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‘We can’t afford to leave anyone behind:’ Inclusion key for St. Louis economy, Regional Chamber says

Mike Hart and Joe Reagan discuss measures by the St. Louis Regional Chamber to boost inclusion in business.
Mary Edwards | St. Louis Public Radio
Mike Hart and Joe Reagan discuss measures by the St. Louis Regional Chamber to boost inclusion in business.

While the recent economic cycle has impacted St. Louis positively, St. Louis Regional Chamber president and CEO Joe Reagan says that the long-term strategy around the future of the St. Louis economy lies in inclusion and talent attraction/retention.

“We have a change agenda,” Reagan told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh. “We have to make some changes. We have three elements. We have to provide equity and opportunity throughout this region. We can’t afford to leave anyone behind, we shouldn’t leave anybody behind.”

Reagan said that the region also needed to focus on building and investing in infrastructure and working on the perception of safety and actual safety in the region.

Unemployment is down, the first time since the recession, said Reagan, and investment from outside the region in local businesses is up.

“Our startups are able to find capital overall,” Reagan said. “The real estate market is doing very well. In this cycle of the economy, we are doing well. We still have to pay attention to making change for the long haul. Our trends have not been where we want them to be over the last 30 years. While this is an up market, we have to do everything we can to continue this strength going forward.”

The bright spots? Startup activity, technology, innovation in corporations and startups alike and higher education — traditional business metrics like GDP and employment are looking good for the city.

What could use some improvement?

“Where we have to be much stronger is bringing more people and retaining more people here in St. Louis,” Reagan said. “That is what will fuel the future growth. We won’t be able to grow, the country won’t be able to grow much more without changing the labor force and talent dynamics.”

"To the extent we are most welcoming and inclusive to people all over the world, and from all of our neighborhoods here, we're going to win."- Joe Reagan

Regan said that crime, violence and poverty are “nothing that is unique to St. Louis,” but that it is “time to step up to those.”

“To the extent we are most welcoming and inclusive to people all over the world, and from all of our neighborhoods here, we’re going to win,” Reagan said. “We’re doing well in terms of recognizing right now. That’s not something we can ever stop.”

One way the Regional Chamber is working on inclusion is through a partnership with Regions Bank. Mike Hart, the executive vice president and Midwest area president for Regions Bank, also joined St. Louis on the Air to discuss the program, titled “Inner City Capital Connections,” which connects underserved businesses with tools to gain capital to create more jobs.

“Entrepreneurship in our underserved communities is our primary driver for jobs,” Hart said.

The program was developed by Michael Porter, a Harvard professor, who studies ways to improve inner cities. This framework has been used in cities like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago and the program’s alumni have created over 11,000 jobs and secured over $1 billion in capital since it started in 1994.

Hart said that the program, which is open to women and minorities who own businesses already up and running in the city or businesses that employ minority or low-income employees, helps business owners learn more about how to drive business growth, build a business plan and handle issues of technology, human resources and cybersecurity. It also connects business owners with mentors.

The nomination and start of the process will occur over the next several months. On September 29, a full-day session will bring in businesses who will be working with the program.

Reagan said he believed there are around 250 businesses in the bi-state region that would qualify to be in this progam. More information about how to apply or nominate businesses can be found here. The program is being underwritten by Regions Bank and is at no cost to the participant.

“There are great businesses in our inner cities in our region,” Reagan said. “Underserved is a good term. Maybe sometimes we’re not paying attention to how great those businesses really are. We need to get behind them, have their backs and give them access to opportunities, access to knowledge. No person, no business gets anywhere by themselves. It takes a network of people.”

Reagan and Hart hope that the one-to-one nature of the program will help create a helpful future network for those businesses, which will spread across the St. Louis area.

“What’s good for St. Louis is what is good for everyone in St. Louis,” Hart said.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.