Natalie Self, a leader in St. Louis’ entrepreneurship and philanthropic sector, has concluded that “I am where I am completely by accident of birth,” she said.
Self spent two years working as a co-manager of a large grantmaking program for the Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City-based group with billions of dollars to support education and entrepreneurship, and a year as executive director of STEMSTL, a consortium dedicated to improving local equitable learning and employment opportunities in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
Self acknowledges that she has worked hard.
Still, Self, who is biracial but defaults to saying that she is Black, watched college friends who were also people of color and “just as smart as me not do as well or not have the space and time to do things like advanced research because they also had to work,” said Self, 34, who grew up in Chicago.
“I had benefits because I was born into a class of economic privilege, and it fundamentally seems unfair to me that we have systems that are so broken that we” dedicate “resources to support a very narrow group of people when we could just change the systems and everyone would do better and have greater economic opportunity,” Self said.
That belief that the structure of the American society has created additional barriers for people of color, but that it is not beyond repair, has led Self to a new position as vice president of equitable economic impact at the Cortex Innovation Community, a hub for technology startups in the Midtown neighborhood of St. Louis.
“St. Louis will continue to benefit from [Self’s] passion, from her leadership, from her get-it-done approach to continue creating real change in the St. Louis region, especially for underrepresented communities in the ecosystem,” said Donn Rubin, secretary of the Cortex board and president and CEO of BioSTL, which spearheaded the establishment of STEMSTL.
The economic disparity between Black and white people in Missouri is clear. In 2018, the median household income for Black families in 2018 was $36,000, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey; for white households it was $58,000. And 26% of Black residents lived in poverty, which is more than twice the percentage of white residents.
“In Missouri, the one-drop rule is alive and well,” said Self. “There are lots of informal networks and the doors open really quickly if you look a certain way, and they don’t open as quickly if you look another way.”
In 2013, Tiffany Wesley launched a natural, gluten-free skincare company, now called Pure Vibes, after she was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, a hormonal disorder that can cause skin and hair issues. In June, she opened a shop in University City and this summer was included in the Forbes Next 1000 list highlighting “entrepreneurial heroes” around the country.
Wesley, who is Black, has determined that in St. Louis entrepreneurs such as herself are “underfunded. We don’t have a lot of access to capital. We are oftentimes given jobs or roles or responsibilities that we feel hold title, but there is no pathway to ownership,” said Wesley, who converted her company into a worker-owned cooperative during the pandemic. “In order to bridge the wage gap between African Americans and our counterparts,” we must “start having the conversation of challenging the status quo.”
Wesley was selected to participate in programs such as Square One, which is Cortex’s training program aimed at supporting early-stage and first-time business owners, and WEPOWER’s Elevate Accelerator, an entrepreneurship development program for Black & Latinx entrepreneurs, and received funding from Justine PETERSEN, an organization aimed at helping low and moderate-income build assets and wealth.
“I am proof that there are resources,” Wesley said.
But she sees barriers to entry for prospective entrepreneurs who aren’t aware of such programs or “don’t have basic business knowledge,” she said.
“I would say Cortex is a leader in terms of equity and inclusion…I would like to see a little bit more focus on the underserved communities such as people of color and making sure that we have specific messaging and programs for that,” Wesley said.
Self would also like to produce better economic opportunities for people of color in the bioscience, agricultural and geospatial sectors, all of which have a large presence in St. Louis. She plans to accomplish that by adding a workforce training program at Cortex that would match potential employees with startups located in the district.
Self also sees an opportunity in the fact that people became accustomed to working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since there is now more space for people in the Cortex district, the organization has an opportunity to “co-create with communities that don’t typically come to Cortex and ask people, ‘What would you like to see at Cortex, and what could Cortex do to benefit your plans?’”
That could include space for performances or group meetings, she said.
Self and Rubin both say that trying to reduce racial inequities is the right thing to do for more than just moral reasons. Greater St. Louis Inc., an economic development organization, released a report in May stating that “Systemic racism has seriously compromised the entire metro economy.”
It cites a statistic from economists with the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Public Policy Research Center that the 2012 gross domestic product for the St. Louis region would have been 10 percent higher if there had not been a racial income gap.
The city needs a larger talent pool, Rubin said.
“Of course there are moral imperatives to equity and inclusion, but purely from an economic perspective, and the region’s economic future, we can only be competitive if all St. Louisans are benefiting from the opportunities and contributing their individual and collective talents and strengths to the St. Louis story,” Rubin said.
He believes Self is the right person to lead that charge at Cortex, in part, because of her reaction to a small mistake she made when they first started working together.
“I learned right away how dedicated she is and how much she cares about quality work by how upset she once got when she made just a small error, and I appreciate the aspiration to be perfect and to get everything right,” said Rubin.
Self also believes her new coworkers can be successful partners in improving equity.
“The team across the board — in a way I have almost never seen — is deeply committed to this,” she said. “And I think we are all still figuring out how to implement that commitment day in and day out.”
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