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Female Entrepreneurs Flourish In St. Louis, As Startups Increasingly Drive Economy

Nov. 1, 2019 Laura Burkemper, Phyllis Ellison and Bronwyn Morgan
Lara Hamdan | St. Louis on the Air

The first-ever STL Startup Week begins Nov. 1, celebrating a growing entrepreneurial scene in a city once better known for beer and brick. An integral part of St. Louis’ startup scene: women. A total of 45.2% of local startups are female-owned. That’s more than any other city in the country.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, a trio of movers and shakers discussed the area’s startup success. Phyllis Ellison, vice president of partnerships and program development for Cortex, explained that the area has developed an entire infrastructure to help new companies succeed. 

“We’ve gone in 15 years from maybe having four or five support organizations to help companies grow … to today we have 45 support organizations in the region,” she said. “They’re providing mentoring, coaching, funding, and that’s across different industries, different stages of growth. We really have an amazing support system here for people wanting to start a business.”

And statistics show that, of the startups that begin here, more than 85% make it to the second year. That’s the highest “startup survivability” rating in the nation. 

In fact, in the past five years, 40,000 new jobs have come to Missouri annually because of startups, Ellison said. Absent that growth, the state would actually have a net job loss. “That’s significant,” she added. “We think about Amazon wanting to come in to a community and bring in 50,000 jobs over several years. Well, our startups in Missouri are doing that every year.”

Bronwyn Morgan is an East St. Louis native who lives in Atlanta. However, after spending time getting to know St. Louis’ startup scene, she’s in the process of moving the corporate headquarters of her drone-focused startup Xeo Air to downtown St. Louis’ T-Rex incubator.

“Once I got here, and I started seeing everything going on in my industry, in the geospatial space, I realized, ‘This is the perfect place to be,’” she said. “And as I’m learning more and becoming a bigger part of the ecosystem here, it is hitting all the right levels.”

Ellison said the accelerators and other mentoring organizations helping startups have also taken the initiative to carve out spaces for women.

“We’ve had women entrepreneurs in St. Louis,” she said. “They didn’t always feel like they were welcome in some of the existing coaching organizations or they perhaps didn’t know about some funding opportunities. Bringing that spotlight to it really brought more women into the startup community here in a more visible way, and I think that’s driving a lot of the numbers you’re seeing.” 

And while St. Louis may have a reputation as a town with a strong old boys’ network, Laura Burkemper, who recently founded Wellth Holdings and serves as its CEO, said that the efforts detailed by Ellison are paying off.

“I think that we’re at a point where things are changing,” she said. “And it’s through information, resources that Phyllis has mentioned, that helps bring it to the forefront; that there are capital connections that we can make, that we can help support each other and create more of an ‘all boats rise’ scenario.”

Related Event

What: STL Startup Week Kickoff Event

When: 9 a.m. Monday, Nov. 4, 2019

Where: Innovation Hall at Cortex (4220 Duncan Ave. #101, St. Louis, MO 63110)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Tonina Saputo. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.