After we bonded over our love of food that is bad for us, Jim told me that he’s lived a long time, relatively speaking, and done a lot of things. He has had five or six different careers including blacksmithing and working for a telecommunications startup that was acquired in four years for about 3 billion dollars. Pretty dramatic.
Startups are in Jim’s blood. He was involved with a couple other small companies as CEO and investor and helped with an incubator around 2004. Finally, in 2008 Jim got involved with iTen (which stands for Information Technology Entrepreneur Network), a non-profit that coaches fledgling companies to help them get their first investment. Jim is incredibly passionate about his work and what is happening here in St. Louis. “There’s a lot of great stuff going on and it’s starting to change the culture of St. Louis. And really that’s the long-term goal, to change St. Louis from a stodgy big corporate town, to a town that is really attractive to young people. Not just young in terms of physical age, but in terms of spirit and inspiration.” He says the goal is also to get people involved who want to change the world instead of getting a job that’s safe.
iTen’s mission is to work with startup companies and help them advance as quickly as possible. This is done by building an ecosystem around startups including investors, lawyers, accountants, etc. who want to get involved in some way. iTen is a non-profit, so the startups who utilize Jim’s experience and connections, don’t pay anything.
Jim and I agreed that America is turning a corner where it is becoming cool to be a nerd, and that’s probably necessary. Many of these young companies need people who are good at engineering and math. Even so, Jim says we still need a long-term solution for the deficit of talented mathematical minds. That, he says, is where America fails. “Even corporations are all about ‘how did we perform this quarter’ and they sacrifice the long-term to get that big bonus.”
Getting more specific, Jim explained that there are three specific areas that St. Louisans need to improve before the city can see real change and growth:
- more open discussion of race relations
- more interest in the performance and welfare of our public schools
- a less provincial mentality
The next challenge, he told me, was to overcome the quality of our public schools. Jim is full of useful statistics, so he explained that after Boston, we have the second highest number of parochial schools. While this is a big plus in many ways, most families move to the county when they begin having kids and don’t care about the quality of the public schools. This is a problem because we won’t have families moving into the city until this is resolved.
What makes a city cool? According to one study, the percentage of non-poor who use public transit is a key factor. Another indicator is the percentage of people who have been outside of the United States. Jim told me that St. Louis has a very provincial mentality and ranked very low in both of these areas… but he thinks that’s changing.
You would never guess from Jim’s passion for all things St. Louis that he wasn’t raised here. Born in Boston, he moved from Tennessee to Ohio to Missouri and then back to Massachusetts for college. He thought he wanted to be an astronomer and ended up with a degree in psychology and literature instead. Once he finished, he wasn't immediately concerned with a job. Priority numero uno? Travel.
“I wanted to travel, I wanted to see the world. All kinds of stuff that had nothing to do with, you know, making money." So, he and two of his college buds saved up money, flew to Europe and rented a car in Germany. After driving around for a few months, they split up in Dharamsala, India and Jim continued on to Japan alone where he soon ran out of money. To me, that’s a big deal. To Jim, it was just an obstacle to surmount. He met a guy who ran a shipping company and ended up getting a job on a freighter that was headed to the U.S. When he got home he had $300 in his pocket, which he explained was a bigger deal then than it is now.
The story doesn’t end there. When he got back he hitchhiked to St. Louis and two guys picked him up. They told him they had to pick up something at a friends house and drove him to a deserted part of San Francisco. Then the passenger turned around and stuck a gun in Jim’s stomach. They took the $300 he had earned working on the freighter and threatened to kill him if they found any more money in his bag. Jim forgot about the traveler’s check at the bottom of his bag, but he is still alive today because they didn’t find it.
“So anyway, that’s the worst thing that ever happened to me in a year of traveling around the world. I even lost my passport in a cab in Bangkok and somehow remembered the number of the cab and the next day they brought my passport back. That’s the thing. I mean, Americans tend to think that, you know, the world is all scary out there. You know, we’re here down safe in America and all that bad stuff’s happening out there. People are wonderful everywhere.” An amazingly positive perspective from the guy who was held at gunpoint.
Jim has been to former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iran (before the ayatollah), Nepal, Luxembourg, England, India, and all over the U.S., but Japan was his favorite. I told Jim how much I enjoy traveling solo and he agreed. “Yeah, ‘cause you’re on your edge. You’re putting yourself at the mercy of a culture you don’t understand. Everybody’s got limits, but you know, the wider you can be I think the better off you are and the more understanding you can be and more open-hearted you can be. Once you’ve been outside the country and looked back with a different perspective... things look very different.”
Sign yourself up for some free coffee and meet yourself an Aubrey!