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Metro East Leaders Launch Incubator To Grow Locally Owned Businesses

Fairveiw Heights Economic Development Director Paul Ellis, right, and Mayor Mark Kupsky, left, introduce the Metro East Business Incubator on Aug 26. The incubator is virtual for now, but the organization has plans to open a physical location in the Metro East.
Eric Schmid
St. Louis Public Radio
Fairveiw Heights Economic Development Director Paul Ellis, right, and Mayor Mark Kupsky introduce the Metro East Business Incubator on Thursday. The incubator is a virtual hub for now, but the organization has plans to open a physical location in the Metro East.

ST. CLAIR COUNTY — Civic and business leaders in the Metro East aim to foster new local businesses through the help of an incubator that officially launched on Thursday.

The Metro East Business Incubator will serve as a hub for local entrepreneurs tofind mentors, contacts for local governments, events and other resources for those trying to scale a small business, said Amy Determann, executive director of the incubator.

“If they contact us, we can pretty much reach out and find the smoothest way to help them solve their problems,” she said. “It may not be a magic fix by any means, but we have buy-in from the community to make this work.”

Plans for the incubator started in 2019, with most of the work focused on raising funds, establishing a virtual platform for community members and securing not-for-profit status for the organization, Determann said. The incubator eventually aims to establish a physical location.

From 2019, the initiative grew to include three Metro East mayors, St. Clair County’s economic development director, local universities, colleges, business owners and social service organizations, such as the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis.

The incubator’s main focus is on companies that are established but still small, Determann said.

“Once their business is up and running, that’s where we can make the most impact and help them with resources, understanding economies of scale,” she said. “Our big push was not to duplicate.”

The Small Business Development Center at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville is already a strong local resource for those looking to develop an enterprise from scratch, she explained.

This new venture can help smaller companies with things like setting up complementary services or contract negotiations, Determann said. Another main goal of the incubator is removing barriers for women-, minority- and veteran-owned businesses in the Metro East involving access to capital or physical space, she added.

That intention attracted some of the people and organizations that are part of the Metro East Business Incubator, either on its board or advisory council.

“We have to help each other,” said Kathy Wagner, who’s part of the incubator’s advisory council. “When I would attend chamber meetings here, I saw a lot of people, especially women, who didn’t have contacts to start up their new business.”

Wagner also launched the Women's Alliance Group in 2019 to create a space for female entrepreneurs in St. Clair County to connect with each other.

The incubator appeals to organizations like the Urban League because it offers education and mentorship with parts of running a business that some budding owners might not have the expertise in, said Kesha Chatman, the league’s division operating officer serving St. Clair County.

“You may be an amazing baker, you can develop the best cookie and muffin recipes ever, but you may not be that great with marketing or you may not be that great with managing your accounting books,” said Chatman, who’s also on the incubator’s board.

The league’s involvement grew from financial empowerment classes it hosts, she explained.

“A lot of our clients realized, ‘Wow, I can get paid for some of my gifts and talents,’” Chatman said. “That opened up the door for us to nurture their talents and teach them the business side of things.”

The business and local leaders who are involved hope the incubator will drive economic growth in Metro East communities. The next steps for the initiative include partnering with local coworking and innovation centers, and eventually establishing a brick-and-mortar location.

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.