Rising Stars

Women business owners in St. Louis are drawing more funding and attention than ever before while giving other women a boost.

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Story By Deborah Johnson
Visuals By Michael Thomas

Women are building a new future for St. Louis from the ground up. Small-business consulting firm Seek Capital ranks the St. Louis area number one on its list of “Top 20 Metros With the Most Female-Owned Startups.” Sitting in the list’s top spot, St. Louis outranks cities like Austin, San Diego, Kansas City and Washington, D.C.

More than in any other metro area, St. Louis women are leading the United States in a number of notable metrics based on employer businesses with receipts of $1,000 or more in the last two years. Some impressive local figures from Seek Capital’s research:

  • There are 2,726 companies in the St. Louis region that are owned by women.
  • 2% of local startups are owned by women.
  • Local women-owned startups boast gross sales/receipts of $150 million-$500 million.
  • These companies employ 6,257 people.

Moreover, women-owned companies in St. Louis have seen a bigger boost in venture capital investment lately. A PitchBook analysis reports that in 2018, 16 deals garnered about $58 million in capital investment for companies founded by women in the St. Louis region. That’s a 5x jump from $11 million in 2017 and a 7x increase from $7.8 million in 2016.

The Brookings Institution also reports on the growing investment in women-owned companies nationwide and in St. Louis, noting that the Gateway City is among the top five metro areas with a growing share of female-founded startups for 2016 and 2017. According to Brookings, 13 of 34 first financings during those two years went to women-owned companies. In looking at data for an even longer period, Brookings also observes that “metro areas experiencing the highest rates of growth in startup activity over the thirteen-year period also had, on average, a higher share of female-founded companies among them.”

And that momentum applies to more than just startups. Right now, St. Louis is in serious contention to be awarded its own Major League Soccer team, thanks to a local women-led effort. If successful, it would be the first franchise in MLS history with an ownership team comprised of a majority of women, which could open additional doors for women in sports leadership positions as well as for players at all levels of the game.

RISE Collaborative Workspace offers women professional meeting spaces, curated community resources and conferences.

Why is St. Louis gaining this attention now? Because for many reasons, St. Louis is a place where women who currently own businesses can grow and where those interested in launching a company can move for opportunities. Foundational costs like office space are generally low in St. Louis; according to the St. Louis Regional Chamber, Class A office space is only $21.76 per square foot, which is significantly less than the U.S. average and even lower than the cost of space in other Midwestern cities. Lower costs mean a faster start and lower barrier to entry, which leads to more opportunities for a business to generate revenue.

In St. Louis, this results in jobs. According to Seek Capital, “Small businesses, which are defined as independently-owned businesses with fewer than 500 employees, are significant drivers of economic growth and job creation. Small businesses comprise 99.9 percent of all firms and are responsible for 66 percent of new jobs.”

This success often comes about through collaborative efforts, and local women business owners frequently note how important it is to help other women. “The ground is saturated here in St. Louis with women who are willing to support you,” Sherita Love, manager of EdHub STL, recently said on KTVI Fox 2. “There’s this narrative around there’s not support specifically for women, but that is absolutely not the case here in St. Louis.”

Women who own St. Louis businesses of all sizes are providing professional and creative opportunities for themselves, for other women and for the broader region. Khalia Collier, owner and general manager of the St. Louis Surge basketball team, actively involves players in endeavors that bolster their careers as well as their communities. Mary McKenzie, managing partner of the mobile game studio Volcano Bean, gives other game developers a chance to shine at the regional PixelPop festival that she coordinates. And Simone Faure, co-owner and executive pastry chef at La Patisserie Chouquette, has worked with other local business owners to bring a neighborhood back to life.

Grace Hill Women’s Business Center provides workshops and services that help women launch their ideas.

Mentoring, networking and agency are vital for women launching businesses at all stages. In St. Louis, the women-led ITEN offers programs that pair experienced entrepreneurs with new startup founders to help guide and accelerate their growth, while Arch Grants attracts and retains entrepreneurs with capital and programming. Innovation communities such as Cortex, OPO Startups and 39 North are vital for sparking new ideas, and at Venture Café, people with big ideas in every industry collide to learn and build together. Entrepreneurship programs also are available through many local community colleges, technical colleges and universities.

Brookings notes that St. Louis is one of the nation’s most inclusive tech cities, and St. Louis Equity in Entrepreneurship Collective aims to expand that by helping the region’s innovation ecosystems build greater gender and racial equity. Grace Hill Women’s Business Center provides business counseling and workshops to women — particularly non-white women — that help participants develop and launch their ideas. For women who are looking for community support plus professional meeting space, RISE Collaborative Workspace offers a curated coworking environment, resources and conferences.

There also are a number of big events in St. Louis designed to inspire women to pursue big goals. St. Louisans can connect with other business owners during WISER (Women In Science, Entrepreneurship and Research) events, the annual TEDxStLouisWomen conference, and industry-specific meetups like 500 Women Scientists St. Louis.

With plenty of resources and funding available in St. Louis, women are increasingly launching successful businesses that boost the region while helping other women scale new heights.

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