Businesswoman and mom-of-three Zekita Armstrong Asuquo brings a fierce determination to any project she sets her mind to. A St. Louis native and Vashon High School graduate who has held a variety of roles in consulting, publishing, and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), she always knew that she wanted to start her own workforce development agency in her hometown. Asuquo has navigated her own education and career largely on her own, lacking the support of pipeline programs or formal mentorship until joining the Regional Business Council’s Black and Brown Executive Leadership program a few years ago. She was driven by a personal mission to meet young people where they are and guide them toward opportunities for economic mobility.
While watching the evening news one night in 2016, Asuquo heard the announcement that the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) had declared St. Louis as the location of its new NGA West Campus. She knew then that her nonprofit would focus on the geospatial sciences. “When I decide to do something, I’m doing it,” she says. “It’s like, you can either get on the train and go with me, or not.”
Fast forward to 2023 and witness Gateway Global American Youth and Business Alliance Academies Inc., which has trained 126 students since its founding in 2018, representing the only organization in the country to gain high-school level accreditation from the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF). It joins Saint Louis University and the University of Missouri as one of only three USGIF-accredited institutions in Missouri.
By focusing on recent high school graduates, Asuquo seeks to fill the rising regional demand for so-called middle-skill jobs in the industry, such as geospatial technician or data analyst — which require only a semester or two of training, pay reasonably well, and present opportunities for career advancement down the line.
“I’m a big believer in cultivating talent very early, finding young people who have tremendous potential, making them aware of opportunities, helping them gain access, and then working with them to figure out what their pathway looks like,” Asuquo explains.
The organization’s flagship program is a tuition-free, eight- to 12-week semester course in geospatial intelligence. Students earn a weekly stipend of roughly $75 as they complete the training. They leave with the skills to collect, organize, and curate data needed to produce maps, a competency in high demand across a range of industries, including construction, engineering, and defense.
Students also receive more holistic support from corporate and community partners geared toward easing their transition into adulthood. Midland States Bank, for example, offers financial literacy training, while Verizon provides mentoring with industry professionals.
“Now that they’ve gone through all that training and gotten paid, how do they learn to act as responsible adults with the money they’ve earned and the skills they now have?” Asuquo explains.
Having partnered with the NGA to recruit students from across the entire St. Louis metropolitan region, co-presenting “NextGeo Intelligence Ready” workshops in both the urban core and in far-reaching areas of the county, Asuquo takes pride in the socioeconomic diversity of the program’s participants. She estimates that roughly 85% come from economically under-resourced communities, marked by limited access to financial services and high percentages of free-and-reduced-cost-lunch recipients at school. The other 15%, she says, come from affluent environments and private schools, drawn to the program purely by their interest in the field of geospatial science.
This exposure to socioeconomic differences is a great enhancement to the basic science that students learn at Gateway Global, in Asuquo’s view. She was a participant in the city’s desegregation busing program during the late 1980s and early 1990s, attending schools in the Mehlville and Parkway districts, and credits that experience with shaping her ability to effectively negotiate cultural differences. In her current leadership role, she is eager to transfer these skills to Gateway Global trainees.
“We’re very intentional about our cohorts reflecting the full range of socioeconomic diversity in America,” she says. “We’re happy to give young people the opportunity to interact with folks who are not like them.”
Recently, Asuquo and her five-person staff have added a set of stackable credentials to the geospatial intelligence course, covering topics like human geography and data analytics. And they have plans to offer additional courses in robotics and advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity and network security. The expanded curriculum is just one aspect of Asuquo’s ambitions to grow the organization, however.
“I can say that from the very beginning, for me, this has always been a national plan,” she says.
Toward that end, she is currently finalizing partnerships with educational and youth development organizations across the country to recruit remote participants from states like Alaska, Hawaii, Colorado, and Nevada.
Meanwhile, efforts are underway to build out the campus headquarters here in St. Louis. Among her other responsibilities, Asuquo is spearheading an $8 million capital campaign — “Gateway to the Globe” — with the ultimate goal of constructing a three-building campus in the Hyde Park neighborhood of North St. Louis, adjacent to the NGA West Campus. The campus is headquartered in the former Holy Trinity Catholic School, which is being renovated from top to bottom for Gateway Global.
Building one will house a 28,000-square-foot training center, replete with state-of-the-art classrooms and computer equipment. Building two, across the street, will be home to an apprenticeship workspace, which will enable the nonprofit to expand the experiential learning component of its program. An additional half-acre of land recently acquired in the Old North neighborhood has potential to offer other amenities, such as a simulation theater.
The state of Missouri already has contributed $5 million toward the development, and Asuquo is working every day to secure the remaining funds that will fulfill her bold vision. “We will use the St. Louis headquarters as a kind of launchpad,” she says. “Right here in St. Louis, we will have the geospatial hub of the world.”
For now, Asuquo and her team can take pride in the local, human impact of their efforts, one student story at a time. “When you watch a young person transform in such a short period, it has to be exciting,” she says. “We watch them come into the organization not knowing anything about the geospatial space, and then at the end, they’re excited, optimistic, possessing skills and credentials that they can take out into the world.”
Take Gateway Global graduate Roseanna “Rosie” Torrez, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer science at the New York Polytechnic Institute, where she received a scholarship from the USGIF during her freshman year. Or alumnus Kenneth Webb, who now works for Gateway Global as a tech lead and informal teaching assistant while also completing a data analytics degree at Webster University here in the St. Louis area.
For Asuquo, the work of Gateway Global always comes back to a heart space of compassion and care for the city and region she calls home — and most important, for the next generation of young people who will follow in her footsteps.
“What I know is that the world is changing very fast,” she says. “The types of skills that will be needed, and the approach to providing those skills, will always change. And we want to make sure we’re ahead of the game — not for scalability’s sake, but for the sake of the young people we serve.”