The Rundown
8:44 pm
Mon April 7, 2014

Economy & Innovation Rundown: Ladies First. Sometimes.

By the time this post is published, people across St. Louis are reveling from having watched the first Cardinals’ home game of the season and are gearing up for a fabulous season.

It's not just April showers that bring flowers. Technology can do it, too.
It's not just April showers that bring flowers. Technology can do it, too.
Credit (Flickr/Moyan Brenn)

I’m hoping that is the case because this week's rundown on economy and innovation isn’t all sunshine and flowers. Actually there could be flowers, but you’ll have to wait to read about that.

First, let’s talk entrepreneurship. 

This week, the winners of the 2014 Arch Grant Global Business Plan Competition will be announced. These winning start-ups receive not only a $50,000 award but they also get pro-bono legal, accounting and marketing services; professional mentoring and access to venture capital networks.  We’ll have coverage of this year’s winners on Friday, and when we do, pay close attention to who they are.

I don’t mean their names. I mean their gender. The start-up scene notably skews male — and not just here but all over the country.  The website techli.com points to a study that found only one in 10 internet startups is founded by a woman.

Sigh.

But the article then goes on to profile Aihui Ong, a female entrepreneur who not only beat the odds starting her own business, called Love With Food, but she did so while recovering from a broken heart and surviving breast cancer. The gal has moxy. Here’s a taste of her can-do spirit:

That’s not to say it hasn’t been difficult. “I think in the beginning, there were obstacles. I have a tech background and I’m a female founder. I am 100 percent the anomaly out there,” she shared. “But I think, don’t let what you read online affect your position. Sometimes I feel like what people write on it can be depressing as a woman entrepreneur. They say you don’t get funded easily, aren’t given a fair chance. You just keep on going, be yourself, and things will happen.”

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, there’s a different women-in-tech story happening. Apparently that one-in-10 statistic sited earlier doesn’t apply globally. Policymic.com reported that in the Middle East and North Africa, 25 percent of tech entrepreneurs are women. And in the Gulf it’s 35 percent. 

“Wha ... ???” You ask.

Well, apparently a few things are going on there. First, women study science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — at a much higher rate than men do in those countries. What's more, those women do a better job of supporting each other than they do in Western countries.

But what really struck me was that in many Arab countries, tech firms are considered "good jobs for women," the way that teaching was once considered in this country. 

While more than half of university graduates in the Middle East are women, only 21 percent of the workforce consists of women. However, "the internet … is a new space that is more meritocratic and not as heavily male. The technology also lets entrepreneurs work from home, making it easier to raise children."

Closer to home in the bricks and mortar world

St. Louis has long focused on building up downtown as a combined residential, retail and commercial area. It’s been a challenge, especially on the retail side.  Last year, Macy’s closed its downtown store in the Railway Exchange Building. There was hand-wringing over that one.

But St. Louis isn't the only city having a tough time keeping retail downtown. This past weekend, Sear’s closed its flagship store in Chicago’s Loop neighborhood. Sears is headquartered in suburban Chicago but, try though it may, it couldn’t buck the trend of sinking sales enough to justify a presence on State Street.

I’m not suggesting that St. Louisans engage in any kind of inter-city Schadenfreude. Just pointing out that we aren’t alone. Also, we can take solace in the fact that at least one downtown building, which many feared was a boondoggle that would stay empty for eternity, is setting to open its doors.

What was once known as the Roberts Tower downtown is now officially the Tower at OPOP, or Old Post Office Plaza, and residents will be moving in apartments starting May 1. The St. Louis Business Journal reports that monthly rental rates range from $1,195 for a 761-square-foot studio to $1,595 for a one-bedroom, 990 square-foot apartment.

The Tower’s opening is a relief to St. Louis boosters. The Roberts brothers had to abandon their plans to convert the 140,000-square-foot building into luxury condominiums after facing financial difficulties in the midst of renovating the building. The Tower sat idle for several years before two property management firms, from Chicago and Cincinnati, bought the building in 2012 to finish the work.

Help for the black thumbed

I promised you flowers and you will get flowers … if you water and care for them appropriately. But, if you’re like me, caring for green things can pose a challenge. How do you know when they’re hungry? They don’t talk or bark or meow or do anything that other creatures do when they're feeling peckish.

Technology, as always, has come to the rescue.

The Wall Street Journal brings us the story of a new gadget called the Parrot Flower Power, which gives voice to the voiceless: your potted plants.

The article’s author describes how it works:

Using electronic sensors, the device tells me when the plant needs more water or if I've been drowning it, whether it gets too much sun or too little, when it needs fertilizer and whether the air is too hot or too cold.

This new technology is either proof of how ingenious we humans are at making our lives easier. Or it’s proof of how good we are at making our need for knowledge obsolete because we can just let the machines do it. It brings new meaning to the question: “How does your garden grow.”