Encouraging diversity in the St. Louis startup community
St. Louis has hosted a healthy, burgeoning startup community for some years and the strong showing of small tech businesses has drawn particular attention, leading some to call St. Louis the “next Silicon Valley.” With a healthy network in place to support new companies, community leaders and entrepreneurs are now working to increase diversity within St. Louis’ startup culture.
At the forefront of these efforts is Prosper, an investment and mentoring organization for women entrepreneurs, and Vision 2015, a full-day regional symposium on career opportunities in bioscience, tech, and manufacturing for women, minorities, veterans, and immigrants.
On Tuesday, “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh spoke with representatives from both about diversity in entrepreneurship, the difficulty of starting companies and finding funds, and the future of St. Louis’ startup community.
Prosper works to close the gender gap in entrepreneurship through two programs: Prosper Institute, which trains and mentors women entrepreneurs, and Prosper Capital, which works to increase women’s access to early (and crucial) funding. “This is a St. Louis as well as a national problem—that women are starting a lot of companies but they’re not really growing them at the rate that men are,” said Mary Jo Gorman, lead managing partner of Prosper Capital. “Less than 1% of the venture capital money gets invested in women-led companies,” meaning that women entrepreneurial initiatives may be less likely to grow and succeed.
Along with introducing women entrepreneurs to potential investors and funders, Prosper acquaints them with the St. Louis startup “ecosystem,” pairing them with female mentors who are leaders in the business community or who have had successful startup ventures in the past.
Anoo Nathan, CEO of SmartMonitor and a participant in the Prosper Capital Startup Accelerator's Spring 2015 class, said she benefited from both her mentor’s experience and the tight, supportive St. Louis startup community.
Cindy Teasdale McGowan, a mentor for Prosper and a startup founder herself, agreed. “It would have cost so much more money for me to do the exact same thing in the Bay area,” she said of her company, Makaboo Personalized Gifts.
It’s true—cost of living is low for businesses and employees in St. Louis, and the city already has the talent many startups need thanks to initiatives like LaunchCode and the close proximity of many universities. In addition, as Teasdale McGowan stressed, St. Louis comprises a friendlier and smaller culture than that of cities like San Francisco. When meeting the right people can mean life or death for a startup, that easy networking is crucial. In St. Louis, “If you find the right person to introduce you to someone, that person will take a meeting no matter how high up they are,” she said.
These connections have made St. Louis a leader in fostering successful startups. They may also make introducing more diversity to the startup scene (which, some argue, badly needs it), a little easier in St. Louis than in other cities. “I think for more people who are minorities—for women, for individuals who are not engaged in the startup community—I think it’s the best kept secret in St. Louis,” said Cheryl Watkins-Moore, director of entrepreneurial and bioscience inclusion at BioSTL. Unveiling that secret is what Vision 2015 is for.
Like Prosper, Vision 2015's aim is to point entrepreneurs of underrepresented communities towards the resources that St. Louis offers its startups. Billing itself as “the first-ever regional symposium aimed at building a wholly-inclusive, diverse innovation community,” Vision 2015 is a combined effort from ITEN, BioSTL, and St. Louis Makes to widen the St. Louis business sphere, Watkins-Moore said.
“Our target audience are those professionals who are out here in the marketplace that are looking for new opportunities,” Watkins-Moore continued. “Either entrepreneurial, acquisitional, or maybe on a corporate innovation team. And that’s the focus of Vision 2015, primarily, is to show […] opportunities at the cross section of science, IT, and advanced manufacturing in those spaces.”
Vision 2015 will take place on Friday, June 12, at Harris-Stowe State University; Prosper Capital is accepting applications for their startup accelerator class until June 19. Here's to the new Silicon Valley.
Mary Jo Gorman
- Founder, Advanced ICU Care; Lead Managing Partner, Prosper Capital
- CEO, SmartMonitor; Participant in Spring 2015 Class of Prosper Capital, startup accelerator
Cindy Teasdale McGowan
- Founder, Makaboo Personalized Gifts; Lead Mentor, Prosper
- Director of Entrepreneurial and Bioscience Inclusion, BioSTL
Mary Louise Helbig
- CEO, HealthyMe; Entrepreneur-in-Residence, ITEN
- Friday, June 12, 2015
- 7:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
- Harris-Stowe State University's Emerson Performance Center, 3026 Laclede Avenue
- More information
St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.