I sank into the cushions of a large couch at Foam (on Cherokee) with some type of delicious lemon drink, while Michael sat across from me with a coffee. I asked what he did for a living and he told me he is one of the original founders of The Able Few, a digital shop that builds web apps and web software. They began in 2001 doing only interactive design and now boast a social media monitoring software that they custom built for a hollywood studio to track and predict a movie’s success. According to him, the company’s focus is “building weird things”.
Working at an advertising agency built the foundation for The Able Few but, “that world kind of jaded me and turned me into a different person”. During his time at the ad agency, he began desperately seeking meaning in his work… to no avail. “It’s an interesting industry. I mean you know, especially advertising, the nicest people you’ll ever meet, the hardest-working people you’ll ever meet, the most creative and smartest people you’ll ever meet and they’re all working towards a goal that they hate. You try to convince yourself and sell to yourself that things you’re doing are actually meaningful and that they help make people’s lives better. At the end of the day you realize you’re nothing more than you know, moving the bottom line.”
St. Louis is on the cusp of a Renaissance and Michael is excited. The best part is the energy and the feeling that everything that’s happening is not where it can be, yet. He told me that everywhere you point, whether it’s physical location or a sector, something awesome is right around the corner. But the hard part for him is when people are indifferent about this growth and positive change. That led me to ask, is this same entrepreneurial spirit, civic pride, and growth happening in other cities? Despite friends in numerous cities across the U.S. and extensive travels, Michael said he has not seen this combination anywhere else.
The Washington Post issued a retraction about St. Louis because of Michael. A recent interactive map ranked cities on a scale of 1-6 for how “world class” they are. When he found it on Facebook, Michael already knew what he would see. His suspicions were confirmed when he zoomed in on St. Louis and saw that the city was divided into two municipalities and ranked very low. What was even more frustrating to him, was that cities like Tulsa ranked relatively high. So, like any of us would (not) do, he called the author and after a 30 minute discussion, was told the map would be re-done showing St. Louis as one municipality with a higher “world class” ranking. Chalk one up for Michael and STL! “I walked away that day really proud. I felt like I had championed something really great for St. Louis. It’s a small drop in the bucket, but you know, just like anything, it’s...it’s… every avalanche starts with one snowflake.”
After discussing politics, we dove right into religion. I’ll be blunt like he was. He’s atheist. Well… agnostic, really, and his family did not take that well when they found out via Facebook. Michael had always had a “healthy skepticism”, but one day he heard or read something that made him stop disregarding that doubt. “If God wanted me to believe in him, he is the only person or only thing that would know exactly what it would take for me to believe in him, yet he holds it away. He doesn’t want me to see it.” So, despite the wedge this has created between some of his friends and family, Michael feels like they are closer now to his true self, so it’s a “net gain”.
Because he considers himself a serial networker, he said he was very happy to find my blog on Facebook. “I got excited because I absolutely love people. I’m addicted to people. I have to get new people in my life constantly. It’s actually become a bit of a challenge to go places where I don’t see people I know.”
This fascination with people can be traced back to the black girl he dated in middle school. He was reprimanded and told that there were biblical reasons that you shouldn’t mix black and white. That didn’t fly with Michael. He told me that spawned a love of PEOPLE and everything they have to offer.
Two documentaries, Baraka and Sansara, should be required videos for everyone in their formative years, according to Michael. His children watched them at a young age, because these films plant the seeds about us being one human family and not drawing lines about who we are and how we’re supposed to act. “I’m kind of quite the humanist.”
Michael had long since finished his coffee when I asked what he likes best about our city. Considering his love of people, it’s fitting that this was his answer. “The people. St. Louisans are the best mix of cultured and blue collared… its just got a unique blend. It doesn’t feel midwestern, it doesn’t feel like Kansas City. You have people who really do care about things and who are passionate about things and they’re not pretentious. Here people are very approachable, you can talk to strangers. It’s big enough to have, you know, lots of things going on, but also small enough that you don‘t feel lost. You know?” Ok, so REALLY, the people are his second favorite thing. His favorite is actually Imo’s.
Sign-up for coffee! We don’t even have to talk about politics or religion!