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As the Director of Entrepreneur Development Services at CET, Christy Maxfield is at the helm of one of the busiest and varied pieces of the STL startup ecosystem puzzle. Though she’s no stranger to entrepreneurship, she joined CET just earlier this year, so we sat down with her to talk about her role, plans for 2016 and the best place to grab a working lunch in the Central West End.
So, what led you to Cortex?
In 2010 after years of studying social entrepreneurship and working in the nonprofit sector I co-founded The Mission Center, L3C. This startup experience, as well as the 5 years of mentoring entrepreneurs and hands-on experience preparing a public offering and engaging private investors prepared me for my role at Cortex. Just five years ago, many of the resources St. Louis entrepreneurs have today didn’t exist. I learned many lessons the hard way. I was also privileged to work with many of the individuals, professional advisors and support organizations that are integral to creating the ecosystem in which we are all evolving. Cortex brings it all together.
And in a nutshell, what does your position entail?
As the CET Director of Entrepreneur Development Services, I’m responsible for creating, enhancing and delivering training and technical assistance programs for early stage entrepreneurs in advanced technology industries. CET is the state’s oldest and largest Innovation Center. So, we are charged with providing access to the facilities, education, technical support and capital entrepreneurs need to create, grow and scale companies.
What is the most challenging aspect of your role?
My biggest challenge is managing the volume of early stage entrepreneurs who need technical and tactical support to vet their ideas, identify a viable business model and advance their ventures—it’s a great problem to have! In addition to the 38 Square One participants, CET hears from entrepreneurs on a weekly basis who need training and coaching. Some need an orientation to the overall ecosystem. Others are best served by referrals to other support organizations. All need time and advice to advance their ideas. In order to manage this need and prepare a larger number of entrepreneurs for the Square One program, we’re developing “mini” sessions focused on key “lean startup” methodologies. More information will be available after the New Year.
And the most rewarding?
I love working with entrepreneurs one-on-one; learning about their business ideas, understanding their target markets, dissecting the business opportunities, probing the value propositions and helping them make connections. I learn something new every day and have the honor of working directly with the inventors and innovators whose work will change the world we live in. It is incredibly gratifying to help them work the process that will help them advance, pivot or fail fast so their time, energy and financial resources are used to achieve the greatest possible result.
Since you’ve been at Cortex, have you noticed any misconceptions about the district or community?
One misconception is that Cortex is one big “thing”—akin to a big corporation that controls all its departments and subsidiaries. In fact, it’s a small team dedicated to creating a living, ever-changing organism unlike many have ever experienced. It is the framework in which live, work, play and learn elements are combined to create a vibrant, interactive and mutually beneficial community of people, organizations, companies and events. (So) it’s sometimes hard to define and understand.
As master developer, I think of Cortex as the conductor, arranging the orchestra or buildings, companies, programs and other services in a way that attracts the audience we need most to fuel an innovation sector where ideas, skills, expertise and experience can collide in unexpected ways.
How do you see Cortex fitting in and benefitting the St. Louis community overall?
Innovation communities capitalize on the power of proximity and density. By creating spaces where high concentrations of creative, scientific, business, administrative, technical and academic resources are readily available in large quantities we increase the likelihood of new connections, ideas and innovations being created. For our region, Cortex creates one of the many focal points of energy for this kind of community.
Where would you like to see STL in five years?
I’d like to see more people living and working in the city, drawn to leading-edge companies, diverse neighborhoods and inclusive environments that embody social justice and economic growth. If we succeed in leading the region in this way we will succeed in leading the country, as well. Innovation communities work when artificial barriers are removed, diversity of thought is prioritized and environments are curated to promote interaction among people and groups that ordinarily would not find one another. Cortex can model that behavior for the city, county and region to follow.
Since you spend a lot of time in the CWE, do you have any favorite spots for coffee, lunch, happy hour?
I’ve held a lot of meetings at Café Ventana and Northwest Coffee. When I’m not enjoying Sameem’s at the CIC@CET lunchbox, West End Grill and Pub is a great spot for a business meeting or to connect with friends over lunch. The Scottish Arms is a great neighbor and a go-to place for happy hour.
And when you’re not working, where would we find you?
When I’m not at CET, I’m at Webster University preparing to graduate in March with my MBA. Otherwise, I am at home in South City with my husband Chris and our pets.