Kharri Walker and Paolo Vasquez are new to St. Louis. They have formed a close bond as members of the inaugural cohort of PATHWAYS, a new life sciences pipeline program run by Anjie Sanford, talent recruitment and inclusive entrepreneur development lead under the direction of Christina Green, vice president of human resources and finance for the nonprofit and local startup engine BioSTL.
Vasquez, who grew up in Puerto Rico, is helping Walker learn Spanish. Walker, for his part, lends Vasquez a listening ear at the end of their full days interning for Kindeva Drug Delivery and Solis Agrosciences. Whether they are implementing lab protocols or studying Food and Drug Administration regulations, the pair does not shy away from meticulous work — they view PATHWAYS as a privilege, allowing them to expand their professional networks and gain firsthand industry experience.
“The most exciting part is being around like-minded individuals,” Walker says. “We’re all here to learn and get experience, but we’re also here to build connections with each other. I really like that part of it, how close-knit we are.”
Aiding workforce development, PATHWAYS exists to diversify local companies concerned with the life sciences — aka, the science of living organisms and life processes, including the fields of biology, medicine and agriculture — and increase representation among individuals from historically marginalized groups within their ranks. The mission is a win-win, according to Sanford, benefiting both the industry and the program participants.
“Increased representation allows you to have different thought leaders at the table, a different perspective. It allows you to bring a different skill set and knowledge base,” Sanford says, regarding benefits to the field. Of the boon to individuals, she explains, “To see someone who looks like you do work that is inspiring; that is compelling. It will propel you to stretch yourself beyond your comfort zone, to know your value. Representation is important because it allows you to see a reflection of yourself.”
Sanford launched PATHWAYS under BioSTL this summer after overtaking and expanding an older program called InSight St. Louis, led from 2006 to 2019 by St. Louis business leaders Jo-Ann Digman and Arnold Donald with support from the Regional Business Council and more than a dozen St. Louis-based corporations. Throughout its tenure, InSight brought more than 300 students from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to St. Louis to interview for job opportunities with over 30 companies across the region. The program successfully placed a total of 54 full-time and summer hires within the region’s business community. More generally, it enhanced the perception of St. Louis among HBCU graduates as a city possessing dynamic career options and attractive lifestyle amenities — in short, a desirable place to live and work.
Now under Sanford, PATHWAYS encompasses an intensive three-day networking event called ExploreSTL, as well as eight- to 12-week summer internships at local startups and bioscience companies. This year, 12 students participated in the three-day St. Louis immersion, and nine members of that group were placed in internships.
To find these students, Sanford undertook a systematic recruitment effort — conducting a landscape analysis of top-ranking universities and HBCUs that produce life-science graduates, speaking to numerous classrooms, reviewing hundreds of résumés and interviewing more than 75 scholars at career fairs and other events. “We know the talent is out there,” she says. “We just have to go get them. And then, how do we build a community so they’ve got a network, so they’ve got resources? That is my agenda.”
The inaugural ExploreSTL event included an intimate meeting with St. Louis Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, where she and PATHWAYS participants discussed her priorities for the city as well as more personal topics, such as how she juggles career and motherhood as a single parent. It included close-up access to leaders of St. Louis bioscience businesses — organizations like Running Tide, Nanoguard Technologies and Hypha Life Sciences — where students drew inspiration from their example of how to generate innovation and local impact by uniting a group of like-minded individuals. And it included fun bonding experiences with alumni mentors, from house parties to meals at restaurants that reflect the vibrant St. Louis food scene.
But the program’s networking component goes beyond exposing students to new professional contacts. It is also about giving them a set of tools with which to navigate industry relationships and advocate for themselves during the early stages of their careers. “PATHWAYS has taught me to push myself and get out there,” Walker says. “It’s really taught me how to sell myself better.”
Sanford’s personal story illustrates the power of mentorship and relationship-building to develop confidence, step outside one’s comfort zone and fulfill ambitious goals. Growing up in the Jennings neighborhood of north St. Louis County, she was exposed to entrepreneurship at a young age. “Seeing husband-and-wife teams start restaurants, engineering businesses, construction companies, it opened up a different portal of my mind to know that anything is possible,” she says. “I thought, ‘If they can do it, I can too.’”
During high school, she gained skills and experience to help translate her interest in entrepreneurship into action. She was involved in extracurricular programs like Upward Bound and the now-obsolete Minority Young Entrepreneurship Program (MYEP), the latter of which was a highly selective convening of roughly 40 young people that at the time included now Mayor Tishaura O. Jones and the current president and CEO of the St. Louis Development Corporation, Neal Richardson. Sanford won a $5,000 competition sponsored by MYEP for a small business idea that makes her chuckle now, concerning protectors for restaurant silverware. And she continues to participate in rigorous professional development as an adult. She graduated from Focus St. Louis’ Women in Leadership program in 2022 and is currently honing her leadership and management skills as a member of the St. Louis Business Diversity Initiative Fellows Experience, sponsored by Greater St. Louis, Inc.
“The people who have been mentors in my life totally shaped me and poured into me, and therefore my work for BioSTL and PATHWAYS is mission work,” she says. “I operate in passion. I operate in purpose. To whom much is given, much is expected. It is my time to create a legacy in my city, in which I pour back into that.”
Sanford returned to St. Louis in 2011 following some changes in her personal life, and today, she is one of the city’s biggest advocates. The new chapter in her hometown follows an impressive entrepreneurial career in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she first owned a construction cleaning business, then a construction and engineering consultancy firm and finally a talent recruitment business. Now that she is back home, her appreciation for all that St. Louis has to offer has deepened tenfold. “I came back as an adult with new eyes, a new set of openness, and I was like, ‘Here, I’m a winner,’” she says.
PATHWAYS is just getting off the ground, but she believes the program is already having a powerful impact in the St. Louis community. In her view, it goes back to the idea of a win-win — bolstering the life sciences field while uplifting individuals. “We are able to support the workload of the startups,” she says, “handing off work they may not have time to do. At the same time, we are able to create these unique opportunities that enhance participants’ networks. And we know your network is your net worth.”
For companies looking to sell themselves to potential new hires, she has this message: “If you’re part of a company looking for STEM-focused talent, whether it’s the most basic tasks and skills, students have an appetite to learn and grow. If there’s a need, we want to support that need. We will find the resources.”
As for college students looking for professional growth opportunities, Walker couldn’t be more clear. “Apply!!! With three exclamation points!!!” he says. “That’s my advice.”
Join the Story
- Find out more about BioSTL’s PATHWAYS program
- Check out the stories of other St. Louisans who are helping develop our region’s talent pipeline:
- Mark Bosworth, Southwestern Illinois College
- Megan Price and Aurora Bihler, Missouri Works Initiative’s Building Union Diversity program
- Michael Woods, co-founder of Dream Builders 4 Equity
- Kisha Lee, executive director of Propel Kitchens
- Cynthia Chapple, managing director of Black Girls Do STEM
- Sarah Bernard, COO of Inclusively
- Leslie Gill, president of Rung for Women
- Danielle Deavens and Doug Spencer, co-founders of Bold Xchange
- Keisha Mabry Haymore, founder of Heydays HQ