Entrepreneurs, Ferguson and Hope

As our city moves to right itself again after a traumatic period, one that underscores looming inequality, we must look inward and to each other and ask, “How will we build a better future?”

To Determine the Solution, Identify the Problem

One thing that struck me at an unexpected moment was during the Rise of the Rest tour that stopped in St. Louis. During a fireside chat at Wash U with Jim McKelvey of Square & LaunchCode, Steve Case said, “Part of the problem with Ferguson… is that while it’s multi-faceted… at the root of it, is a sense of hopelessness. There is a lack of a sense of hope, opportunity, and possibility.”

Some days later, I was reminded of Case’s observation at a concert the night of the grand jury decision. Performer Killer Mike said, “It is not about race, it is not about class, it is not about color. It is about poverty and greed.”

Poverty, hopelessness, and lack of opportunity and possibility. One begets the other and vice versa. How can we create or being to rebuild hope, opportunity, and possibility?

The two quotes above began to coalesce for me when I heard my friend and executive director of Venture Café, Travis Sheridan say, “We use the word entrepreneur a lot, but on the north side of St. Louis where I live, they use the word hustler. It means the exact same thing: ‘People trying to improve their station in life.’”

Entrepreneur. Hustler. Small business owner.

Three different terms. Three different connotations. 1 goal.

This observation provided insight into how we might from one angle address, a lack of hope, opportunity and possibility.

It’s Time We Broaden Our Perspective

So much of the conversation happening locally and nationally is around making a more inclusive and equitable society. Perhaps its time we broaden our perspective of entrepreneur or startup from high tech, bioscience, and heavily engineered products to include entrepreneurship targeting local markets (e.g. grocery stores, dry cleaners, daycare, etc) rather than stratifying people based on the type of business they run? Having heard at times people place judgment on a type of startup in the past, “If you’re not building a 10x startup, you’re not an entrepreneur,” it’s time for us to move beyond this.

In our more inclusive and equitable society, we must embrace all those that have taken a risk to start something.

As my friends Merriam & Webster say, the definition of an entrepreneur is:

one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise.

That sounds like a hustler. That sounds like a small business owner. It all sounds like an entrepreneur to me.

There is one other thing I’d be remiss not to mention. “STEM education” and the jobs it yields are incredible but are not easily accessed by all. Not everyone is raised in a house with computers or attends a school with extensive curricular offerings or teachers in STEM areas. It doesn’t mean that with hard work people can’t find access to opportunities, only that access is not equitable yet. We must work towards this but in the meanwhile, we must not play down risk or endeavor based on the scale of someone’s goals, aspirations, and ability.

High tech and biotech startups are incredibly valuable and we need more of them. But these startups have employees that will need and crave a diversity of local services.  As a solution to the traumatic events our city has recently endured and as a solution to our need for locally targeted enterprises, we need for St. Louis to make provisions for anyone ready to take a risk and start a business.

Be a Risk Taker

So as I bring this to a close, my message to everyone is, “We are waiting for you to take a chance.”

Show me a risk taker opening a business and I’ll show you someone with a sense of hope, optimism, and possibility. Show me a risk-taker opening a business and I’ll show you someone invested in building community.  Show me a city of optimism and community commitment, and I’ll show you a stronger, more inclusive St. Louis.

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