In the days leading up to a big event like the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, life is pretty busy with planning meetings, conference calls and details, details, details.
I didn’t let that stop me from taking the time to join one of our Road to GES events, this time in St. Louis. The St. Louis I grew up in was a metropolis of global headquarters for leading aerospace, banking and agricultural household names. It was built on a legacy of innovation and risk taking: the Lewis and Clark expedition that opened the great frontier, the Eads Bridge that elevated commerce, and the 1904 World’s Fair where people tasted ice cream cones for the first time.
But every city struggles, and people like me left St. Louis to make our mark in different places.
What I found when I went back as part of GES was a city that is leapfrogging.
Six Thirty — a FinTech and AgTech accelerator— hosted a roundtable session where their companies pitched and posed questions to the “board” — a group of experts, investors, and government representatives from the city, regional and national level. (Six Thirty’s name is an homage to the height and width of the St. Louis Arch, in case you were wondering.) The active mentoring gave all of us the chance to dig into big problems and the solutions that are being developed right there in St. Louis. Transformations in the seed and crop insurance industry, the bond market, small business lending and cash transfer were all on the table. New ideas were presented and relationships were formed.
From the session, I got 3 take aways:
1) St. Louis is going global…again. Around the table were investors and companies with leadership from the Middle East, South Asia, Latin America and beyond. They chose St. Louis to focus on their product development because of the industry expertise in the area. That’s critical, and a note to entrepreneurs: go to where people can help you. Surely, St. Louis companies had always attracted the best and the brightest in the fields of engineering and health care and the like, but now, start-ups from around the world are focusing on St. Louis. They aren’t coming for the paycheck and the corner office. They’re coming for the opportunity to make their own way.
2) Midwest Nice matters. You’ve heard it before: your ecosystem is everything. When I grew up, the thing that was stifling as a kid was that everyone knew you, or knew someone who knew you. That spirit is very much alive in the halls of TRex, the truly stunning incubator that hosted our meeting. That “one degree” of connection that can be hard as a kid helps a business grow. The leadership of TRex knows their market and knows how to help (and the Executive Director knew my dad, of course). When it comes to building a business, that’s indispensable. It’s not a tit-for-tat like you find in some places. It’s an understanding that a community rises together. Mentors are paternal. Business is pleasurable. Colleagues stay late sometimes but who doesn’t love a Cardinals day game?
3) “Show Me” is still the State that’s important. Don’t let the niceness fool you. Practicality is the name of the game. Hard work, common sense and clear goals are the keys to success. No time to chat. We have work to do. Around the table at TRex, the companies that came to pitch were not looking for compliments from the people they just met. They were looking for ideas and advice. Tough questions and critical analysis of assumptions and strategies were expected. Everyone — entrepreneur, investor, and mentor — needed to prove their worth.
St. Louis is still the city I knew and yet it’s not. I admired and liked many of the business leaders I knew growing up, but it’s changed. The new lions of the city are in incubators. They love their town but they want to change the world. Just like the St. Louis of before, they will leave their mark on everything from industry to the arts.
I’m proud of my home town, and happy to carry the entrepreneurial Spirit of St. Louis with me into the global celebration President Obama has created. I have no doubt these discussions will be replicated in a grand scale but it’s important to realize they are happening everywhere. That’s why we’ve hosted these conversations around the country and around the world. It’s also why we want to make sure we can welcome people who can’t attend into the conversation through #GES2016, this Medium publication, on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
On to Palo Alto!