Building a House for Diversity in St. Louis

This article appeared in the St. Louis American on January 12, 2019.

A few years ago, I read the book, “Building a House for Diversity” by R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr., a renowned Harvard professor and diversity scholar. Thomas begins the book with a fable about a giraffe who wants to befriend an elephant.

The giraffe invites the elephant into his house. After some quick carpentry to enlarge the basement door in order to be able to admit the elephant, the giraffe goes off to answer a phone call, asking the elephant, “Please make yourself at home.” But every time the elephant moves, there is a large scrunch or crashing sound. When the giraffe returns, he is amazed at the damage the elephant has done.

There were three takeaways from this story about the interaction between the giraffe (the insider) and the elephant (the outsider). First is the silliness of expecting an elephant to assume the same dimensions as a giraffe.

A second lesson is that organizations should expect a certain amount of tension and complexity when attempting to build a house of diversity. Diverse candidates in our organization are often asked to conform to daily regiments and traditions without consideration that it is their distinct differences that make them so valuable to the organization in the first place. 

The third take away is that organizations ought to measure successes in diversity and inclusiveness not by attempts or the grandness of the plans, but tangible results. Diversity comes to fruition through the willingness and active participation of supervisors, managers, employees at all levels and the willingness of the organization to change itself by being totally inclusive.

This is what we know: Organizations with more women and diverse representation statistically outperform their peers; inclusive teams out perform their peers by 80 percent; gender-diverse organizations are more likely to outperform their peers; and organizations that hire demographically diverse candidates have a greater chance to be around into the future.

The elephant and the giraffe represent the value of equitable collaboration, the combination of individuals who are different in some ways and similar in others. The elephant represents people who are not familiar to us, speak with an accent, have different sexual orientation, individuals who didn’t go to high school in St. Louis.

They are younger or older. Their education credentials and professional experiences are from faraway places. They graduated from college elsewhere. They hold personal and political views that differ from those of their work colleagues. But one thing they bring to the organization is undeniable: a high level of intellectual contribution and the capacity to make meaningful contributions that will ultimately be measured by dollars and cents and increased relevance of the organization.

Harvard Business Review article from summer of 2016 addressed "why diversity programs fail." The findings were that training helps and will continue to be a piece of the quest to ensure diversity. However, to truly break down the unconscious biases, we need to have relationships with people different than ourselves. 

Even more recent research from Price Waterhouse Coopers found that 87 percent of global companies identify diversity and inclusion as a top strategic priority. It also stated that facts and data don't necessarily change minds. The research suggests continual exposure to difference, novel experiences such as cross-cultural or reverse mentoring, and creating safe places to discuss traditionally challenging or polarizing topics are places to start. 

I believe that the biggest threat to any diversity effort is not external but internal. It is the threat that comes from organizations that choose to surround themselves with people who think alike. This results in isolation and insulation. Diversity gives us an opportunity to create an environment that allows all employees to contribute and perform at peak levels of effectiveness.

My challenge to the elephants and the giraffes of St. Louis is we must measure our successes, and sustained results will come only through the willingness and active engagement of supervisors, managers and employees at all levels and – most importantly – the leaders of the organization.

In the recent installment of “Star Wars,” one of my takeaways was the statement from the wife of Yoda’s dad – we need to do and to stop trying.

St. Louis: It’s time to stop trying and focus our collective efforts on doing.

Benjamin Ola Akande, an economist, is senior advisor to the chancellor of Washington University and director of its Africa Initiative.

Connect the Dots: The Convenience Revolution Has Arrived

St. Louis’ own globally renowned customer service expert and New York Times best-selling author Shep Hyken and I just returned from a one-week corporate and people engagement visit to Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy.

Hyken was a hit because he successfully connected with the wide demographic of the public, including young, newly minted university graduates, the business leaders from health care to government and even politicians.


His message throughout the engagement was commitment – how to deliver a customer service experience that disrupts the competition and creates fierce loyalty. That’s the focus of his recently published book The Convenience Revolution.

His message to the thousands of people he met on this, his second visit to Africa’s most populous nation, was to use customer service as a competitive advantage. So how can you disrupt your competition and maybe even an entire industry? The answer: Be convenient!

Hyken stressed that whether you’re trying to out-service a competitor or disrupt an entire industry, creating less friction and being more convenient for your customers should be your strategy. When you raise the convenience bar, you create the next level of amazing customer experience. And when you do, your customers will reward you with their money, their loyalty and their referrals. That’s the advantage of joining the “convenience revolution.”

Hyken used the example of “convenience stress.” There’s a reason convenience stores are called that – they’re convenient! Customers who shop at such stores know the selection is smaller and the prices are often higher, yet they still come in droves because of the ease of purchase.

How about the minibar in your hotel room? That’s convenient, too, but it comes at a cost. After all, the same $5 Coca-Cola in the hotel’s minifridge can be bought down the hall from a vending machine for just $1.25. Yet even with that can of Coke being four times more expensive than one available a short walk away, hotels are restocking minibars every day.

“What is the one takeaway from your new book?” I ask Hyken, and he says, “Our customers are smarter than ever. They know what good service is. They know what convenient service is. Companies like Amazon have taught them, and now they expect it from every company they do business with. It’s simple: Customers will choose to do more business with the people and companies that are easiest – as in most convenient – to do business with.”

Hyken’s new contribution to the customer service literature is perhaps his best – ever. I suggest you pick it up and engage your organization in a conversation. I’m confident the results will be evident quickly.

Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande is the senior advisor to the chancellor and director of the Africa Initiative at Washington University in St. Louis, as well as former president of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. He has a Ph.D. in economics and previously served as dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.

Connect the Dots: No Promises

The mercury’s rising, birds are singing, flowers are blooming – yet it seems each hour of each day, the media smother us with details of a seemingly dysfunctional world, one marked less by hope and optimism and more by confusion, controversy and chaos.

Nationally, the first quarter of 2018 alone involved the Parkland, Florida, school shooting. Tales of sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood and in Washington, D.C., bombarded us. Almost daily turmoil and turnover embroiled the White House staff, while special counsel Robert S. Mueller III continued to investigate potential Russian tampering in U.S. elections. Add to all of that the ongoing battle over immigration regulations, a missile scare in Hawaii, budding trade wars, a roller-coaster stock market and ongoing planetary environmental concerns.

With almost daily violence on our own area streets, of course, the local front scarcely remains immune to bad news, which also has included gubernatorial constroversies, the sale of Express Scripts, Bayer’s acquisition of Monsanto and St. Louis’ drop from the top 20 largest U.S. cities – all in all, enough to make one crawl back into bed and hide under the covers.

Of course, we can’t do that. Life goes on, and frustrated and depressed though we may be by current events, we must carry on.

The fact that so much has happened in so short a time supports the belief that we live in a world of no guarantees. At an event a few years ago, the late management and leadership guru Warren Bennis addressed the challenges people face in such a world. Bennis shared six points he once found on a company’s bulletin board, which speak to today’s U.S. corporate culture:

  • We can’t promise you how long we’ll be in business.
  • We can’t promise you that we won’t be bought by another company.
  • We can’t promise that there will be room for promotion.
  • We can’t promise that your job will exist until you reach retirement.
  • We can’t promise that the money will be available for your pension.
  • We can’t expect your undying loyalty and we are not sure we want it.

Bennis’ overarching point? In the current dynamic, corporations no longer make the kinds of promises they once did. So how do workers develop the psychological fortitude, leadership and managerial skills needed to navigate this perilous landscape?

Some may find Bennis’ perspective yet another sign of today’s societal decay. I myself find it refreshing and realistic, though. True, employees (especially millennials) may face a very complicated business environment of no promises. But recognizing no guarantees while retaining realistic expectations marks the first step in dealing with chaos and change. With change as the only constant, we can plan accordingly and remain open to new ideas and new directions. As the late, great Stephen Hawking told us, “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”

Adapting to change in a chaotic world that offers no guarantees will require not only intelligence but also patience, persistence and creativity – qualities on which our society was built. And I’m confident such qualities remain our path to better days ahead.

I take joy in seeing young people expressing their anti-gun views openly, loudly and nationally. I marvel at the strength of the #MeToo movement and the courage of women to speak up for their rights. I marvel at the technological achievements our country consistently delivers, perhaps best symbolized by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s red Tesla rocketing into space.

Finally, I look forward to the warmth Mother Nature and our own good natures likely have in store for us. As local weather shows, there are no promises or guarantees – but there’s always hope.

Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande is the senior advisor to the chancellor at Washington University in St. Louis and former president of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. He has a Ph.D. in economics and previously served as dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.

Connect the Dots: The Joyride’s Finally Slowing

Appeared in the Ladue News by Benjamin Ola Akande, March 22, 2018

The resurgence of the stock market has much to do with confidence in it – confidence that continued to grow following Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election in November 2016.

But truth be told, the strategy that laid the groundwork for this remarkable ride actually originated with former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, a scholar of the Great Depression who unleashed a dramatic assault to address the 2008 Great Recession.

That assault began with the Fed cutting short-term interest rates to historical lows of 0.15 percent in January 2009. The essence of the strategy involved keeping short-term interest rates as close to 0 percent as possible to enable the U.S. economy to recover. And so it was for the next six years. In addition, the Fed bought long-term bonds and mortgage-backed securities over a 10-year period, peaking at a value of $4.4 billion in January 2018.

Perhaps the strategy can be nicknamed “the Bernanke” because it involved a relatively new monetary position, specifically designed to entice investors to stop buying bonds and to start purchasing equities and investing in real estate. It worked – as household wealth increased, leading to more consumer spending – and it also paved the way for the economic recovery we all are enjoying today.

The stock market awoke as the value of equities owned by the average American increased upward of 45 percent between 2011 and 2013. The net worth for households increased by $10 trillion in just 2013, so imagine the consequential impact on the S&P 500, which increased by more than 200 percent between 2009 and November 2016. But then the “Trump bump” happened, with the stock market increasing an additional 100 percent, now totaling 300 percent in the aftermath of the election.

Yes, the market has benefited from a higher level of confidence perhaps attributable to the election and Trump’s presidency. However, the price/earnings (P/E) ratio just before the election already exceeded historical averages by 49 percent. And now the Fed is expected to curtail the availability of easy money that fueled these good times. Given this sensitive balancing act, I myself suspect the Fed will get the job done without plunging the economy into another recession.

Not everyone on Wall Street agrees, though, which explains why we saw the Dow Jones industrial average fall 1,597 points in a single day. This panic-type selling originated from a fear that the Fed, under the leadership of its new chairman, would reverse the long streak of tepid inflation and that low interest rates will abruptly end.

The panic quickly subsided, though, and the market’s losses have been halved, although daily volatility remains. Rising yields mean higher borrowing costs for companies, and that may push the Fed to raise interest rates more rapidly, which would adversely affect stock prices. Some economists contend the stock market rise resembles a mountain climber scaling a steep slope – at some point, the “mountain climber” slows and maybe even descends a bit to regroup and regain strength, before continuing to climb.

Of course, as important as the stock market remains as an indicator of how the economy is doing, it alone doesn’t indicate economic prosperity and continued growth. Consider, for instance, these factors:

  • The U.S. gross domestic product has been expanding at an annual pace of more than 3 percent after inflation for three straight quarters.
  • Average hourly earnings rose to $26.74 in January, a 2.9 percent increase over the past year.
  • The labor market participation rate has been around 63 percent for the past four months.

Given those positive trends, I would advise long-term investors not to panic. Market corrections of 10 percent or more frequently occur. This isn’t the time to undo your entire investment strategy.

Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande is the president of BOA Consulting and former president of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. He has a Ph.D. in economics and previously served as dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.

Dreams Do Come True

As a child growing up in Africa, I was a dreamer. My parents encouraged this. No matter how outright unbelievable my dreams might be, they assured me that dreams do come true. Dreams provide a glimpse of what the future will look like. How I wish I could have recorded all those dreams.


Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream was recorded. His dream was played out in front of millions of people. As he spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, most of us can still hear his remarkable prose: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made straight and the glory of the lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” 

Martin’s dream was a significant and compelling vision of the future at a time when overwhelming obstacles seemed impossible and improbable to overcome. He knew how difficult it is to make change happen. Herecognized that monumental changes take considerable time. Indeed, it takes the force of nature to break through the harsh reality of the status quo and history.

I could not help but think of Dr. King on March 24 of this year when Iwatched hundreds of thousands of people jammed shoulder to shoulder on the streets of Washington, D.C. indeed, most of them were not even alive when Martin shared his own dream so many years ago. Yet they shared with Martin that same dream, a dream of a better world, one that is safer and saner, with fewer obstacles to overcome and more opportunities to achieve as individuals and as a society. 

Too often, we tend to view people like Dr. King and the Parkland students – or even the women behind the me-too movement – as deviants or troublemakers. They hold no official positions of leadership, why do they try to lead when they lack authority? The answer is simple. When official leadership fails or fails even to try, so-called mavericks move to fill the leadership vacuum.

That was the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He knew that dreams can come true, as long as you try. As a civil rights leader, he challenged the status quo. He championed unity as a means to an end, where all Americans are bound not by race or economic status, but as individuals who are valued. 

Dr. King’s sense of constructive impatience inspired many of his day who saw a courageous man with the audacity to challenge an establishment that held all the power and authority.  In the same way, the students of the mass shooting generation are demonstrating similar courage and audacity in challenging an establishment that has failed them once too often.

Dr. King was assassinated in the middle of his dream. His efforts to transform a divided nation were cut short. Yet, he succeeded in transforming an ideal into a cause that ultimately yielded remarkable results. His “I have a Dream” conversation with America gave us a blueprint for how to lead from where we are and reminded us that leadership is exercised best for a just cause. The legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. is that we should not be afraid to lead. We are not obliged to accept the status quo. He challenged us to look beyond our present and create a greater future. 

You may vilify dreamers, you may criticize them, and you may even assassinate them. But, you can’t kill a dreamer’s dream. Dreams may take a long time to come to fruition, and there will no doubt be only small steps forward as well as big setbacks along the way. But there is a power in dreaming that cannot be deterred. 

As we seek to tackle the magnificent challenges of our time: the greatest economic divide, healthcare, poverty, and peace, let us remember to never stop dreaming and know that the results we seek are possible.

Martin knew it would happen. He foresaw that his own demise wouldkeep him from seeing his dream come true. “I’ve seen the promise land,” he said. “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land.”  Fifty-three years later, his vision is still unfolding, carried forth by a new generation of dreamers. That should give us all hope that, in fact, dreams do come true.

Benjamin Ola. Akande
Senior Advisor to Chancellor
Washington University, St. Louis, MO
Former President Westminster College, Fulton, MO

Time to Resuscitate St. Louis

The following is the full text of the keynote speech delivered by Benjamin Ola. Akande at the Royal Vagabond’s Seventh Annual Leadership Awards.

I am honored to speak at the Royal Vagabond’s annual luncheon. And, as I look around the room, I see quite a number of regional leaders, leaders who have the wisdom, the talent and the power to challenge the paradigm that is our region. Leaders who I hope share my belief that St. Louis can and should be one of the great 21st century cities of America, that we can regain the status we held in 1904, and the momentum we experienced in the 1960’s when the gateway arch was completed. That we can be better tomorrow than we are today.

So, let me ask you some straight forward questions...

Do you hear flawed thinking and let it go, or do you take it upon yourself to change minds and attitudes? Do you challenge assumptions, seek to build consensus, and make it your mission to lead from where you are? Are you working every day to find better ways to strengthen our community?

We live in a time where common sense and reality don’t seem to get the respect they once garnered. A recent editorial in the London Times expressed this perfectly. Written as an obituary. It reads as follows:

Today we mourn the passing of a beloved old friend, first name common, last name sense, who has been with us for many years, and will be remembered as having cultivated such valuable lessons as:

  • knowing when to come in out of the rain;
  • why the early bird gets the worm;
  • that life isn’t always fair;
  • and maybe, just maybe, it was my fault.
  • those who bring light into the life of others cannot keep it from themselves
  • always make sure you are fighting the battle in front of you, and not the one behind you.

Common sense lived by simple, sound financial mantra, such as don’t spend more than you can earn, and adhere to the tried and true, that adults not children are in charge.

The health of common sense began to deteriorate rapidly when well-intentioned but overbearing regulations were set in place. Teens suspended from school for using mouthwash after lunch; and a teacher fired for reprimanding an unruly student.

Common sense finally gave up the will to live after a woman failed to realize that a steaming cup of coffee was hot. She spilled a little in her lap and was promptly awarded a huge settlement.

Common sense was preceded in death:

  • by his parents, truth and trust,
  • his uncle, integrity
  • his wife, discretion,
  • his daughter, responsibility,
  • and his only son, reason.

Not many people attended his funeral, because so few realized he was gone.

I believe that most, if not all of you here today would agree that common sense, if indeed not dead, at least is on life support.

The examples are almost too many to list. At the national level, we decry the problems that are destroying lives, then turn around and not allocate funding for programs designed to fix them. We agree that people with mental health issues should not be able to purchase firearms, but we cannot agree on steps to prevent them from buying guns.

We have validated research that confirms that early childhood education is so critical to a child’s development, but have failed to provide the resources to ensure that every child has an equal opportunity to grow, develop and learn.

We are reminded daily about the opioid crisis, which has touched every one of us, cutting short the lives of so many young people, many here in St. Louis. This crisis is responsible for 64,000 deaths in 2016. More people died from opioid than the Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined. I am worried about the pervasive impact that this epidemic will have on society.

Our public schools are underfunded, even though statistics show that only 31 percent of students in St. Louis public schools are proficient in English, 17 percent in science and only 9 percent in math. We need a common sense response to addressing this gap.

In the city of St. Louis, one in four people live in poverty, including 40 percent of our children. Common sense would say this is a reality that is not sustainable. But are we actively addressing it?

National statistics consistently list St. Louis as the murder capital of the united states with 205 deaths in 2017 and already 27 as of last week. We downplay the reports by arguing that those statistics only reflect the city’s and not regional data. But doesn’t it make more sense to focus on how to put an end to the violence?

But haven’t we ever considered the fact that those crime statistics, along with the negative image of our region almost four years after the Ferguson unrest, may be costing us jobs and future opportunities for growth.

St. Louis is no longer a destination for large companies looking to expand. And those already here too often find themselves on the flipside of mergers and acquisitions.

We like to say that St. Louis is a great place to live, an ideal place to raise a family, a big city with excellent cultural attractions, wonderful parks, manageable traffic and Midwestern values. I would agree that all of that is true. But that mindset also suggests that we are married to the status quo. We like what we are, and we don’t care to address what could make us even better.

Someone once wrote, “life is like a taxi. The meter just keeps a-ticking whether you are getting somewhere or standing still.” St. Louis is standing still even though it may look like we are moving forward.

Nowhere is our love of the status quo more apparent than in the ongoing debate over our city government fragmentation. The data is revealing.

Between St. Louis city and county and our 90 municipalities, we spend $281 million dollars a year on general government administration. That’s $7,600 per year for each family of four.

By comparison, the Louisville metro area, which has 83 municipalities and a fully integrated regional government, spends $132 million dollars less. We cannot grow and prosper in the 21st century with an 18th century governance structure.

That’s just one example. But imagine what we could do with that $132 million. Hire more police? Fix our schools? Help train people to lift them out of poverty and build a state with the best mass transit system?

Instead, we cling to the status quo and ignore facts in favor of keeping things the way they are. Isn’t it time to focus on how much greater we can be?

I know that change can be scary, and in fact the only person that likes change is a wet baby. But failure to change in the face of so many challenges is simply irresponsible.

We owe it to ourselves, our children, and their children to make St. Louis a better place to live for all. Even if it means ending the status quo.

So, what can we do? What must we do?

The Royal Vagabonds have always been an organization that is not afraid to ask tough questions. Working as leaders in the community, they have pursued new and better ways to improve the lives of those in need. What we need is a vision — that our best days are ahead of us and not behind us. We need to recognize that what we have been doing isn’t sufficient to keep irrelevancy at bay, and we need a commitment to make bold changes that put us back on the path to long-term success.

I believe St. Louis needs a new kind of commitment today more than ever.

As a first step, I suggest that it’s time we dare to step out of our current reality and take the stairs up to the balcony. A place where we can get an over-arching view of what’s wrong with St. Louis and then determine how to make it right. It’s also a time to convene to identify the problem, come together as a community to figure out what it will take to resolve it and then act within a defined timeline.

In their fine book “Leadership on the Line,” Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky offer a practical and wise exercise for people and organizations in the midst of serious challenges.

Anyone who has been to the theater and sat in the balcony knows that you get a very unique vantage point on what is happening on stage. You are able to see things from all angles. You see it better. You get greater clarity when we view our circumstances from above the fray.

The trip to the balcony is an opportunity for all of us to take a critical look at ourselves, to reassess what we see and hear, and to re-inject common sense into our daily lives. And specifically, to take a good look at the direction in which St. Louis is going and change direction.

It begs the questions: what do you most admire about the St. Louis region? What strengths can we build upon? What are the things we need to fix – the thing we must stop doing? What needs to be changed? What will we allow to endure?

One hundred fourteen years ago, St. Louis was the most important city on the planet when in 1904 we hosted the Olympics and the World’s Fair simultaneously. People from all over the world came and admired our parks, our graceful architecture, our picturesque riverfront. Those things are all still here.

Yet some would argue that St. Louis’ past is much greater than our present. Are we to accept that the apex of this great city was more than a century ago? That all that is ahead is more disappointment and hand-wringing over what might have been?

When Amazon doesn’t deem us worthy of their consideration, (we didn’t make their top 20 cities for consideration), we chose to pat ourselves on the back for putting together what was described as a strong proposal, while others maintained that Amazon isn’t the future for every city. Amazon is looking for a stable and business-friendly environment, an urban or suburban location with a record of attracting and retaining strong technical skills and communities that think and act boldly.

Our problem is integration, separation and fracturism — it’s killing us. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that most of the shadows in our lives are caused when we stand in front of our own sunshine. St. Louis, it’s time to get out of our own way.

When we see many of our major corporations being acquired by out-of-town corporate interests, rather than the other way around, do we shrug our shoulders and say it’s a sign of the times?

We need common sense strategy that’s bold, that harnesses our competitive advantage to create what doesn’t exist. It cannot be a strategy based on hope. What we need is a strategy based on best practices.

We need to create the kind of economic environment whereby we are the ones doing the acquiring and bringing more resources to St. Louis, rather than shipping them out. Let’s stop waiting for the future. It’s time we build it.

When our elected state officials in Jefferson City propose to cut taxes and follow the failed lead of states like Kansas and Oklahoma, where is the outcry on behalf of those who desperately need basic services that will likely get cut, and the mixed signals we send to businesses here and those who are looking for a new location? Do we respond with our voices and our votes?

A few years ago, I had the honor of introducing noted historian Tracey Campbell at a talk here in St. Louis on the history of the Gateway Arch. The book is entitled “The Gateway Arch,” and if you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do so. As you know, this coming summer we will celebrate the opening of the new museum under the Arch, marking the end of the renovation of the memorial on the riverfront.

This was a team event that brought together corporate, government, foundation and individual interest. Along the way, we created jobs and injected millions of dollars into this community.

But how many of us know the history that underlies our national monument? We seldom ask, what was there before the arch? Who benefited from its construction? Who lost? What could have been? These are questions we must ask ourselves as we seek to transform and strengthen St. Louis for the future.

The story of the Gateway Arch is much more complicated than the account provided to visitors. It involves political and economic power, short-sighted city planning, and decades of disputes.

It’s true, the Arch transformed our city and gave the nation a timeless landmark. But it also displaced hundreds of people and businesses and created an island that separated the city from the river for more than half a century, and as an example of urban planning, one could argue that, for all its merits as a tourist draw, the Arch and the surrounding grounds enhance the prestige of St. Louis or bring significant economic gains to our city.

This Gateway Arch does not stand alone as an attraction to our city. What are we doing to make St. Louis a safe place to live and visit? What was arguably the city’s greatest asset, its location along the mighty Mississippi River, is something we seem to have overlooked. Just over a century ago, St. Louis considered itself the potential equal of New York City and the site of a relocated American capital.

The city’s population today is half of what it was when the idea of the arch was first conceived. Ferguson has become a national catchword for what is wrong with St. Louis. We take pride in proclaiming what a great place St. Louis is to raise a family; yet that message does not seem to resonate with those looking in from outside who see a rising homicide rate, a city without a mass transit system, and a divided place politically. Common sense must prevail here.

Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” writes that the leading innovative and creative cities have three T’s in common – technology, talent and tolerance.

Richard affirms that the three T’s explain why cities such as Baltimore, St. Louis and Pittsburgh fail to grow economically despite their deep reservoirs of technology and world-class universities. He contends that perhaps the problem is that they are unwilling to be sufficiently tolerant even though they are open to attract and retain top creative talent.

We’ve spent several hundred million dollars to revive our landmark; the view from the balcony suggests that money is likely to do little to address what really ails our community and to resolve the lack of tolerance for what Richard Florida speaks. We have to own up to the fact that many outsiders see us as a city on the decline, and they are not willing to invest millions of dollars in such a place. It’s time we change this narrative and inform America of what we have to offer.

The reversal of perception must begin by taking a common-sense approach to prioritizing our goals, boldly addressing the challenges we face, and demonstrating the courage to change directions.

So, where is the vision to make St. Louis a truly great 21st century city? Where is the commitment to aggressively deal with the far-reaching recommendations of Forward Through Ferguson or For the Sake of All? Who will provide the courage to challenge our fragmented city structures, which eat up valuable resources and duplicate services?

I believe more than ever that St. Louis is ready for leadership who is willing to set things right, to get out of their comfort zones, to confront the paradigm, challenge assumptions, build consensus and find a better way for our community. We need our leaders to offer a vision that our best days are ahead and not behind us. Leaders who recognize that all of us cannot succeed when some of us are ignored or left behind. I’m talking about leaders who refuse to look forward to the past, and are not in love with status quo, folks afraid of the dark and suspicious of the light.

Whatever we have been doing isn’t working. It’s time to question everything; it’s time to rethink our current strategy.

But the kind of leaders St. Louis needs are not necessarily at the top. We need people like you who can be the strongest single force for transformation. Folks who are not content with things as they are, but willing to do what is necessary to challenge the status quo and its very large constituency. I’m talking individuals willing to lead from where they are.

My friends, I’m appealing to you to become – in the words of Bill Drayton – change makers: Citizens who can identify the problems in any situation, figure out ways to solve problems, lead collective action, and not only advocate for change, but become the personification of change itself.

Beyond Housing, under the leadership of Chris Krehmeyer, exists to eliminate the consequences of poverty by creating strong communities that support healthy families and children. As a comprehensive and nationally recognized community development organization, they bring civic leaders, targeted non-profits, corporate partners and residents together to help 24 communities, which surround the Normandy School District, to become better places to live. They have done it by providing support and resources in the areas of education, housing, health, employment, readiness, access, economic development and personal finance.

Since 2011, Beyond Housing has invested over $100 million in housing and economic development, health programs, support of the Normandy schools collaborative and other programs in the nationally recognized 24:1 initiative.

While much has been accomplished, we have much more to do.

My friends, I’m asking that we all take that journey to the balcony, and when we get there, to take a good long look at our communities — but we can’t stay up there. We must come down and get involved. Be the change we need. Together, we will succeed in resuscitating that dying old man in St. Louis — common sense. But the window of opportunity is closing my friends.

Great cities are not created overnight. They are the product of longstanding political, economic and cultural forces walking step by step together. In the end we only regret the chances we didn’t take, the bold bets we left on the table, and the decisions we waited too long to make.

Someone once said that common sense is a flower that doesn’t grow in everyone’s garden. I affirm that we must make our garden in St. Louis fertile ground for common sense to thrive, so that one day, in the not too distant future, when we convene once again at the annual Vagabond luncheon, we will take stock and share the stories of how the new St. Louis was built — how we were courageous enough to go to the balcony and from that unique vantage position, we saw a future that was much better than our present. And then we came down and went to work to make it a reality.

So, allow me to share with you a glimpse of what St. Louis should look like come 2025. Our city will become a national leader in four sectors — human health, plant science, technology and financial technology.

Human health in 2025: Washington University and BJC as the anchors to Cortex will become the leading recipients of NIH grants in the country, displacing Boston, Texas and California as the leaders in human health research and application.

Plant science: The Danforth Plant Science Center will have over a half-billion-dollar endowment. 500 scientists and 200 plant science companies from around the globe at 39 North. Leading the way in providing food security (a safe and abundant food supply) to the 9 billion humans on the planet. Leading the second green revolution.

National security: The new NGA facility in St. Louis opens in 2023, creating a boomerang effect because of the efforts through USGIF -United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation. The St. Louis region will begin the journey of becoming the second-most important national security hub beside Washington, D.C.

Technology: Because of a unified effort at tech skills education, St. Louis is no longer a fly-over technology center. It hosts the broadest array of technical education opportunities in the Midwest. The product of the higher education institutional collaboration in St. Louis. There is a cluster of 400 startup companies (twice the current number).

Financial technology: as a major financial center, the community grows to be the center of excellence on cybersecurity for individuals. This technology will be deployed through Mastercard paired by other financial institutions Edward Jones, Stifel, Commerce, Enterprise Bank, Wells Fargo and others into the banking and personal investment industry.

In 2025, new companies start here. Established companies grow here. Great companies stay here! Why? We are no longer the Gateway to the West, we are the Gateway to the Future.

I end with one question — what role will you play in building this future?

Connecting the Dots: Uncertain New Year

Appeared in Ladue News on 1/25/2018

Industrialist J. Paul Getty, once identified as the richest living American, has been quoted as saying, “Without the element of uncertainty, the bringing off of even the greatest business triumph would be dull, routine and ultimately unsatisfying.”

If Getty still lived today, facing the uncertainty we expect in the financial markets in the coming months, I imagine he’d feel quite satisfied.

Fueling unpredictability in 2018, of course, are the recent passage of the federal 2017 tax cuts. Those cuts – the most sweeping update of the U.S. tax code in more than 30 years – clearly constitutes a fiscal stimulus. Its sponsors predict it will stimulate investment, encourage companies to bring back overseas funds and create thousands of new jobs. However, if that fails – instead, corporations may initially opt to use their tax savings only to buy back shares and increase dividends – then the legislation could add massive amounts to the federal debt, which might necessitate cutbacks in federal programs and lead to negative economic impact.

Businesses appear to be the big winners in the area of such cuts, with their rates dropping from 35 to 21 percent and the corporate alternative minimum tax having ben repealed. The budgetary cost of the cuts, amounting to almost 1 percent of gross domestic product, will be felt between now and 2022. There’s a lot at stake – and there’s also a lot of hope that this will work as envisioned.

Individuals may also benefit, at first, from the new tax brackets, which have been lowered to 10, 12, 22, 24, 32, 35 and 37 percent. The new arrangement also doubles the child tax credit to $2,000 and gives a $500 credit for nonminor child dependents.

But uncertainty exists here, too, as the law caps state and local tax deductions, and it essentially repeals the individual mandate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, colloquially known as Obamacare.

Questions abound. Will individuals spend their tax savings, further stimulating the economy? Will more taxpayers take the standard deduction rather than itemizing, which could impact charitable donations to the nonprofit sector? Will legislators ever find common ground on a comprehensive health care strategy that gives all of us certainty and affordability?

Adding to the uncertainty are short-term rate increases expected from the Federal Reserve. Since 2009, U.S. markets have been helped by a massive Fed intervention; interest rates have been pushed down to record lows, while asset purchases have depressed bond yields. The Fed has indicated it may raise rates three times in 2018, after three increases in 2017. Even if the Fed moves slowly, higher interest rates often lead to an end to credit cycles, as indebted companies and consumers default in greater numbers.

One other situation to watch in 2018 involves the increased scrutiny over privacy and control of our personal data. The FANG tech stocks – Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google (now Alphabet) – will continue to face growing pressures and restrictions such as those found in a new privacy law in Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation. The changing dynamics of net neutrality also pose uncertainty for consumers worldwide.

In sum, the U.S. economy has been undergoing what amounts to a sugar rush during the past several years. Economic history suggests that will end soon. Whether or not the tax cuts, Fed actions and other factors yet unknown will sustain the good times ranks as the defining uncertainty of 2018. Still, as author Stephen Covey tells us, “If there’s one thing that’s certain in business, it’s uncertainty.”

MLK - A Legacy of Leading Without Authority

The reason why we lead without authority is because there’s a scarcity of leadership from people with authority.  People who try to exercise leadership without authority are often perceived as deviants and troublemakers.  The fact that they are trying to gain something that they do not have is the issue.  When people take on informal authority it is because they do not see leadership being executed.  This is leading without authority.


            The life of Martin Luther King is a testament to the virtue of leading without authority.  King challenged the status quo and sought to paint a vision of the future in broad yet defining strokes.  He championed unity as a means to an end where all Americans are bound not by race or economic status but by the inherent values as individuals.  But to achieve his dream the only option available to him was to lead without authority.

            Because he did not have a defined constituency and that he lacked the authenticity of an elected official he used a multiplicity of venues to reach a greater audience across America.  The battle was fought on the streets of Alabama, nonviolent protests, in the court System, in the bus terminals and in small town diners.

            Martin Luther King, Jr. did not allow the fact that he had no formal authority to keep him from leading.  He successfully exercised leadership from the root of the table, from outside the formal organization and left a legacy on the virtue of leadership.  The reason why Martin was able to lead successfully was because he had in place a wide network of informal authority in the community at large and he used this informal authority to recruit and excite people about the possibility of a better future. 

            Leaders gain informal authority when they have the respect of a diverse audience with a compelling urgency to bring forth change.  It happens best when people believe in the leader, trust his judgment and the leader uses the moral persuasion needed to convince people to want to be led.  At a minimum, Martin’s sense of constructive impatience was a strong motivation to the many Blacks of his day who saw a courageous man with the audacity to challenge the establishment.   

            People who lead without authority know how to seize the moment, focus attention on the issue.  They do not seek permission but have a sense of purpose.  Martin Luther King was not an elected politician; he did not have a formal constituency; but demonstrated a compelling urgency to challenge the system.

            This begs the question – Why do people lead without authority?  First, they lead without authority when there’s an absence of authority…when there’s an absence of leadership…and so when the people that are supposed to be leading fail, it is Mavericks like Martin who move to fill the vacuum of leadership. 

            I have found key lessons from the life of Martin Luther King that is applicable to the challenges that we all face at our various organizations.  Martin was an inspiration to all of us because he showed us how to lead from where we are.  He showed us that leadership is best exercised when there is a cause.  Martin showed us how to transform society.

            But, the problem about leading without authority is that it is a dangerous expedition, because it often over-simplifies the complexity of the situation and underestimates the reaction that will come from the establishment.  When you lead without authority, the real authority is unwilling to sit idly by and watch things unfold.  For those with the courage to lead, it is a noble calling that may bring unanticipated consequences. 

            MLK was assassinated in the midst of his leadership journey.  His life was cut short in the prime of his life and his effort to transform a divided nation.  Yet he was successful in translating an ideal to a cause and ultimately into results.  Even in his absence the dream unfolded over time. 

            The ability to lead without authority is present even among us today.  You see it occurring with people that believe passionately in what they are doing and are not deterred by cynicism and fear.  We need more people that are willing to take a stand for what is noble and what is right, individuals who are not content with things as they are and are eager to make things better.

            I believe everybody ultimately gets the opportunity to lead without authority.  It is that defining moment in our lives when we are asked to step up to the plate and say “I’m going to stand for what is right when principle is more than a word, when we develop the capacity to see around corners.  Martin recognized that the future belongs to those who can see it. His I Have A Dream conversation with America gave us a blueprint on leading and assures us all that it is within us 

            As we celebrate the life and contributions of Martin Luther King Jr. I urge you to remember that he taught us not to be afraid to lead from where we are.  He showed us that status quo is not an acceptable option.  He challenged us to look beyond our present and to create a future that is greater, better and more fulfilling.  Martin showed us that we all have moral authority and to lead without authority. 

Benjamin Ola. Akande, Ph.D. President BOA Consulting, St. Louis, Missouri

Connect the Dots: Our Untapped Opportunity

As the region’s leaders scramble to put the finishing touches on our proposal to lure Amazon’s second headquarters with its promised 50,000 jobs to St. Louis, one wonders if what we plan to offer mirrors what every other metro area will propose: corporate tax rebates, ready infrastructure and plenty of other concessions. Yet we could truly set our region apart by embracing one of the strongest competitive advantages available today – diversity and inclusiveness.

Researchers have found that uniting people with different ideas and perspectives can boost creativity and enable institutions to transform themselves, while accelerating change and progress. Ronald Burt, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, suggests that organizations with more diverse sources of information consistently generate better ideas. Sara Ellison of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has shown that mixed-gender and mixed-race teams produce more creative solutions than less diverse teams. Even internal surveys at Google have found that diverse teams often innovate the most.

Diversity brings different experiences, questions prevailing assumptions and leads to new approaches to resolving long-standing challenges. Such a proven strategy would appeal to a global company like Amazon, whose own website calls it “a company of builders who bring varying backgrounds, ideas and points of view to decisions and inventing on behalf of our customers.” More important, diversity could catalyze our local businesses and corporations to realize greater future growth and success.

What will it take for businesses to pursue diversity and inclusiveness with the same vigor and commitment they chase market share and profit? Simply put, we need to acknowledge diversity as a business imperative and a financially responsible move. We need to recognize a return on diversity, or ROD, equivalent to the infamous bottom-line ROI – return on investment.

In practice, because of the difficulty of attributing increased performance directly to diversity, we focus on qualitative measures like employee engagement, feedback from customers, well-rounded decision-making, improved communication and greater transparency – all, admittedly, vital to achieving a high-performing culture and profitability.

ROD involves not just achieving equal ratios of minorities to nonminorities or women to men. Rather, it seeks to achieve balance through the richness of blended elements – culture, experience, age, perspective, gender and race – to ensure an organization can move from success to significance.

At the same time, diversity without inclusiveness has no meaning. Inclusiveness means being part of the delivery and execution of an organization’s mission. Organizations may recruit the best, most accomplished minds, but those hires cannot merely serve as showcases for the organization. We must encourage the fresh voices and broader thinking they bring – quite simply, a move that makes dollars and sense.

To achieve the long-term success we seek in this region, we need the kind of creativity, persistence and commitment that only a truly diverse community can provide. That achievement needs to start with the companies already in St. Louis. Making diversity and inclusiveness a corporate imperative will make our region attractive and competitive.

Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande is the president of BOA Consulting and former president of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. He has a Ph.D. in economics and previously served as dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.

Randall Stephenson, 2014 Walker CEO of the Year

Webster University’s George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology honored Randall Stephenson, chairman and chief executive officer of AT&T, as its 2014 CEO of the Year on Tuesday, May 6 at World Wide Technology, Inc. Prior to accepting the award, Stephenson discussed why the next five years of the mobile revolution will be the most dramatic in the history of communications, and his insights into leading a 128-year-old-iconic company like AT&T.

Connect the Dots: Breaches are Bad for Business

Posted: Thursday, February 19, 2015 12:00 pm

By Benjamin Akande

Early in February, Anthem, the nation’s second-largest health insurance provider, disclosed that hackers had compromised its cyber security system, possibly gaining access to the names, social security numbers, birthdays, addresses and employment data of as many as 80 million customers.

The Anthem announcement was yet another reminder of the global vulnerability of cyber security systems.

A few months earlier, retail giant Target reported that hackers had attacked its system. Target was just one of many companies battered by cyber attacks last year. The U.S. Secret Service reported that hackers hit the in-store cash register systems at several large companies, including Target, Supervalu and UPS Stores. The Department of Homeland Security followed up with an advisory warning that the attacks were particularly pervasive. The Department added that the hackers stole data of millions of credit and debit cards from U.S. consumers. The companies apparently were not aware of the thefts at the time.

Authorities say the hackers sell the payment information of millions of U.S. consumers overseas on the black market. In the majority of the instances, these companies — and the consumers — are not aware of these breaches.

Cyber attacks are not confined to corporate America. Several municipalities around the country, including Columbia, Missouri, as well as federal government agencies such as the Pentagon have been casualties of these attacks.

As for Anthem, many observers see the recent attack as a wake-up call for the health-care industry and for the corporate world.

But in this high-tech age, cyber security breaches are a potential Achilles heel for everyone—businesses, nonprofits and government agencies. In addition to posing a significant risk to the bottom line of businesses, they also present a huge global security risk. The problems with cybersecurity only are likely to get worse. Forbes predicts that 2015 will be a big year for cyber attacks — just like it was in 2014 and 2013.

Like many farsighted universities around the country, Webster University has been taking steps to make the world more secure from hackers.

In the past year, the Walker school has declared its intentions to be a leader in preparing the next generation of cyber warriors to prevent and engage via a new master’s degree in cybersecurity management. The degree prepares students for positions in the public and private sectors, and for running or protecting computer systems, information, networks, IT infrastructure and communication networks.

Like most of our degrees at the Walker school, the MS in cybersecurity management is market-relevant. It is designed to teach the students how to solve and prevent problems for their future employers. Students learn how to use their practical and theoretical knowledge of cybersecurity to analyze real-world problems.

Such skills are desperately needed in today’s world.

Vast multi-national criminal networks continue to make huge profits from information stolen from large corporations and their vendors. The world’s leading law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, Scotland Yard, the U.S. Secret Service and Interpol, have taken great strides in trying to keep up with the criminals or stay ahead of them. But the criminals are becoming increasingly sophisticated and have invested considerable resources into staying ahead of law enforcement. Furthermore, they now have greater expertise and more access to purchasing tools online to subvert cybersecurity systems of large corporations.

The porousness of cybersecurity systems also poses a threat to national and global security. Hackers have targeted both sides of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and Israeli military operations in Gaza.

Helping find solutions to such critical challenges is critical to the mission of any university. It makes institutions of higher education relevant and enhances their credibility with the general public. In this new and increasingly uncertain century, universities that fail to seize these opportunities to demonstrate relevance are doomed to fail.

Benjamin Ola. Akande is a professor of economics and dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.

Connect the Dots: Ones to Watch

Posted: Thursday, January 22, 2015 12:00 pm

By Benjamin Akande

St. Louis increasingly is being recognized as a Mecca for enterprising and innovative business owners. In recent months, major news outlets, including The Wall Street JournalForbes, TechCrunch and MSNBC have all hailed the Gateway City as the destination for startups.

Indeed, the number of companies opening shop or raising capital to get off the ground has almost doubled in the last two years, according to the St. Louis Regional Chamber of Commerce. This is due, in large part, to a supportive environment that offers plenty of access to mentoring, networking, Arch grants and new venture funds.

The Ewing Marion Kaufmann Foundation reports that Arch grants played a key role in creating a community of entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs received small grants and also were connected with local support organizations. As of July 2014, the report notes that 20 recipients of these grants had created 104 jobs, generated more than $2.8 million in revenue, and raised more than $17 million in investment.

This is just a taste of many, many wonderful things to come this year and in the coming years in the commercial life of the St. Louis metropolitan area.

The following is a handful of budding companies that exemplify the prosperous years ahead for the St. Louis region and ought to be watched closely in 2015:

• This promises to be an exciting year for BacterioScan, a locally based company that offers microbiology diagnostic systems for rapidly detecting infection and antibiotic susceptibility and resistance. The company plans to roll out its first clinical application of rapid screening of urine specimens for bacterial urinary tract infection (UTI) during the second quarter of this year. This clinical, global market segment is booming, and is projected to exceed $10 billion by 2017.

Adoption of this new technology will reduce costs and delay in diagnosis, and is expected to reduce the unwarranted use of antibiotics in treatment of UTI. Leading research organizations such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, UCLA Medical School, and the U.S. Army Medical Institute have begun trials to use the company’s platform for rapid measurement of antimicrobial resistance and susceptibility. It is expected that this will provide valuable guidance in diagnosing bacterial infections and other related diseases. It also will help address the growing challenge of drug-resistant pathogens.

• Total Hockey & Lacrosse, a one-stop store and online retailer specializing in hockey and lacrosse sports markets, is raising capital in the private markets to propel its next round of rapid growth. In recent years, the St. Louis-based company has expanded to 24 stores in seven key markets, including Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis. Annual revenues currently hover at about $60 million. With its new infusion of capital, Total Hockey plans to establish 85 stores in 20 key U.S. markets by the year 2020.

Like BacterioScan, Total Hockey & Lacrosse has been smart about developing its playbook for strategic growth. The future looks bright for this specialty retailer. Participation in lacrosse has risen steadily in recent years: Almost 750,000 young people played organized lacrosse in 2013, according to U.S. Lacrosse. And USA Hockey reports that a record number of people now play hockey across the country, increasing by 16 percent over a 10-year period.

• Last fall, CIC@4240, a company that provides flexible working space for startups and emerging businesses, opened its first location outside Massachusetts in St. Louis’ innovation district. CIC@4240 was attracted to the Gateway City for St. Louis' reputation as a destination for entrepreneurs. It appears the company’s instincts were spot on. Just weeks after the company opened its 32,000-square-foot building on Duncan Avenue, it had already had 20 tenants, including Washington University, Boeing Ventures Group and Husch Blackwell. Company officials are confident that all 70 spaces will be occupied within 12 to 18 months of opening.

• T-REX is another critical player in the St. Louis ecosystem. The co-working space and technology incubator, which provides startup entrepreneurs with affordable space and offers the community useful programming, now occupies five floors of The Lammert Building on Washington Avenue. T-REX currently has more than 100 tenants, a number that continues to rise steadily.

• Cultivation Capital is another critical element in the region providing significant funding support to financial services and technology startups. Building on a $20-million investment fund initiated in 2012, it plans to double that through a newly created fund targeting 20 additional startup companies. One of the most active seed venture capital firms in the Midwest, Cultivation Capital provides a significant resource in keeping St. Louis vibrant as the destination for startups.

The future looks bright for all of these companies –and for our region.

Benjamin Ola. Akande is a professor of economics and dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.

Connect the Dots: The Year that Was

Posted: Friday, December 26, 2014 12:00 pm | Updated: 9:39 am, Mon Dec 29, 2014.

By Benjamin Akande

From weeks of unrest in Ferguson and the acquisition of a St. Louis-based life sciences and high technology company by a German pharmaceutical giant, to the economic impact of the Cardinals’ fabulous post-season run and the launch of two major business incubators providing start-up support, 2014 was a big news year for the St. Louis region.

Many of the stories had a significant economic bearing – for better or worse. Here is my ranking of the year’s biggest stories in the region.

1. Ferguson

This is probably No. 1 on the list of most St. Louisans. Not since the Rodney King verdict in 1992 has there been such outrage over perceived police brutality. In the weeks following Michael Brown’s fatal shooting, rioters attacked and looted businesses in Ferguson as well as in nearby communities. A second wave of rioting followed Thanksgiving week when the prosecutor announced the grand jury’s decision. The riots battered the region’s image and have sparked protests, even boycotts and heated discussions nationally about race, and the antagonism between law enforcement officials and African-Americans.

2. The Cardinals and the Post-Season

Who says sports don't matter? According to the St. Louis Regional Chamber of Commerce, more than 3.4 million people trooped to Busch Stadium to watch the Cardinals during the 2014 season, and approximately 6 million people visited Ballpark Village. The Cardinals had a fantastic run, winning 90 games, tying for fifth-most wins in the majors, and making it all the way to the National League Championship Series before being eliminated by the San Francisco Giants. The winning streak was apparently good for business. It's estimated the Cardinals had an economic impact of $338 million on the region.

3. Two New Major Business Incubators

T-Rex, the joint effort between city, state and county business development resources, (Downtown CID, SLDC, St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, the St. Louis Regional Chamber and the Technology Entrepreneurship Center) partnered to acquire and staff the former Lammert building. This collaboration advances the region’s capacity to incubate and support high-growth, technology-focused businesses. This facility current supports the efforts of 101 different technology companies in a single building.

CIC Cambridge selected St. Louis Cortex as home for its second location after extensive global search for innovation communities. The CIC believes start-ups make the world much better. CIC helps them by setting up and managing their office so the start-up can focus on their business. The first center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has helped more than 1,400 companies. These companies have attracted more than $1.8 billion of venture capital. CIC’s choice to open its second location in the Cortex development creates another home for entrepreneurs in St. Louis. It includes more than 40 start-ups, as well as the innovation centers for Boeing and Nestle Purina.

As the result of these openings and other community resources, no other community in the country can offer more resources to early stage companies.

4. Sigma-Aldrich Joins the Merck Family

Merck, the German giant pharmaceutical and chemical company, acquired St. Louis-based Sigma-Aldrich, one of the area’s largest and most prominent corporations, for $17 billion in cash last September. The deal is expected to expand the reach of Merck’s chemical unit, EMD Millipore, and improve its earning power.

5. The Region’s Most Powerful Woman

For the eighth year in a row, Pam Nicholson made Fortune’s list of Most Powerful Women in Business. Nicholson, the first non-family member to serve as CEO of Enterprise, was No. 22 on the list. Her success at a high-profile family business has inspired many women to pursue professional careers in the St. Louis area.

It's obvious that 2014 was a year of action milestones and activism. Let's ensure that 2015 is a year of transformation, especially as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Gateway Arch. Onward, forward!

Benjamin Ola. Akande is a professor of economics and dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.