Empowering
Entrepreneurs

By supporting first-time entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities, Cortex’s Square One programs, led by Ben Molina and Gabriela Ramirez-Arellano, is bringing inclusive economic growth to the St. Louis metro.

Work

Story By Cheryl Baehr
Visuals By R.J. Hartbeck

Ben Molina understands that when people think of the sort of support nascent entrepreneurs need to bring their visions into focus, they tend to concentrate on things like identifying target markets, finding access to capital, or validating ideas. These are important, Molina notes, but they do not give the full picture of the entrepreneur as a whole person one who might be facing barriers that make it difficult for them to even begin thinking in terms of their prospective business. 

“When people apply to our Square One programs, we want to learn not only about what drives them, but what barriers they face to be able to successfully participate in our programs or run a business,” Molina says. “As we are having these conversations, sometimes we see that their need is transportation; they simply can’t get to class, so we pay for Uber or bus passes. Food insecurity is part of a lot of people’s stories, so we provide dinner for everybody coming to class. I think this is our strength the people who run the program come from places where we have struggled in life and have been in the thick of it, and we understand that if you want to support businesses, you have to go beyond the classroom level. Support has to be about the individual.”

In his role as Cortex’s Entrepreneurship Manager, Molina has seen firsthand how supporting entrepreneurs by meeting them where they are has real impact not simply in their abilities to start a business, but on their lives, and the lives they then change as they go out and create opportunities for themselves and their communities. This, as much as the technical business development aspects, is the foundation of Cortex’s Square One, a series of programs that help early-stage entrepreneurs bring their ideas to life through learning and networking opportunities, resources, and mentorship. Most of this work centers around Square One’s flagship programs, the four-week SQ1 Ignite centered around the business model, and the more in-depth SQ1 Bootcamp, an all-encompassing 10-week program that sets up entrepreneurs to succeed in high-growth industries through hands-on learning, networking, mentorship, and a structured curriculum. 

Last year, Square One’s programs graduated 103 people, including 23 in its SQ1 Bootcamp, 65 percent of whom are women, and 70 percent of whom are people of color. As Molina explains, this is the heart of Square One’s mission: empowering those from underserved communities who may have traditionally been shut out of the entrepreneurial ecosystem so that St. Louisans, regardless of their backgrounds, may contribute to creating a vibrant, inclusive ecosystem. It’s also why Square One puts such an emphasis on empowering the whole person.

“Cortex’s mission is inclusive economic growth, and one way to do that is by supporting entrepreneurs currently living in St. Louis who are from underrepresented communities and may not be able to afford business coaches or marketing because they are in the thick of it,” Molina says. “These are the people who sometimes need the most help. We know that when we are supporting people who may come from underprivileged situations, we have to focus on the environment as well, and how we can help them get past those barriers that may prevent them from succeeding.”

Gabriela Ramirez-Arellano, Cortex’s Vice President of Entrepreneurship, understands the barriers entrepreneurs might face because she’s faced them herself. A former stay-at-home mom who didn’t work outside the home for 20 years, Ramirez-Arellano found herself unsure of her next steps after a divorce. She held an MBA, and she knew she needed to put it to work, because she could not support her three children on a low-wage job. Entrepreneurship, it seemed, was a path forward for her and her family.

Gabriela Ramirez-Arellano and Ben Molina.

“I am the person we help in this program, which is why it is such a passion and a focus for me,” Ramirez-Arellano says. “I found myself through entrepreneurship, and I understand that a holistic approach is important because it’s what I needed along the way.”

Ramirez-Arellano began her own entrepreneurial journey in Detroit, where she figured she could leverage her Spanish language skills and business education to forge her own path. She enrolled in a class for aspiring entrepreneurs as a student, but when the school found out about her skills, they asked her to be an instructor. This led her to work at Wayne State University, and eventually brought her to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis when she and her now husband moved to town in 2016. Six years later, she joined the Cortex Innovation Community as Executive Director of its then Center for Emerging Technologies, or CET; when CET was absorbed into the larger Cortex umbrella in 2022, she became Vice President of Entrepreneurship for the innovation community, where she draws upon her own experiences to support those who might need the help that she received along the way.

“We are empowering the whole person,” Ramirez-Arellano says. “If you decide you want to start a business, you can. If in a couple of months or years you decide it’s not your passion, you have the confidence and skill set to start something new. In our program, we have people skill stacking, so they can leverage their worth and expertise to get into better paying jobs. The skills that entrepreneurship helps people develop and expand can be used in a lot of different ways.”

Ben Molina and Gabriela Ramirez-Arellano catch up with an entrepreneur in the Square One program, Antonio Brazelton, founder of startup Urban AgTech, at the CIC space at 20 South Sarah Street.

Molina and Ramirez-Arellano have seen this work pay off time and again for Square One’s graduates. They point to success stories such as Tiffany Wesley, who entered the program in 2018 with a vision to launch and scale a natural skincare company and now runs the thriving brand Pure Vibes, which is St. Louis’ first worker-owned skincare cooperative. Rezilient Health, a local telehealth company, was also launched out of Square One, after founders Jeff Gamble and Danish Nagda met as part of the 2016 cohort and realized that the ideas they came into the program with would actually work better as one business. Now, Rezilient is a thriving business on the cutting edge of telehealth and transparency in medicine, having just landed two new health plans as participants in its system, as well as recent rounds of funding that will be used to grow its clinics.

However, Ramirez-Arellano notes that there are other ways to measure success. She points to a recent graduate who came to Square One to launch a video production company that recorded open-heart surgeries for cardiologists; when the pandemic upended her business, she was able to transfer the skills and expertise she’d developed as part of the program and in her own business to a full-time job at an area hospital with a higher wage than she was earning prior to entering Square One. 

Both Molina and Ramirez-Arellano point to the larger Cortex community, as well as the St. Louis innovation ecosystem as a whole, as playing a key role in the successes entrepreneurs have been able to achieve through Square One. 

A peek inside the CIC space at 20 South Sarah Street, which Cortex’s Square One program, led by Ben Molina and Gabriela Ramirez-Arellano, calls home.

“We’ve really tried to figure out how to better support entrepreneurs as a whole by understanding that no one organization can do it all,” Ramirez-Arellano says. “There’s been a lot of work behind the scenes to make this work possible, because at the end of the day, if we want inclusive economic growth to happen, we have to get people in the pipeline. We tell people who come to us that it’s good to be a part of more than one of these entrepreneurship support organizations, because we are all invested in them and want them to succeed.”

Molina has seen this approach play out in the real world. A mid-Atlantic transplant, he was struck when he first moved to St. Louis by the number of small businesses he encountered as he explored his new city and the ways that the area, in turn, supported them. He can’t help but see a connection between that entrepreneurial spirit and the work he, Ramirez-Arellano, Cortex, and the region’s entire innovation ecosystem is doing to set that tone from the outset. 

“I will tell you that the entrepreneurship ecosystem and support organizations work so collaboratively in St. Louis,” Molina says. “There are so many efforts by different organizations, but we all understand that we don’t have to recreate the wheel if a program already exists. We figure, let’s support them and work collaboratively to fill in the gaps we see in the ecosystem. There exists within everyone who supports entrepreneurs an ongoing conversation about how we can make St. Louis thrive.”

Gabriela Ramirez-Arellano and Ben Molina.

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