon, I become aware of the influential role tech startups were playing in the community. Through a recommendation by a friend, I reached out to Tyler Mathews, who now is director of Venture Café St. Louis. Tyler suggested a few other guests for the podcast, and the ball was rolling. With each new guest, I’d get a couple of referrals.
This was exciting for me because I wanted the city to own a new positive identity, and we already had it — I just hadn’t been aware of it. I realized St. Louis was — and is — a special place for innovation and entrepreneurship. Much of it was happening in the tech space, but not all of it.
I think that my experience offers up a valuable lesson for startup founders in the Heartland. Some of their neighbors might not be familiar with tech terms like “UX design” or “blockchain,” and might not readily understand why it’s so important to create a greater density of tech startups. But their neighbors likely do understand the importance of working together to create positive change in the community and to develop a reputation for innovation. This can be done by creating startup events with this end goal in mind.
One of the first startups I met with when I created STL Community Cast was Good Life Growing, an urban farm operating in a poor, desolate neighborhood of North St. Louis. Using aquaponics, a sustainable method for growing produce, Good Life Growing provides organic food at little or no cost to people in a food desert.
The farm sits on a lot that had been vacant, surrounded by crumbling brick houses. Neighborhood kids stop by to lend a hand and learn how food is grown and why nutrition is vital to our health. St. Louis has more plant science PhDs than any city in the world. Thanks to this startup, just a few miles from where some of the most advanced agtech research takes place, underprivileged kids can get a free science lesson and a bag of fresh produce to take home for dinner.
Good Life Growing is not going to be the next Facebook or Google. But social innovation like this is an important piece of our startup community, and critical to long-term stability. As St. Louis becomes known as a top destination for tech startups — a wonderful thing, obviously — innovative organizations that don’t fit the mold of a typical “tech startup” can often get overlooked.
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However, the St. Louis startup community has taken some critical steps to ensure that everyone is welcome at the table — something other startup communities can learn from. People gather at open networking events to meet strangers working on unfamiliar projects. Every Thursday at Venture Café in the Cortex Innovation District, people network over a beer before dispersing to different breakout sessions or panel discussions covering topics of interest. These meetings (or “collisions,” as they’re called at Venture Café) are how new questions arise and original ideas happen. The key is to offer general support for innovation and to create an environment that welcomes everyone, regardless of their technical background.
One project that aims to foster this sense of openness is the Delmar Divine, named to highlight its location along the so-called Delmar Divide, a well-known boundary between rich and poor. Led by Build-a-Bear founder and former CEO Maxine Clark, Delmar Divine will soon transform an old, vacant hospital building into a coworking and residential space for socially minded entrepreneurs in the West End neighborhood. Some may be developing technology platforms, others may be working on outreach and support. This model reflects the greater innovation community in St. Louis, which is defined by open doors, conversations across professions, and a shared desire for change.
Another founder I recently spoke with on STL Community Cast was Matt Homann of consulting firm Filament. The firm incorporates drawing and other creative exercises into meetings to stimulate interaction and teamwork. This approach does not rely on tech; it actually removes tech from the equation to foster real human interaction. Filament works with all types of organizations (including many nonprofits) and describes its approach as “industry agnostic.”
I think startup communities can help themselves by adopting the same perspective. Develop programs that are industry agnostic, that any entrepreneur or aspiring entrepreneur can partake in.
Tech is infiltrating more facets of the economy than ever before. It’s fascinating, and we’re right to be obsessed with it. But the best startups communities will manage to include voices from outside of tech by making their programs welcoming to all.
Drew Davis is the host of STL Community Cast, a podcast covering the St. Louis innovation community, marketing consultant at Emmis Communications, and contributor at EQSTL.com.