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Regional business leaders say inclusion is key to long-term economic growth

A panel discussion on stage.
Eric Schmid
St. Louis Public Radio
Arrey Obenson, president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis, speaks during an economic outlook breakfast at the Renaissance St. Louis Airport Hotel on Thursday. Regional leaders see collaboration and inclusive growth as paramount to the success of the region.

Business leaders across St. Louis are charting a course for regional economic growth that seeks to respond to historic inequality by prioritizing inclusion and collaboration.

The strategy focuses on unifying the region’s 14 counties and independent city, as well as the many minority communities that call the St. Louis region home.

“Creating opportunity for all is a winning strategy for St. Louis,” said Greater St. Louis Inc. CEO Jason Hall, at a regional economic outlook breakfast Thursday. The room was packed with around 600 attendees representing local chambers of commerce, businesses and other regional institutions.

Hall said the region isn’t in a position where individual growth will cut it, something reflected in the STL 2030 Jobs Plan his organization released more than two years ago.

“You cannot move forward if everybody else does not have the opportunity to move forward,” he said. “That was a major philosophical shift to address racial and spatial inequities that have held this region back for far too long.”

It’s a sentiment that Joan Daleo, Ole Tyme Produce president and CEO, also shared with those in attendance.

“If your region as a whole isn’t growing, you're in combat warfare every day,” she said. “You’re stealing business from other people; they’re trying to steal from you. But when the whole region grows together, you can have inclusive growth.”

For Daleo, the disruptions from the COVID pandemic drove home the point that collaboration would be the new paradigm moving forward.

Other speakers stressed the importance of small businesses to the region’s vitality. These ventures make up the overwhelming majority of companies in the region and country.

“We need more immigrant entrepreneurs and families coming into our region, adding to our population, starting businesses and scaling them over time,” said Sam Murphey, Greater St. Louis Inc. chief strategy officer.

But this goal also requires rectifying some of the more entrenched challenges different minority businesses face in the region. For Black-owned businesses, a key historical challenge has been access to capital, said Marvin Steele, president and CEO of the Heartland St. Louis Black Chamber of Commerce.

“That’s our most difficult dilemma,” he said. “In order for us to grow, develop and fly as a region, we must incorporate the Black community. And one of the key ways to do that is through the Black business community.”

Steele said Black-owned businesses need to be perceived no differently than any other venture seeking capital from a bank. He added he’s working with a few regional financial institutions that are beginning to understand this too.

“The more that we recognize what it really means to finance a small business who happens to be Black and understand it’s key to the growth of the region, I think the sooner we get there,” he said.

Other groups in the region, particularly immigrants and refugees, have different challenges to establishing economic success, said Rahab Ngumba, a licensed financial professional at Fanaka Financial Services.

Her work includes educating families on how financial portfolios work and how to grow and protect assets for the future.

“Most immigrants come here and they get hired and maybe they don’t get educated in how a 401(k) works or what it is,” Ngumba said. “And all they do is sign a piece of paper and that is it.”

And those with an idea for a business venture need to understand different financial portfolios to know where to look for funding and capital, she added.

It’s a point reflected by Arrey Obenson, president and CEO of the International Institute of St. Louis.

“Our financial system is very different from the rest of the world,” he said. “So financial literacy is an area for anyone who wants to go into any form of business in this community.”

But with the right support, immigrants and refugees can find solid success in the region, Obenson said, adding more than three-quarters of the newcomers the International Institute serves are self-sufficient within 180 days.

A bright spot for Obenson is the success of the Afghan community after hundreds of refugees arrived last year, which he said is driving more migration to the St. Louis region.

“We’re beginning to see that over 25% of the original number of Afghans that came to St. Louis have now moved from Texas and California and other places to St. Louis,” he said. “Here they have an Afghan community. We provided them with all the opportunities that will make them succeed.”

There are still some challenges for Afghan businesses though, especially when it comes to capital, said Moji Sidiqi, director for multicultural affairs and Afghan outreach at the International Institute of St. Louis. It’s because loan interest is haram, or forbidden, for those in the Islamic faith.

“You have no other choice, because one, you don’t have capital, two, you have to get these loans,” Sidiqi said. “So you have this conflict of interest between your spirituality and the fact that you have to create a way to survive and a way to provide for your family.”

The International Institute offers loans without interest to the international community, and there are other options too, she said. But it underscores the need for more conversations and events about how to drive success in different local communities, given St. Louis’ assets, Sidiqi added.

“St. Louis’ cost of living, compared to other metropolitan areas around the country, is better,” she said. “The likelihood of an immigrant, a refugee, a newcomer to start up a business, to become a homeowner, is so much more likely than in (places) like New York, Virginia, California."

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