Commentary: Travis Sheridan on St. Louis’ Ecosystem Growing Pains

Why we should treat our startup ecosystem as the still maturing, sometimes messy, teenager that it is.

Estimated reading time: 4 minute(s)

At my school, students took a test in the third grade to determine if they were “gifted” or not. If a student hit the mysterious threshold, he or she was placed on an academic track to help them realize their amazing potential. As I look around the St. Louis startup community, I can see its own potential: It’s as if the St. Louis ecosystem has tested into the gifted program and is well on its way to a bright future. The city has high potential, as well as many talents and capabilities that, if utilized well, could put it on a fast track to success.

Illustration by Adam Bertels
Illustration by Adam Bertels

But we have to remember that St. Louis is, developmentally, the age of a middle-school kid. Think of that “mature for their age” niece or nephew you have. Yep, that’s St. Louis. It’s not a bad thing—we just need to revisit the traits and tendencies of high-potential kids for some takeaways on how to help nudge the city’s middle-school ecosystem in the right direction.

Maturity and Mistakes

Do you remember how it felt to finally move from the kids’ holiday table to the adult table? You beamed with pride as you walked toward the big table with the fancy plates and silverware. You even gave a glance back over your shoulder to the kids who remained at the card table. A high-potential adolescent can be very impressive and engaging, and so is St. Louis. People look at the city and are often in awe of this up-and-coming Midwestern region—just look at the number of national stories about the St. Louis startup scene. It’s a true confidence booster to see your community finally get mentioned alongside the big kids.

But even with all this attention, we have to remember the ecosystem still isn’t mature—it just looks a little more grown-up. St. Louis just had a startup growth spurt. We’re like the teenager that refuses to shave the fuzz off our upper lip because it’s cool to appear older than we are. Then a mistake is made, or a startup makes a move that’s perceived to be a little dumb. Even the most mature kids are still kids, and it’s when they make a mistake that we’re reminded of that fact.

That said, let’s not throw away the progress. We don’t need to relegate them back to the kids’ table. Allow them to grow into that mustache. It might look strange now, but soon it’ll look right on him. We just need to remember that early maturity doesn’t mean mistake-free.

Grades, Grades, Grades

St. Louis loves report card time. There seems to be more of a focus on grades than on learning and applying knowledge. In the startup community, grades appear in the form of national lists that rank ecosystems: “Top Ten This”, “Best Cities for That.” We want to know where we rank among our perceived peers, but heaven forbid we show up in the yearbook as “Most Likely to Succeed.” The expectation of a proud parent of a gifted student is that he or she will graduate as valedictorian. But the St. Louis ecosystem needs to pay more attention to the process of learning and the application of knowledge. Remember, most credit comes from showing up and doing the work. Let’s not fixate on grades.

Breakups Are Hard

Oh, the joys and pangs of love. This is where the pragmatic nature of our giftedness is thrown out the window. Just like a middle-school kid in puppy love, St. Louis falls hard and falls fast. Startups come into our lives, and we imagine a long life together. We look at our large buildings and picture the names of our startups emblazoned on their facades for the world to see. There is talk of the spinoffs we’ll raise together. We believe we’ll grow old with every startup we love. Then they break up with us: They leave us for a guy with a better car. They follow the money. They say it’s because the new guy is just more mature.

It’s the end of our world. We think we’ll never love or be loved again. Lest we forget, there will always be more fish in the sea—just as our parents reassured us.

Identity Crisis

Often, young people aren’t very comfortable in their own skin. This is especially true for gifted kids around the ages of 13 or 14. Their mind is outpacing their physical and emotional growth. Around this time, kids begin to mimic or emulate people they admire—usually celebrities. They want to be like the people who seem to have it all together. St. Louis’ startup community falls prey to similar identity issues. If we could just be a bit more like Silicon Valley or Boston, we’ll finally make it, right? We have our idols, and we want to mold our ecosystems in their image. We are subject to the latest trends and sparkly objects we see endorsed by our hero cities. This is the point in life where Mom hugs us and tells us that we are perfectly unique. It might be uncomfortable, but we just need to be the best St. Louis we can be.

Reckless Driving

We want our first car to be awesome. In middle school we start dreaming about where we’ll go, what we’ll do and how fast we’ll drive. We might even steal the keys and take Mom or Dad’s car for a spin just to prove—even to ourselves—that we’re ready. But we don’t appreciate and respect the responsibility of driving. That’s why we’ll probably crash our first car, or our parent’s car, when we joyride.

All giftedness blows out the exhaust pipe when an adolescent gets behind the wheel. We cannot make the assumption that the attention to detail and systematic thinking exhibited in school will translate to maturity when operating heavy machinery.

Travis Sheridan Venture Cafe St. Louis EQ
Travis Sheridan is Executive Director of Venture Cafe St. Louis, creator of Boozestorming, co-host of Nothing Impossible on KMOX, co-founder of GlobalHack and proud resident of Old North St. Louis

St. Louis hasn’t yet accepted the fact that we will crash many startups before we really learn to drive. We want our entrepreneurs to be a little reckless, but we also don’t want them to drive a Porsche as a first car. Let’s teach them how to apply their giftedness to other environments, because book smarts will only get you so far. Gifted and reckless are two traits that can actually work behind the wheel. We must exhibit both in balance, or we’ll either crash and burn, or never leave the driveway at all.

Being gifted might be a burden for St. Louis to carry, but it’s also a sign of good things to come. We just need to mature and grow into our potential. So when we make mistakes, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just adolescence. We have the opportunity to embrace the ignorance of youth. We can keep learning and applying

“St. Louis needs to pay more attention to the process of learning and the application of knowledge. Remember, most credit comes from showing up and doing the work. Let’s not fixate on grades.”

the knowledge we gain. St. Louis has tested into the gifted program and will have a very bright future—we just need to fight the urge to grow up too fast. Let’s enjoy our youth.

This article was published in EQ’s Spring 2016 issue.

Previous articleSpotlight: Crystal Martin on What Entrepreneur Means to Her
Next articleInternational Affair
Travis Sheridan is the president of the CIC Venture Café Global Institute. A frequent speaker, he is passionate about entrepreneurship as a driver for economic development and believes innovation is a process to improve the human condition. Travis was appointed to the board of the St Louis Economic Development Partnership by Mayor Krewson and serves on the board of the Laumeier Sculpture Park. Travis and his wife Gina, live in Old North St. Louis and are building the city’s first home out of shipping containers and share a deep commitment to supporting local artists.