We met on a chilly morning at Bread Company on Olive and squeezed into a small table in the middle of the restaurant. The morning rush was in full swing as we leaned over the table to better hear each other above the hustle and bustle.
Jennifer was a part of the team that recently launched Spark!, a startup incubator for high school students at Parkway schools. As the Coordinator of Career and Technical Education for the district, she has already helped begin this and numerous other successful programs to give students real world experience.
We met on a chilly morning at Bread Company on Olive and squeezed into a small table in the middle of the restaurant. The morning rush was in full swing as we leaned over the table to better hear each other above the hustle and bustle.
Michael Peters originally decided to run for State Representative because of his grand-kids. With four of them living in the city he was concerned for their education and decided it was time to step up. Of course that’s not the only reason… “It’s a real anomaly to have a strong community with lousy retail. It hurts the school systems because they don’t get tax dollars. Crestwood mall… the last time it was fully operational, it generated 1.7 million dollars in sales tax for the community. Now that’s made up for in property taxes.”
Watson Road as a Thriving Destination
At Starbucks one morning Michael Peters and I hovered over a small table in the corner, our drinks clutched tightly in our hands as we discussed politics and his run for State Representative of the 91st District this year.
Since Crestwood Mall’s decline and official closing in 2013, things have changed in the areas of Crestwood, Lindbergh, and Webster Groves. Tax revenue from retail has declined substantially, property taxes have increased, and it’s hurt...tourism? I was surprised to learn that Route 66 is still a huge draw for tourists as far away as Europe, and although Watson Road was once the heart of this cultural attraction, we no longer have much to offer these travelers.
Michael Peters believes there’s a solution. “I want to talk to the Mayor of Webster about marketing the Watson Corridor as the heart of Route 66. I was amazed to discover that tourists spent over 4 billion in St. Louis last year and 22 million came from Europeans and Canadians. One of the real reasons they come here is for Route 66, but people just drive past us! We really lost our identity, so we need to brand ourselves.”
More than just the marketing, there are many small things that can be done to increase tourism and sales in the district, for example removing the concrete lane dividers on Watson Road. “Those dividers on the road, they encourage the subliminal mindset to keep driving.” Michael has even asked an employee at the Harley store if someone could be trained in half a day to ride a motorcycle. This would be a major draw for tourists because they could rent a Harley and drive from Ted Drewes to Mile 277.
The Elderly Could Lose Their Homes?
Most people are busy going about their lives when Michael shows up on their doorstep. Usually they take a flyer, thank him, and go back to their routine. But the older members of the community are concerned and will engage him with questions about how to fix the problem of rising taxes.
As the lights slowly went out in Crestwood Mall, the property taxes for many homeowners in the district increased. For Michael, that has meant a $1,000 bump in annual taxes. For seniors on a fixed income a $1,000 a year increase is unthinkable and this change is close to driving some long-time residents from their homes. Tapping his cup on the table for emphasis, he explained “If we can raise retail, they won’t have to worry about rising property taxes because our school funding can come from businesses rather than homes.”
When I asked Michael how he would legislate some of the changes we had discussed, he told me that 2.5% of Missouri’s budget goes to economic development, and he would attempt to increase that. “If you can promote jobs, you can build a community.” While he doesn’t want to take money away from education (30% of the budget) or medicare (33%), more tax revenue from economic development projects will mean lower property taxes and larger budgets for both of these in the future.
The Failure of Education
Statistically less than 50% of college graduates find a job in their field after graduation, so… “we need to take a hard look at what kind of degrees are being offered.” Michael is hoping to be assigned to an education committee, if elected, so he can begin affecting change.
First and foremost, he says we need to make sure public schools are making students career-ready. Michael wants to see young adults go to college with their first years worth of credits already under their belt. Before they even arrive on campus they would have a basic foundation in fields like healthcare, data, or business management.
His education agenda in a nutshell: “If we can get education with a career focus, young adults won’t be moving back home with mom and dad, they’ll be getting jobs and moving out. And so to start this, you must have a vision, what to do with business, education, and people and you have to put those three together and so that is my goal.”
His Favorite Thing About St. Louis
“The whole thing is that St. Louis is not a city, it is an overgrown town. It is a patch quilt of communities. You take the 3 communities that make up the 91st district… Shrewsbury, Webster and Crestwood, they're very much alike but they are also different. I live in Crestwood, I’m pastor of a church in Webster, and my brother lives in Shrewsbury. They are all different but they are very much alike, when you go all around St. Louis and have that… that’s really the strength of St. Louis. And we have that in our heritage, as well. You have that in The Hill, the Italian Section, you’ve got Dogtown, the World’s Fair stuff. That’s what I like about St. Louis.”
While Michael likes our patchwork of communities here, he’s comfortable saying that the 91st District takes the cake. “These are the best communities in St. Louis. I’m biased on that, but they are.”
State Rep Jeanne Kirkton spent much of her childhood playing in the creek that ran alongside her house. Then, she had no ambitions of running for office... growing up in the corn fields of St. Charles was enough.
An email to Representative Kirkton elicited a quick response and just a few weeks later we found ourselves facing each other across the table at the Webster Groves Bread Co. The day was a hot one, so I clung to my iced tea to stay cool, Jeanne delicately sipped her coffee.
The Effects of Gun Violence (on Jeanne)
In the days when Maryville was still a college, Jeanne studied there and received her degree in nursing. Following graduation, she began work at the St. Louis County Hospital where she often witnessed the terrible effects of violence. Not one to sit back in the face of a problem, Jeanne joined a group that advocated for safe gun laws. “As a nurse I certainly saw my share of gun violence and thought, well this is something that I could get into.”
In 2003 when a concealed carry ban was overturned by her Senator, Jeanne finally had enough. She was finding herself in Jefferson city more and more, so when someone suggested she run against him, she did. “I never expected to be in politics. I knew nothing about it. I had been a nurse and a mom… but I did it!”
Well, not at first. After losing her first election, Jeanne ran for the Webster Groves city council and here she was successful. When her seat was term-limited she ran for State Representative and… “Here I am!” Toying with her coffee cup she reflected on the progression from healthcare to politics. “Life’s interesting. You never know when a window is going to open.”
Keeping the Constituents Happy
Voting on legislation isn’t as straightforward as following the instructions of constituents. For Jeanne, there are three components to making an informed decision: listening to testimony, constituents, and floor debates. Understanding that her preconceptions about certain topics can influence her vote, she is always willing to hear out both lobbyists and residents of her district. “There’s a bumper sticker I saw several years ago and I never forgot it. It says, ‘Don’t believe everything you think.’”
While some voters are very comfortable contacting her and expressing their opinion, she feels that for many people it’s intimidating to meet with a legislator. “That makes me feel sad. We’re just people.” Which is part of the reason Jeanne’s campaign strategy for this November is going door-to-door. “It’s how I learn what’s really going on.”
No matter what happens, she knows that it’s impossible to make everyone happy. “When I wake up in the morning a third of the people are very happy with me, the other third will be very angry, and the other third haven’t made up their mind, yet.”
Wag More, Bark Less
As we cleared our table and drifted towards our vehicles, the conversation continued, but on heavier topics. Discussing the Michael Brown shooting, Jeanne told me that she believes there are a lot of factors and we owe it to ourselves to take time to evaluate it. She certainly thinks there are lessons to be learned from the situation and if we don’t learn from it? “Then shame on us.”
Approaching our cars, she shook my hand and politely wished me a nice day, then climbed into a beat-up vehicle with a ‘Wag More, Bark Less’ bumper sticker and drove off.
NOTE: With November elections approaching I posted Jeanne's story sooner which is why you may notice a discrepancy between the last coffee # and this. I will shortly be posting a blog about her opponent in the upcoming electoral race.
Kaori had lived in St. Louis for years but didn’t know anything about the city. Intending to rectify this and explore the growing startup movement, she quit her job as a change management consultant with Deloitte and began helping small companies for free. What she has learned about her new hometown makes her proud to call STL home.
The bell above the door at Washington Post was tingling consistently, giving us a melodic clue that the store/coffee shop was busy that day. We sat next to the windows looking out on the street, the smell of Kaori’s mango passion tea slowly waking us from our still not-quite-awake stupor. After I dove into a 15 minute long explanation of my work and projects, she excitedly explained her decision to leave her company.
A Realization and Transition
Over 4 years ago, Kaori and her fiance moved to St. Louis from Pittsburgh. He had grown up in the area and still had family here, but she knew very little about her future hometown. At the time, it didn’t really matter to her where she lived, as long as she had an airport nearby, because in her role with Deloitte she was traveling most of the time. This constant traveling was taking a toll. Not only did Kaori have no knowledge of the city, she also admits that for 3 years she didn’t know a single person here.
However, there wasn’t much time for her to be lonely. In addition to constant traveling, she was often beginning her work day at 6am and leaving the office after dark. Despite it all she enjoyed her work, but she didn’t love the types of companies she was consulting for, like big oil companies.
So, when she learned about local schools struggling to maintain accreditation, she decided it was time to get involved somehow. Not long after coming to this realization, Kaori met Jake (coffee #71) of Project IDWIL at a 1 Million Cups event. “That catapulted me into this whole entrepreneur space,” she said thoughtfully drumming her fingers on the table.
Somewhere In The Middle?
While quitting a job is never easy, it was a piece of cake compared to what Kaori was trying to do next. Her goals were defined from the outset: figure out what was going on in St. Louis, determine how she fits into the community, and decide on a new career.
First, figure out what’s happening in St. Louis. After learning about the startup movement and seeing the energy of these companies, she realized this was the answer. Second, determine how she fits into the community. Shortly after leaving Deloitte she began networking and volunteering her time and skills to new companies in the area, making her reflect, “How can I be part of leaving a legacy for St. Louis as it turns into a more entrepreneurial hub?”
The realization that she wanted to be a long-term, integral part of the entrepreneurial community here, was an important one for Kaori. “If you had asked me 4 or 5 years ago if I’d ever live in St. Louis, I would be like, ‘where’s St. Louis again? Somewhere in the middle there?’” But now… “I absolutely love it here. Definitely love being here. All of these little stores… there’s so much character and life in it.”
She continued to volunteer her time to these companies, offering to help with 2 to 3 week projects for free. In the end 10 companies benefited from her expertise and ultimately she even found her next career move with the new Venture Cafe at the CIC! “It’s been a really fun way of learning about organizations and how startups work and learning about the ecosystem with the startup scene.”
A Unique Perspective of the City
When she told me that she enjoys working in the yard, I asked Kaori if she would like the strawberry plants in my garden. Her face lit up as she accepted my offer and told me this was one of the reasons she has come to love our city. “Out of this experience and I’ve never done this in a different city, so I can’t say it’s unique to St. Louis, but I think it is, it’s the willingness of people to help out and even have a conversation. Even you! Offering your strawberries!”
For example, when Kaori first started her project everyone tried to help her find a job. It took some explaining before they understood she wasn’t ready for that, yet. “I’m serious about figuring out what I want to be when I grow up!”
Gathering our cups and belongings we reluctantly prepared to leave the warm, inviting atmosphere of The Washington Post. We continued our conversation out on the sidewalks and then said our goodbyes. However, Kaori’s adopted love of our great city stuck with me throughout the past several months and has turned what was a casual coffee meeting into a burgeoning friendship.
Dan was diagnosed with testicular cancer four months after he met his future wife, Stephanie. When he made the phone call to tell her the news, her response surprised him and sealed their future together.
On a very hot day Dan and I met at The Market at The Cheshire. After ordering we pulled out chairs at a corner table and took seats opposite each other. As condensation from our cold drinks left dark circles on the wood table, he told me about being diagnosed with cancer at 29, how he knew he would marry Stephanie, and why he started a nonprofit.
At the age of 29, intense back pain had become a normal part of Dan’s life, but one that he just couldn’t get used to. He dreaded waking up in the morning because sleep was his only relief. Even the 16 Advil he popped everyday weren’t enough to dull the excruciating ache. Suicide was never an option, but Dan certainly prayed that he wouldn’t have to live another 40 years this way.
After trying injections and everything else he could think of, Dan’s chiropractor friend recommended that he lay on his back and slowly bring his knees to his chest. Ok, no problem. He started with the right leg and that was just fine, but when he tried to lift the left leg he realized something was seriously wrong. Gently touching his abdomen he located a golf ball sized lump and thought, “Wait, that shouldn’t be there...”
Immediately he consulted with a doctor and learned that he actually had a tumor the size of an NFL football. It had atrophied his left kidney and was pushing sideways on his spine. Within 8 days of locating the tumor, Dan was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Not a happy diagnosis by any stretch, but one of the most curable types.
The Number Four
One fateful night just four months before he got the news, Dan joined a group of friends at a bar. It was here that he was introduced to Stephanie, another member of the group and they danced together most of the evening. As the night wore on they shared their first kiss and connected over their twin four leaf clover tattoos.
Just four months later Dan picked up the phone to tell her about his diagnosis. When he finished there was silence on the other end of the line. “If you don‘t want to be here for this, I understand,” he told her, trying not to hope. Her response took him by surprise, “No. We’re going to fight this every step of the way together.”
When he hung up the phone, he looked at his parents for a moment before telling them. “I’m going to marry that girl. I’m going to the jewelers this weekend and getting her a ring and I’m going to marry that girl.” On St. Patrick’s day he popped the question and started chemo the following Monday.
Imagine (or remember) telling someone for the first time that you have cancer. The anticipation of their reaction, the ‘I’m so sorry’ look they’ll give you, and even worse the tears. Dan coached me on the best way to react when you get news like this.
“There’s not a single platitude you can say that’s going to make a cancer person feel better, but if you can diffuse it… believe it or not, that helps.” Rather than the ‘I’m so sorry’ that comes naturally, he advises asking more questions. “If you’ve never had cancer, no one close to you has had cancer and the elephant in the room comes out, usually a person’s first reaction is ‘oh my god, I’m so sorry’. You know and that’s… that’s nice. But if someone ever lets it out of the bag, ‘Oh I had cancer’ or ‘I have cancer’, I never say I’m sorry. My first question is, ‘what kind?’”
The questions that follow aren’t easy, but he explains that they really help diffuse the situation. Do you have to have chemo? And, are you going to lose a part? He smiled, “I lost lefty. Shit happens.”
The Friends Who Weren’t There
“Some friends… and they’re true friends, I’m not saying they’re not true friends because it does affect everybody, but some of my friends kind of disappeared when I got diagnosed. And I’m ok with that because everybody handles stuff differently.”
It’s unfortunate that some of his friendships went away, but he wants to educate cancer patients and the public that just because you don’t know how to handle it, you don’t have to hide from it. So, he started a nonprofit called The Half Fund.
“After cancer, I found that I made a lot of really stupid mistakes. And I mean there were some things I could have avoided and there were some things I really should have avoided. I even saw them coming and I still couldn’t get out of the way of my idiocy, so I wanted to help others to not make the same mistakes.”
The Half Fund
The idea was initially born because a screenplay was the only way Dan could think of to share his experiences. But… the first version “sucked ass”. He didn’t give up, though and eventually wrote something that cleared the entire bureaucracy of the American Cancer Society in 2 hours. The national office called him and agreed to let him use their name and logo and help with the marketing of the film once it’s made.
The ACS also suggested that Dan create his own nonprofit to generate money for filming and thus The Half Fund was born. The way it works is any artistic project (art, film, literature, etc.) that gets funding from The Half Fund, must split their profits in half. One half must go to a cancer charity and the other half goes to back to the Half Fund. Every year they’ve raised between 10 and 15 thousand dollars this way.
Cancer is definitely not something you ask for, but in a way Dan is thankful because it gave him his life purpose. “The whole reason why we’re doing this is, we HAVE to tell our stories. They honor the people who come before us and they help the people who come after us.”
“Chemistry just like, explains life. I mean, everything is made up of what you can describe with chemistry.” Paul was a chemist at Covidien before he took the leap and co-founded a solar energy company here in St. Louis. What gave him the courage to take this bold step? Two things. First, he had some terrible experiences working at a local pharmaceutical company (including being directly exposed to carcinogens). Second, he re-connected with a college buddy who was also frustrated with his job.
A Second Meeting
It had the kind of day that makes you feel guilty if you’re not outside, sunny and warm with just the slightest breeze. I took my time walking from the office to the Washington Post, where Paul held a table for our 7pm meeting. This wasn’t the first time we’d met. At an SBA (small business administration) talk a few weeks prior we exchanged cards with the promise of a coffee meeting in the near future, and here we were!
I chit-chatted with the barista as we waited for our drinks, then slipped into the booth opposite Paul. Immediately he began telling me about his experiences leading up to becoming an entrepreneur.
A Rough Start
Freshman year, Paul attended college in Jacksonville, Illinois at a very small private school. After only one year he realized this small, rural school wasn’t his M.O. But, before he transferred to Carbondale, he met Kyle. The two quickly became friends and stayed in touch after Paul left.
Even after the transfer, Paul struggled to decide on a major, changing it four times before finally settling on chemistry simply because he’d done well in high school. Thanks to Breaking Bad, he had some strange people approach him when he made that decision. “When I was first getting into it, you’d always get those people like, ‘oh, you can make acid, right?’”, he said using a dopey voice. His response: “I’m like, ‘No. Get away from me.’ They really thought that like, I had the ability to like… do that. Which, I mean… I guess. But most things are specialized.”
After graduation he was lucky and easily found a job at Covidien, then Sigma-Aldrich where he did quality control for different chemicals. The work involved significant risk because he was working with very serious chemicals. One of the most dangerous things that Paul discovered during his work here, was a lab that wasn’t set-up properly and had been blasting carcinogens into the space where he and other employees worked. So he swabbed a wall of the room and found dangerously high levels of the chemical. “Stuff like that happened occasionally,” he said shaking his head.
“Obviously one of the reasons I wanted to get out of the whole industry was because, when you’re at that level you’re like a peon. You do what they tell you to do. You put your health and everything else at risk for them to make an extra buck. You get a decent salary, but at what cost? Not to mention the environmental cost and everything else they don’t even consider because it has nothing to do with the dollars in their pocket. It’s just totally against everything I believe.”
It Was Kismet
One day at work, Paul decided to take action and sent an email to HR about a supervisor that had been giving him a lot of trouble. This was his last resort, as the situation had been escalating for months and had left him miserable. He understood the odds of anything being done about it and he knew that sending this message was basically writing his own death note, but he didn’t know what else to do. Within minutes of sending that email, he received a different email from a former employer asking if he was interested in interviewing for a position in this smaller company, called Dynalab.
“I started crying, I was so emotional at that point. The next day I was interviewing there.” The rest is history. Until Kyle and Paul started EFS Energy and eventually, it couldn’t be contained. The company was growing so quickly that he had to say goodbye to the team at Dynalab after a relatively short period of time and devote himself to the solar company full-time.
The Energy Proposition
The passage of proposition C, or the Clean Energy Act, in 2008 paved the way for companies like EFS Energy to crop up all over the state. Publicly owned utility companies were required to pay a rebate to anyone who installed solar, forcing companies like Ameren to add solar to their portfolio. Practically overnight the sun-powered energy industry began to boom in the state.
While installing solar is still cost-efficient, the rebates from Ameren dried up in December because of a loophole. Their attorney’s interpreted the language of this act to mean that rebates could be capped at 1% “of something”, Paul said indignantly. Initially the program was to be stepped down over a period of 6 years, but instead it was just gone and many new solar companies and jobs were lost. Don’t worry about EFS, though, they were one step ahead. “This kind of came at an ok time because we’re gonna use this as a platform to expand into other areas of energy efficiency.”
The Awesome, Excellent, So Good, Very Great Year
The life of a small business owner is always an adventure, but Paul is loving it. He looks forward to the future of solar energy and how it could lead to more sustainable communities. “That’s what I want to be a part of, and that’s why I left my chemistry career.”
While things are sailing along for EFS Energy, it’s not the only great thing to happen for Paul this year. He and his wife are now parents! Photos of his adopted son Mitchell have taken over his phone and he proudly stretched over the table to show me. “He looks so…” I started to tell him how alike they look but he cut me off. “Jedi?” Not exactly what I was going to say, but hilarious! As we scrolled through more than 10 pictures, he commented on each one. “It’s really good when I can get him to laugh.” “He looks like a little Obi-wan.” “Almost every picture on my phone is him now.”
Despite an interesting conversation, we were both eagerly anticipating that first step out into a perfect summer day. So I made my routine query,“What is your favorite thing about St. Louis?” The question had barely left my lips before Paul blurted out his answer with a smile. “City museum.”
Truth be told, I think of the Avon lady from Edward Scissorhands when I think of network marketing. Persistent and annoyingly chipper. That’s not Ellen. Picture a sweet, young woman. Incredibly fond of her family and proud of her career as a hairstylist and seller of Arbonne products.
Originally, she and I met because she styled my hair and makeup for an event. At the time she didn’t mention Arbonne. It was only after we sat down for coffee at Rise Coffee in The Grove that I learned about her lofty ambition to quickly work her way up the ranks of the company.
From Skeptic to Convert
I took a wary test sip of my Jasmine tea to confirm the temperature wasn’t scalding. Ellen, comfortable with the temperature of her Almond chai, was perched on her seat as we got started with our meeting.
“I was really, really skeptical of network marketing. It was kind of like one of those things, where I’m like, ‘ugh, I’m going to be one of those ladies who does all those parties and asks people to buy stuff’. But the more I learned about the business and the more I learned about the products and how much I could really stand behind them, the more I got intrigued.”
One of her regular clients introduced her to Arbonne and she initially dismissed the idea of selling their products. But, apparently persistence pays off, because when her client told her that the products are natural and safe she finally thought it was worth looking into. Now she’s a proud convert and she has set some stretch goals for herself, like earning a Mercedes in 18 months.
St. Louis - The Craziest Thing She’s Done
Ellen is engaged. She met her fiancee in 2009 in Syracuse, New York where she grew up. Her fiance’s family, however, is from St. Louis and some of his family continue to live in the area. Having traveled all over the United States touring with his band, he was familiar with hundreds of cities, but when Ellen asked where he wanted to eventually settle down, his answer was always St. Louis.
One day, Ellen realized she was tired of New York. “I was tired of snow and I was tired of winter.” She was ready to try something new. After scanning rent prices online she looked at her fiance and asked, “Why don’t we just move there?” So, within 6 months they packed up, left their jobs, said goodbye to their friends, and moved.
If you had asked her 5 years ago where she was going to end up, she would never have guessed St. Louis. But, she’s excited and happy that they “took that chance, that leap”. In fact, she’s the only person in her family to move so far away. While she’s happy about how things worked out, being away from family isn’t easy, particularly when you’re very close knit.
Ships and Elephants
L’acqua arrugginisce le navi in mare, e il vino fa cantare. Water rusts the ships at sea, and wine makes you sing. This is something Ellen’s grandfather would say to her. To keep that memory close she had a ship incorporated into the tattoo on her arm. Her grandmother collected elephants, so she tied that into her tattoo, as well. Finally, Ellen’s middle name is Rose, her grandmother’s name, so this important symbol is also included.
Although both of her grandparents were born in the US (they met in Syracuse), their families came from a small island off of Sicily. In 6th grade her grandfather dropped out to help take care of his family by working at the Hotel Syracuse and then married Ellen’s grandmother at the age of 28, she was 18.
At least one stereotype of Italian families is true. Ellen’s family gathered weekly for a midday meal. These events were boisterous and hectic, but always fun and they mirrored the experiences she had when she traveled to Sicily one year in high school. “There, work isn’t the #1 priority, it’s family and experience. You see how much happier people are.”
Slow Down and Be Happy
Ellen supports local businesses and she thinks you should too. “I’m that person that doesn’t go to Wal-Mart because they’re not for equality. You want it to be something you believe in. The more I learn about different companies like that, I’m like, ‘well I can’t go there anymore’. If I’m giving money for something it has to be something I believe in and I think that’s something we’ve lost a lot as a culture.”
In the past Ellen has even left a job because she was unhappy with the company. But working at Lyndsay L Salon as a hairstylist (her full-time job, Arbonne is a side project), makes her very happy.
“I love what I do. I don’t want to stop doing hair ever. I think I’ll always at least do it part time even if I ‘m able to build a successful business on the side. I do love going to work everyday and I love what I do. A lot of people do these things to get out of their current job, but I just kind of saw it as a vehicle to build my current job and make it better.”
For the Love of St. Louis
Many of us directly involved in the startup community here, know the sense of anticipation and that feeling of being on the cusp of a revitalization. It seems like the rest of St. Louis is waking up to this reality. Ellen confirmed that she felt this way too, “You kind of feel like you’re on the brink of something huge.”
As the world began to wake up and our cups were almost empty, Ellen told me what she loved about STL. “Kind of, just like, the different… the uniqueness of the different areas of the city and how small town it can feel. Yet it is so big and there’s so much to do and all these different things. How you can go from The Grove to the Central West End to Soulard, Tower Grove… all the different vibes. There’s still so much green.”
Some people can instantly put you at ease, making conversation seem effortless. Jake is one of those people. This quality is a real asset, particularly because he just started his own software company.
At the Webster Groves Bread Company, I sat near the door sipping my tea ignoring the bustle around me as I waited to meet him. We had originally scheduled our meeting for the week prior, but something came up and Jake had to reschedule. His email to me began like this:
When he walked in, he lit up like he was greeting an old friend.
Chasing the Dollar Vs. Pursuing Happiness
Once we were settled in, he with his Red Eye (large coffee with an extra shot of espresso) and me with my tea, he began telling me about his company, IDWIL. An acronym for I Do What I Love, it is a website to help people determine what career path to choose. “The whole point of IDWIL is to get away from identifying yourself by your job title. It’s more about who you are.” After all, according to a Gallup poll, 70% of Americans are unhappy with their jobs, so why would we want that to define us?
Here’s how it works. You begin by taking an assessment that will draw out what motivates you, what your passions are. This is different from most personal surveys that focus on your aptitude. Next, the site directs you to videos of individuals talking about their jobs and why they love them. The featured jobs span the gamut from a Chinese medical practitioner to an airman. The videos that you are shown are chosen based on your answers to the assessment. Similar to Pandora, users have the ability to up-vote or down-vote videos, making the software more intelligent about your interests.
Jake’s wife was a big part of the reason he developed IDWIL. She had always made good grades, worked hard, and eventually climbed the corporate ladder. But after a conversation with a friend who was a speech pathologist, she realized that if she had known about this career, her life would have been different. Discussing this, they decided they did not want their 2 young daughters to just fall into a job. When his contract as a graphic designer for the Air Force expired, he had plenty of time, so Jake began speaking at schools. “You can always chase the dollar, but later in our adult lives we realize it’s more about pursuing happiness.” Jake wants kids to realize this sooner.
Mascoutah, Massage, and Mix Tapes
Not all software geniuses come from Silicon Valley, some of them are bred in Mascoutah, Illinois like Jake. But, Jake and his wife’s plans were bigger, so they moved into the suburbs of St. Louis… right behind an elementary school. “Which is cute when you’re a young couple buying a house, like ‘oh children laughing and playing’ and then you live there and you’re like, ‘ooohh, yeaahhhh, children don’t laugh and play they just scream for no reason.’”
After partying his way out of an 18 credit hour semester at Eastern Illinois University, including AP calculus and physics, he went back home to do some soul searching. That was when he found massage.
Hold on a minute. How did he go from studying engineering to learning massage therapy at Midwest Institute? “To be honest, it was how I flirted with girls back in the day…” Don’t worry, it wasn’t just that. “My neighbor in college worked with a chiropractor as a massage therapist and I became fascinated with the science behind it. I’ve always kind of straddled the line between science and new-agey stuff, so I have no problem learning about Chi-gong and energy healing. But, I also like to have the validity of understanding the insertion points of this muscle. So I have that balance between analytical and creative.”
Visibly more animated, he went on to tell me how the school asked him to stick around as staff, and he enjoyed teaching so much that he went back to school at SIUE and completed a degree in education. At the same time Jake realized he had almost enough credits for a graphic design degree, so he graduated with that degree, as well.
The Past Informs the Present
Jake told me, “I see a lot of things coming up from my past where I’m like, ‘well duh, that makes sense.’” He followed this up by explaining that every year of high school he won the award for biggest flirt. One way that he showed his interest in a girl? Mix tapes. “I really enjoyed that it allowed me to communicate with someone on a deeper level than just the superficial. So, in order for me to make a mix tape that you would enjoy I’d have to get to know you well enough, so there’s that thought.” He felt like he benefited because he got to introduce people to new music and it made him seem like the “go to guy” for finding cool stuff.
Fast forward a few years and Jake became the guy people went to when they wanted an awesome app. Initially he and a friend just created a document where they listed the best apps for people, but they ended up taking that one step further and created an app called Favorite. Favorite lets you list your 5 favorite apps and when you sync with Facebook, your friends can see your list. Although he thinks Favorite still has potential, they had sunk some money into it and decided to cut their losses.
Being an entrepreneur in the tech space is a lifestyle and one that Jake embraces. He hopes to make IDWIL successful so he can be an example to his daughters and more importantly, so they grow up and do what they love.
He chugged the last few drops of his coffee and we both stood up to say goodbye, but not before I asked his favorite thing about STL. His answer? “Oh gosh, to be corny it’s where my family and all my roots are and number two is toasted ravioli.”
To us common folk, someone who can develop and design a website is revered. It’s a mystifying, secret world to which most of us have not (yet) been inducted. Well Chris is about to blow the doors off all that. The secrets of the development gods are being revealed through the instructional videos he is creating, called Go Rails.
We met one morning at Blondie’s on Washington Avenue. I left my wallet at home, but they were kind enough to let me get 2 drinks with the promise of payment later that day. Chris and I grabbed a tall top near the door and began an interesting discussion about learning styles, coding, tech, and how he began his newest project to teach people how to code via video.
Originally from Jacksonville, Illinois, Chris studied computer science at SIUE before moving to St. Louis. He got a job working for Michael (coffee #55) at Able Few for almost a year, but decided it was time to “go build his own thing”. “The goal was to move here temporarily and then find something in San Francisco, but then as soon as I got involved in the community here it was like ‘well, why would I move? I can do more good here.’ So, if I can do more good here, then I might as well stay here.”
After working on several St. Louis startups like iPizza, Givvr, and Squid, Chris was invited to meet Jim McKelvey and Dan Lohman. The two were discussing the possibility of bringing a class to St. Louis for a computer programming language called Ruby on Rails. As the idea began to take shape, Chris realized there wasn’t much of a job market in St. Louis for this particular programming language. So instead, the three of them created LaunchCode.
If you haven’t heard of pair programming, it’s when two computer programmers sit next to each other and work on the same thing. Many startups have used this idea and they have found that the quality of the code is better and it’s faster. THAT is the idea behind LaunchCode. A novice programmer is paired with an expert programmer, creating a unique learning environment. Within the next few years, the hope is that the program will create a new pool of programming talent in St. Louis to fill the employment gap we’ve been seeing.
Getting things off the ground for LaunchCode took a lot of hard work from everyone involved. “Before I knew it we had 100 companies and we interviewed… oh man… 3 days we interviewed 160 some people. So it was like 7am every 15 minutes until like 7pm just interviewing people, one after another. We didn’t really sleep for 3 days. Everything was a blur. I recognize all these people now but I don’t remember what we talked about… which is kind of bad…” Reflecting on the experience Chris laughed, “It was phenomenal. We ended up being on TV, giving a press conference… It was like, ‘this isn’t what I knew I was getting into…’”
Now that things are well under way for LaunchCode, Chris is on to his next game changing idea. He is recording videos that will teach people how to code, through fun projects. Called Go Rails, he hopes these classes will teach people how to become developers.
Chris came up with the video coding classes because he realized that there wasn’t really an easy way to learn these things, especially for people already finished with school. While learning on your own is something he always advocates, it’s hard to know where to begin. “If you’re trying to build a product or something, then you already know what you need to go build and I’ll help you get there. But you don’t have to follow a certain path and you shouldn’t want to either.”
But, how did he become so passionate about helping people learn to code? It started in high school when he “got into Linux hardcore” (if you don’t know what Linux is, neither did I, so here's a description). He would spend hours everyday in online forums asking questions and discussing it. Finally, he decided that he had to give back to the people in these forums who had helped him learn. So as a college freshman he developed a very successful program.
“I wanted to build something popular and give back to the community. I sat down and we had dial-up at home, and I was like, ‘man this is a real pain in the ass’. To download software on Linux you have to download 12 things it depends on. It’s a pain in the ass. I ended up using Python (another programming language) to build a thing that replicated all of that, that I could use on our school computers on their internet, download software, take it home and install it. That was the most fun I’d ever had programming.”
Although he says the program he created was terrible, it became very popular. He continued to make the program better and better over a period of 3 or 4 years and it ended up getting over 100,000 downloads. “That was not planned to get that big or anything, but that was pretty much exactly why I realized I have to keep doing this because it matters. It was really fun because I was getting emails from people in rural Texas because they could use Linux finally. Someone in South Africa was using it to set-up a computer lab for a school. And then someone in the government was using it on some super secure computers that weren’t allowed to be plugged into the internet. You just read the emails and it brings tears to your eyes.”
Since 7th grade Chris has been coding and according to him, it’s all he knows. So this was really the only thing he enjoyed enough to pursue as a career. The idea of working in an industry he doesn’t enjoy, doesn’t sit well with him. “The whole find a group of people that you don’t know and sell something to them, sucks. I don’t care about them though,” he laughed.
As we continued talking about coding and St. Louis startups, we excitedly told each other how we learned and what motivated us. “That kind of like building your own stuff usually, at least for me, has been really valuable. ‘Cause I’ll do it, I’ll enjoy it, and then at the end of it I’m like, ‘ok I learned what I needed to learn’ and then I’ll scrap it.” That kind of attitude is what it takes to learn coding. That desire to persist despite failed attempts and frustration.
No stranger to feeling frustrated or ready to give up, Chris has a strategy for overcoming these feelings. He simply asks himself why he doesn’t feel like doing it and then whatever the answer is, he attempts to change. For example, with the classes he is creating he would often be too drained to finish putting together a video. Realizing this was because he didn’t have a clear vision, one of his friends told him, “you’re trying to teach people what good code looks like, why it’s good, and how to produce it.” That one sentence gave him the clarity he needed to continue.
Chris admits that he’s still learning, but often, in this brave (relatively) new world of coding you have to learn without anyone telling you what to do. There are 3 things he keeps in mind to help him push past any difficulties:
The streets of downtown grew increasingly busy as our conversation drew to a close. Finishing our drinks and gathering our things, we said goodbye and merged onto the sidewalk to begin our respective days.
As many of you know, I was married on July 20th. Currently I am on my honeymoon and will return mid-August when I will continue writing about coffee meetings. If you have any interest, feel free to stay updated on our travels via our