Editor’s note: This article initially appeared in the January 5-11 edition of the St. Louis American.
Yashica McKinney was lying in bed one night in December 2014 when she had a lightbulb moment. She tossed off the covers, headed to the store for supplies and was soon back at home whipping up her famous caramel cake. She placed the desserts in individual glass jars for baking, and by 2 a.m. she was taking photos of her finished creations and posting them on Facebook.
The desserts were such a hit with friends, family and strangers that McKinney soon launched a business called Desserts Out The Jar. Now, two years later, McKinney operates her company out of St. Louis Venture Works in Grand Center and has six part-time employees helping her fill orders.
Yet despite these accomplishments, the 35-year-old McKinney says there are days she questions whether she has the business know-how to take Desserts Out The Jar to the next level.
Enter Square One, an entrepreneur training program offered by the Center for Emerging Technologies (CET) located within the Cortex Innovation Community. McKinney heard about Square One last year and registered for its 2016 fall boot camp, a 10-week program designed to provide support to early-stage and first-time business owners in the St. Louis region. McKinney recently completed the program and will continue to receive mentorship services from the organization for another six months.
“No one in my family is a business owner,” says McKinney. “I was just going day-by-day trying to figure it out. Square One allowed me to go back and reevaluate my business to make it stronger.”
Diversifying the St. Louis Startup Scene
St. Louis has gained nationwide attention in recent years for its budding startup scene, particularly in the biotech sector. With Square One, CET hopes to nurture even more entrepreneurial activity, especially for new businesses focused on information technology, bioscience or manufactured/consumer products. It’s the latter category under which McKinney and her Desserts Out The Jar qualify.
Square One’s other goal is to help make the region’s startup scene more inclusive, particularly when it comes to offering support to women and underserved minorities.
“CET is really focused on how can we increase representation in our programming, and how do we do contribute to a broader ecosystem that is more equitable for all our entrepreneurs,” says Christy Maxfield, CET’s director of entrepreneur development services.
Square One offers two core programs. The first, Square One Ignite, helps entrepreneurs test the business model validation of an early stage idea or concept. Ignite is offered twice a year and has entrepreneurs participate in four weekly classes that include group instruction and breakout sessions with mentors and subject-matter experts. The more advanced boot camp, held each fall, meets twice a week and includes in-depth guidance from industry experts on how to start a business. Participants in both Square One programs pay a nominal fee ($35 for Ignite; $100 for the boot camp) to cover administrative costs. State and federal grants cover the remaining costs of the program.
Since launching Square One in 2014, Maxfield and CET have worked to diversify both the participants and mentors involved in the program. In last year’s inaugural Ignite program, 25 percent of participants were African American. In the 2016 boot camp, 44 percent of the class was made up of African American entrepreneurs and 49 percent of participants were female.
“The word is getting out that Square One exists as a valuable resource for St. Louis entrepreneurs, particularly for those who are underrepresented elsewhere,” says Maxfield. “And we don’t want to stop just with our participants. We also seek mentors as diverse as our students.”
Maxfield notes that more than 20 percent of the presenters at this year’s boot camp were people of color and 40 percent were women entrepreneurs like Devon Moody-Graham.
The 3 P’s
Moody-Graham, a 33-year-old with a background in marketing and business development, has witnessed Square One from both sides of the classroom. She was one of its first participants in 2014. Last fall she returned to instruct boot-campers on how to market their young businesses.
“A lot of entrepreneurs get caught up in the look and feel of their marketing, but it doesn’t matter how pretty an ad or campaign is if it’s not reaching the right people,” says Moody-Graham.
Back when she took the boot camp, Moody-Graham hoped to launch an app called ShoGro that would assist consumers in shopping local and growing their community. It was during the boot camp, however, that she realized it would be a challenge to scale her business for market.
“Square One was a great experience to help me figure those things out with some guidance,” says Moody-Graham, who is now focused on opening The Biz Spot, a coworking space in her hometown of East St. Louis. “Square One was also the first time I was immersed in the startup ecosystem. I’m hoping my coworking space can bring some of that knowledge and energy across the river to bridge the gaps.”
One of the main goals of Square One, says CET’s Maxfield, is to help entrepreneurs like Moody-Graham figure out if her ShoGro app idea should “persevere, perish or pivot.”
“And all three outcomes can be positive,” says Maxfield. “Our view is that it’s better to know that an idea isn’t going to work than to put that idea in a drawer and constantly wonder about it.”
Bernard Miller’s startup idea falls squarely in Square One’s bioscience focus. A physician with a background in medical research, Miller is hoping to launch a device that would allow doctors to read a patient’s lipids levels without drawing blood.
“You’d get the results instantaneously without the added time and costs required of running lab work on a blood sample,” says Miller, who is already prototyping a device he plans to call NiDI-1.
Miller, 45, says he was familiar with most of the business practices covered during Square One’s most recent boot camp. More important to him were the connections he made during the 10-week session.
“It’s an excellent program for people looking to learn various aspects of running a day-to-day business, particularly people who don’t have a business background,” says Miller. “For me, though, the best part about Square One was the networking that occurs with fellow participants and the presenters. I’m currently talking about doing a project with some of the lecturers who spoke during our boot camp.”
The networking component of Square One was also key for McKinney and her Desserts Out The Jar.
“We had two to three lecturers a night, and then we’d follow up with one-on-one time with mentors,” says McKinney, who adds that she would recommend the Square One boot camp to other entrepreneurs. “It’s a large time commitment for a small business owner, but so worth it.”
For more information on participating in or mentoring with Square One, visit cetstl.com/programs/square-one or call 314-615-6300.