Silicon Valley has Stanford University. Cambridge boasts MIT and Stanford. Austin has UT-Texas. In the center of every thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem sits a university. And that’s exactly the model that has found itself in what many might consider an unlikely place for a new business Renaissance: St. Louis and Washington University.
For proof, look no further than a former furniture factory not far from the banks of the Mississippi River, where colorful desks and chairs are scattered across a spacious — and renovated — industrial coworking space. Exposed bricks and pipes that used to resemble blue-collar work now serve as a hipster enclave for 20- and 30-somethings jumping from one Apple screen to another.
“The entrepreneurs have really been the anchor for the revitalization of downtown,” Cliff Holekamp says as he walks through T-Rex, the coworking space on Washington Avenue in downtown St. Louis. “That’s the big role at T-Rex,” adds Holekamp, a serial entrepreneur and angel investor who created a robust entrepreneurship curriculum at Washington University’s Olin School of Business. “It’s to incubate these companies. And as they grow out of the space, they find spots nearby in the local community.”
St. Louis — like many Midwestern American cities — rests on generations of innovation. By 1764, French fur traders began populating the area. Once the Osage Nation was pushed out to reservations in Oklahoma or elsewhere, the land underneath St. Louis officially became part of the U.S. in 1803 with the Louisiana Purchase. It was officially incorporated as an American city when Missouri became a state in 1821.
Even before then, it quickly became one of the country’s largest cities and most important inland hubs sitting on the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers as riverboats began arriving in 1818. Like many Midwestern towns, St. Louis’s population and industry peaked in the 1950s. Since then, people have fled to the suburbs, leaving empty buildings and lots in their wake. Until now.
THE REGROWTH OF A CITY
Over the past decade, gastropubs full of 20-somethings have popped up across the street from abandoned lots. Apartment and condo complexes are being renovated and constructed. Instead of knocking over buildings and starting over, many new startup hubs like T-Rex — and the nearby Cortex district — have flipped buildings, taking over old rotary phone and furniture factories and placing coworking and office space that rivals anything you’d see in the San Francisco Bay Area or New York City.
Statistically, Holekamp says, the residential occupancy downtown is at 97% but the commercial occupancy is under 70%. “It’s become a hugely popular place to live but they’re struggling to fill up their commercial occupancy,” Holekamp says. “So what we’re trying to do is create the next generation of occupants — both residential and commercial.”
Since 2010, St. Louis’s downtown population has surged by 43.5%. Going back to 2005, the rate climbs to 153.5%. Between its graduates and current tenants, T-Rex claims it has created more than 4,300 jobs with a combined economic output of more than $607 million. “That’s the goal of T-Rex, to incubate these companies and as they grow out of this space, they go into the nearby community,” Holekamp says. “And a large percentage do stay downtown because they got their roots here. And then they hire young people because young people want to be down here. They don’t want to work out in Chesterfield.”
THE BIRTH OF AN ENTREPRENEURSHIP PROGRAM
Holekamp would certainly know. He’s been deeply embedded in the entrepreneurial landscape in St. Louis for more than a decade. And he’s nearly single-handedly architected the entrepreneurship program at Washington University’s Olin Business School, which ranked first in our debut ranking of MBA programs in entrepreneurship.
After graduating with his own MBA from Olin, Holekamp created a chain of podiatry centers around the St. Louis region called Foot Healers. “I found myself with a little free-time and thinking about what I was going to do next,” Holekamp says about selling the chain in 2007. So he reached out to the Olin School, which happened to have an opening for an adjunct professor to teach their only two entrepreneurship courses — Introduction to Entrepreneurship and The Hatchery — starting in the spring of 2008.
Olin’s entrepreneurial roots began in 1999 when the school launched programming for what would become the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship. In 2001, the Center’s namesake, Bob and Julie Skandalaris donated a large fund. And by 2003, thanks to another large grant from the Kauffman Foundation, the Skandalaris Center had the funding necessary to start making a real impact at Washington University. Holekamp calls it the “first real decision” by the school to “truly invest in entrepreneurship.” And the Center’s current managing director, II (pronounced “two”) Luscri, calls in the “foundation that everything has been built on to today.”
A ‘FREE-TRADE’ BETWEEN GRADUATE PROGRAMS
Despite the clunky name, the center has set the tone for entrepreneurship education at Washington University. A few years after the launch its launch, the Center was officially moved outside of the business school and into what Luscri, who also holds the title of assistant vice provost for innovation and entrepreneurship at WashU, calls an “academically neutral” space.
“They didn’t want to send a message that this was just for business students,” Holekamp explains. “They wanted it to be interdisciplinary, cross-campus because collaboration is a fundamental part of entrepreneurship.”