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.

Connect the Dots: Give Small Business Big Gains

Posted: Thursday, November 20, 2014 12:00 pm | Updated: 12:30 pm, Thu Nov 20, 2014.

By Dr. Benjamin Akande

For The Alpine Shop, a retail establishment that specializes in backpacking and camping gear, Small Business Saturday, or the Saturday after Thanksgiving, has become the official kick-off day for holiday shopping. To entice customers, The Alpine Shop, which has stores in Kirkwood, Chesterfield and O’Fallon, Illinois, works with suppliers to drop prices on popular brands by as much as 30 percent.

Traditionally, many big suppliers wait until the week before Christmas to drop prices, but The Alpine Shop’s strategy has paid off handsomely. In recent years, the chain has doubled its sales and attracted twice as many customers during Small Business Days as on Black Fridays.

Millions of small businesses around the country are discovering that Small Business Saturday is a great way to kick-off the holiday shopping season. It also is a wonderful way for customers to support local small business and help boost their city’s economy.

In 2012, consumers spent $5.5 billion at local small businesses and restaurants on Small Business Saturday, according to a survey conducted by American Express and the National Federation of Independent business, a Washington, D.C., trade association.

When you shop at a small business, there’s a good chance you’re supporting a neighbor, friend, church member or old schoolmate. There’s also a good chance you’re helping create job opportunities in your community. In effect, by spending with a local business, you are more likely to have an immediate and meaningful impact on your local community than if you spend with a big-box, multi-national retailer that’s susceptible to the whims of Wall Street.

Small businesses, defined by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) as enterprises with fewer than 500 employees, are the engine of our nation’s economy. They are the biggest job-creators and account for half of the private sector GDP. According to the SBA, in 2011, there were 28.2 million small businesses in the U.S. Small businesses accounted for 63 percent of net new jobs created between 1993 and 2013, and 60 percent of new jobs created after the recession, according to the SBA.

This year, several business districts in the Greater St. Louis region are hosting an array of events to promote small businesses in their communities prior to Small Business Days and throughout the holiday season. On Nov. 29, the City of St. Louis will host a St. Louis Holiday Magic festival, an event that will feature a variety of entertainment and shopping. Several exhibitors will be in attendance, including vendors who will offer gift ideas.

Maplewood and Brentwood have posted Small Business Saturday events on their websites. At many of these events, the downtown boutiques and restaurants of these cities will offer gifts, drawings, treats and discounts.

But supporting local businesses shouldn’t just be confined to festive time, even though most businesses make the bulk of their revenues during that period; it ought to be a year-round endeavor.

For this forthcoming Small Business Day, local small businesses should endeavor to draw customers in with head-turning decorations and aggressive online media promotion. Once inside, they should cultivate them by offering great products and service, coupons, refreshments and opportunities to win gifts. They also should strive to engage customers year-round.

This way, the customer, small business and the community win.

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: Ebola & Economic Uncertainty

Posted: Thursday, October 23, 2014 12:00 pm

By Benjamin Akande, Ph.D.

To date, the Ebola virus has infected approximately 9,000 people and killed at least 4,500 in several West African countries. The numbers continue to rise exponentially. The Centers for Disease Control says in a worst-case scenario, the infected numbers could balloon to 1.4 million by mid-January.

The limited spread of the outbreak to Dallas—where a Liberian man died and two nurses have been infected by the virus—and to Spain offer a glimpse of the potential of this epidemic to cause grave health risks and economic uncertainty to the entire globe.

In the countries directly impacted by this outbreak–Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and, to a much lesser extent, Nigeria–fear of the disease has interrupted the daily routine of millions of people, truncated the school year, and kept many from church and the local markets.

The second-biggest casualty of this epidemic has been the economic impact. In recent years, many African countries have experienced unprecedented economic growth. Indeed, eight of the world’s 15 fastest-growing economies are in Africa. They include Nigeria, which is the world’s third fastest-growing economy. Many other African countries, including Liberia and Sierra Leone, have made significant economic progress in recent years and attracted considerable overseas investment only to see all of the gains wiped out by the Ebola epidemic.

The agricultural sector, which accounts for 40 percent of the economic output in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and 25 percent of Guinea’s, has been hit particularly hard. The drop in production has been triggered, in large part, by the Ebola-related deaths of many farmers, which has effectively led to the loss of the planting season.

These events could ultimately hit closer to home in the St. Louis region. Ivory Coast, the world’s largest producer of cocoa, has shut its borders to Liberia and Guinea, countries that are home to a large percentage of the migrant workers who pick cocoa. This labor shortage could delay cocoa exports and lead to a spike in cocoa prices, including the price of products made by local company ConAgra, formerly Ralcorp. Monsanto, which is engaged in limited trading of seeds and crop protection products in West Africa, also is paying close attention to developments in the sub-region.

Nigeria, one of the leading suppliers of oil to the United States, is a key reason why gas prices in the U.S. have remained relatively low over the years. In the face of the Ebola crisis, the government took swift actions in monitoring potential cases and has since been praised for its efforts in holding down the outbreak. The country also has experienced a rise in e-commerce as companies do their part to stock and deliver hygiene products, which help prevent the spread of Ebola.

In the early stages, the epidemic was largely portrayed as an African crisis; but as the struggle to contain what is potentially the biggest health crisis in modern times continues, one thing is increasingly clear: We all have a stake in this fight. Ebola is a global catastrophe that requires all of us to pay attention and do what is necessary to stop the spread.

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

Posted: Thursday, September 25, 2014 12:00 pm

By Benjamin Akande, Ph.D.

One of the few gems of good news in the aftermath of the unrest in Ferguson was the announcement from Centene Corporation that it would open a claims processing center in the troubled city. The center will create up to 200 full-time jobs with health benefits.

The announcement is a shot in the arm for the predominantly African-American community that has wrestled with relatively high levels of poverty and unemployment—even before the riots.

Poverty, lack of access to good paying jobs, and feelings of economic and political marginalization are often triggers for unrest. We applaud Centene and its CEO, Michael Neidorff, for taking steps to uplift this community.

However, Centene can’t do this alone. Revitalization requires the teamwork of corporations, foundations, nonprofits, universities, churches, current and former elected officials, and an assortment of other community leaders. Together, they can examine the root causes of the riots and ensure that those underlying problems are eliminated. They also should examine other economically disadvantaged communities that are potential trouble spots, particularly in the North County area.

Here are a few other areas they could work on together:

Job creation: Unemployment is disproportionately higher among African-Americans than whites in the greater St. Louis metro region. Area corporations should consider following in the footsteps of Centene by creating jobs in Ferguson or making commitments to hire residents who live within that zip code. They should team up with the local school districts to offer internships or part-time jobs to promising students, and develop pathways to steer them to college or the vocations. They also could make financial commitments to the city, such as paying for the installation of cameras in patrol cars or renovating or building recreational facilities.

Take the ivy tower to the streets: The greater St. Louis region is home to a large number of colleges and universities, many of which offer job-training programs. St. Louis Community College, which operates a campus within a mile of the neighborhood that was at the heart of the riots, offers numerous job-training opportunities, but participation by Ferguson residents needs to be increased. This could be a great opportunity for the college to partner with community organizations, corporations and the city to attract young people. Some of these partner organizations could consider underwriting some or all of the educational costs for these students.

The other St. Louis-based colleges should consider working together to study underlying problems like crime, unemployment, underemployment and poverty issues dogging Ferguson – and devise solutions to vanquish them. They could also use their unique resources and programs to benefit the community. Locally based universities and colleges could use Ferguson as a testing ground for the implementation of many of these innovative ideas. Other universities should consider picking individual issues and focus on tackling them. Academics specializing in public administration and law enforcement, for instance, could study the idea of encouraging a merger of the 24 police departments that serve North County municipalities in an attempt to create a more diverse law enforcement agency.

Develop a collective voice: Corporations, foundations, community organizations and leaders could work together to lobby the federal government for financial resources, such as economic development funds and disaster recovery funds. St. Louis is the home of the some of the world’s largest and most powerful companies. It also is the hometown of some respected former elected officials, including Dick Gephardt, John Danforth and John Ashcroft. Their talents—and clout—should be enlisted in this effort.

An investment on the part of all will not be a one-way street. A community that is safe, vibrant and financially healthy is good for business.

Benjamin Ola. Akande, Ph.D., is dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.

Job talk: St. Louis must find its competitive advantage

8-Jan-2010
Published in: St. Louis Beacon
Author: Mary Delach Leonard

As the U.S. economy heals from the worst recession since the Great Depression, the St. Louis region must define its new competitive advantage, says Benjamin Akande, dean of Webster University's School of Business and Technology.

"This is an opportunity not only for St. Louis but for many cities around the Midwest," Akande told the Beacon during a recent interview. "The cities that are able to embrace creativity and innovation and refuse to remain flat-footed are going to own the future."

Akande said the region must be forward-thinking in developing new strategies to create new jobs.

"What are we going to call our competitive advantage? What can we do that nobody else can do -- that nobody else could do if they wanted to," Akande said. "It begs the question: Is St. Louis going to be relegated to the past? Or, are we going to be prepared to play an even more important role in the area of health care, in the area of alternative energy, in the area of new technology in rails and transportation that will replace the old technology of automobiles."

Akande believes that many of the jobs lost in the recession were going to be lost eventually due to the competitiveness of the global economy. Companies will transfer operations to other places where their costs of doing business are lower -- and there is no way to mandate that they stay, he added.

The local auto industry took a big hit, as did Anheuser-Busch and Pfizer after those companies were involved in major mergers, he said. But he points to recent expansions of local companies such as Edward Jones, Express Scripts and the Centene Corp. -- despite the recession -- as a sign that St. Louis could be finding a new competitive advantage.

Akande said that developing a new strategy is not all up to the government.

"It's going to take individuals, foundations that have been fortunate to survive the recession and have significant resources available to them to be able to say, 'This is the area where we're going to plant some seeds that will help St. Louis,' " he said. "We have an opportunity here. Will this opportunity be allowed to pass us by or are we going to grab it and make it something significant?"

Akande, who recently visited Dubai, shared his perspectives on that emirate's financial troubles in an earlier Beacon story. Here are more of his perspectives on unemployment and the local economy:

ON LOCAL RE-EMPLOYMENT

Although there are signs of the recession ending, it will be some time before companies begin hiring again, Akande cautioned.

"This is a very steep valley; we're in deep. For us to be able to emerge out of it is going to take some time, but we're starting to move out of that valley," he said. "A lot of organizations are very cautious about hiring again. They're stretching themselves, trying to do the work as long as possible with what they have. That is the missing ingredient of this recovery. I believe that we will not begin to see any sort of significant uptick on that until the middle of the first quarter of 2010."

Akande said that as the region defines its competitive advantage, resources should be targeted to retrain workers in those areas.

"We've got a lot of folks who are unemployable because they don't have the skill sets that are transferable. They're sitting at home from the assembly line of Chrysler, and they're thinking, 'What do I do next?' " he said.

ON THE RECENT WHITE HOUSE JOBS SUMMIT

Had he been invited to President Barack Obama's summit on jobs in early December, Akande said that -- among other points -- he would have encouraged reform of the federal capital gains tax.

"You don't punish people for investing in companies and stocks, and you don't levy huge taxes on them when they make these kinds of purchases or when they sell them," he said. "I think that would be a great boost especially to small businesses in the U.S. looking for fresh capital."

Allowing businesses to expense immediately up to $250,000 of certain capital investments (such as equipment) would also help with business cash flow, Akande said.

"And, again, what this does is it gives small businesses a cover and would reduce the cost of capital and may eventually spur the employment market, which, in essence, is frozen right now," he said.

Akande would advise against another economic stimulus plan similar to last February's $786 billion package that he said was designed around "a grab bag of money dedicated to so-called public works and funding that have done nothing so far to really help revive the economy."

"The most significant portion of that money is yet to be spent," he said. "The problem with that is by the time it is spent, it's not going to have the impact it was meant to have. Compare that to China that was able to infuse significant spending in areas where they were able to boost their infrastructure and economy. And as a result, China is essentially out of the recession."

Akande would also warn against unlimited deficit spending.

"It's not just spending but good economic management and decisions by the government -- and holding people responsible for what has put us into this mess in the first place," Akande said. "I would like to see a very strong financial regulation put to vote in the next few months that would ensure that what has happened will not happen again."

ON THE PFIZER LAYOFFS

Akande believes the region should be actively working to provide an "economic blanket" for scientists and researchers who want to create new businesses in the region after they are laid off from Pfizer. Most existing unemployment programs are tailored toward assisting workers with less education and experience.

"This is an opportunity for St. Louis, and I want to believe that there is a conversation taking place at the very highest levels of the city and county about what to do," he said. "What do we do in terms of making sure that we can harness their skills and keep them in St. Louis? What are some of the possibilities? Are they even talking to the scientists as to what some of their ideas might be? Do we set up a think tank that enables these scientists to take their ideas and convert them to businesses? We provide offices, facilities and resources to assist those who have ideas about creating the next Pfizer."

Akande said he worries that, in fact, little is being done to ensure that St. Louis retains these highly skilled workers.

"They're going to go somewhere where the opportunities exist,'' he said. "Where the chances are stronger that they are going to be able to regain their careers and lives.''

Akande said he has met a number of Pfizer employees -- many of them top scientists with doctorates from some of the top schools in the world.

"You're looking into their eyes and they're telling you, 'I've got credentials here. I've worked hard to be where I am. I'm a contributor and I'm out of a job,' '' Akande said. "And they look around and there's nothing. For me I think it's pretty devastating for St. Louis because I don't think St. Louis knows what to do with them.''

Take Five: Webster's Benjamin Akande Talks About Dubai

14-Dec-2009
Published in: St. Louis Beacon
Author: Mary Delach Leonard

Despite its current economic woes, don't count Dubai out in its goal to become the world's financial hub, says Benjamin Akande, dean of Webster University's School of Business and Technology, who is just back from a trip to the Middle Eastern emirate.

As Akande predicted in an interview with the Beacon on Saturday, Dubai World -- the state-owned holding company of Dubai -- will be bailed out by the United Arab Emirates.

Dubai World sent international financial markets into a tizzy after it announced in late November that it was seeking to restructure $26 billion in real-estate debt. The U.A.E. will pump $10 billion into Dubai World to keep its real-estate unit, Nakheel, operating while the company negotiates with its creditors.

Akande, a professor of economics, is a well-traveled world observer who has headed the business school since 2000. Webster serves about 13,000 business students on campuses in the United States, Europe and Asia.

The response by Main Street Dubaians to the current financial turmoil offers a lesson in resilience, Akande noted.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

What took you to Dubai?

Akande: This was my first trip to the remarkable city-state of Dubai, and it was an interesting visit.

I was there to attend a meeting of business school deans. We had a chance to engage deans from business schools located in the Middle East, to share ideas and perspectives on curriculum.

I was also there to meet with alumni of Webster University in the Middle East, specifically in Dubai. Webster has a significant presence of alumni in that area.

In lay terms, what is the current economic situation in Dubai?

Akande: Less than 50 years ago, Dubai was essentially just a very small place with nothing but sand. The inhabitants were fishermen, and they dove for pearls from the sea. It is a place that in a very short period of time has put itself on the map, transformed itself into an international hub for the Middle East.

A couple of weeks ago, the emirate of Dubai announced that it wanted to renegotiate -- or reschedule -- payments on $26 billion of debt. It created a lot of problems because the investors who loaned this money to Dubai never thought in their wildest dreams that Dubai would be in a situation where they're calling to reschedule their debt.

It is an unfolding story, but it has provoked a lot of conversation and premature assessments on the demise of this city-state -- that it was on the verge of collapse.

They are not defaulting. They are asking to reschedule, and this does not rise to the most recent default we've experienced, which was the one in 2001 of Argentina, which defaulted $100 billion. In that sense, Dubai will turn out to be a minor hiccup when it's all said and done.

For those who are saying it is over for Dubai, my suggestion is don't underestimate the ability and the capacity of this emirate to successfully defy convention.

What is the root of the current economic problems in Dubai, which, unlike other Arab states, has limited oil and natural resources?

Akande: Dubai's strategy has been to become the regional hub for commerce and tourism for the Middle East and Asia, and I believe it's in the process of becoming just that.

When I arrived in Dubai, it was around midnight. As the plane landed, you could see this remarkable formation called the Palm Islands. It is staggering when you see it -- how you can create an island that looks like palm trees from the air, lighted up from one end to the other with magnificent homes and financial facilities and the best of the best.

You get to the airport at midnight, and it is packed with thousands of people coming in and leaving. That for me was the first indication that this was a very different kind of place. At midnight in St. Louis, no one is at the airport.

This state has become a major real-estate haven. And it is not just in Dubai but also its investments -- they own Barneys New York, they own MGM in Las Vegas. In an effort to build all these facilities, they took huge loans. When the price of oil began to fall, and a number of those facilities were not immediately occupied, it started creating a bubble for the real estate subsidiary and so they found themselves in this process.

They're asking for new terms on debt, particularly as it relates to their real estate area, a company called Nakheel -- the real-estate wing of Dubai World.

How will Dubai weather the storm?

Akande: I don't believe it will fail. The United Arab Emirates has a sovereign wealth fund of $900 billion. So even though they've gone on record and said that they're not going to bail them out -- it's a private matter. Let me assure you, at the end of the day if it came to that, Abu Dhabi [the capital of the U.A.E.] will bail out their brother emirates. (Note: A partial bailout was announced today.)

I give you a parallel for that. It's like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the U.S. When they run into trouble, what do we do? We bail them out. The U.A.E. will not allow a default, and I don't think that's where we're going.

I really feel this will be resolved in the next few weeks or so. I believe in the case of Dubai, this is a strategic step in negotiation where you get new terms that are better in a very difficult economy, so they are better positioned to succeed.

Dubai is also a major port for transshipment in the Iraqi war and Afghanistan, and so you see a lot of ships and folks coming through there on a daily basis and pumping billions into that economy.

My prediction is you're going to see the completion of the current construction that spans the landscape because if you don't finish the construction, you lose everything you've done. Construction might be more modest than initially planned, but at the end of the day, I think Dubai is facing what we in the U.S. have faced for the past 18 months. And I wouldn't bet against them.

Did you see indications of tough times in Dubai?

Akande: I was looking for evidence of a downtrodden economy. What I found was construction everywhere. Construction cranes working overtime. What I saw was a bustling Dubai Mall, the largest mall in the world with over 1,200 stores. What I saw was an incessant drive to do what they believe will set them aside as the financial hub of the Middle East, if not the world, one day.

I was looking for sales in different outlets. I was seeking evidence that "we're closed for business.'' I was engaged in conversations with Dubaians and people who live and work there. What they tell me is that this is a speed bump of sorts, but business continues unabated.

There is a tendency that when things are down and not as they should be, that we fold up our tents and go home. We believe that by laying low for a while, that perhaps at the end of the day, things will fix themselves. What I saw in Dubai was a level of resiliency and an audacious capacity to say we're going to keep on keeping on. That's what they've done.

I visited the world's largest indoor skiing facility, which is inside the largest mall in the world, and what I saw were mostly Europeans and Americans skiing, and a lot of Dubaians watching. And it was jam-packed and people were spending money, doing their holiday shopping.

It sends us a message. For us to move beyond this recession, we need to be cautious, but we need to be optimistic. We need to get back up again and find a way to do what successful nations do: To continue to find a way to create jobs, to create spending opportunities, to revive ourselves, to learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others -- and to move forward.

Express Scripts, Centene Highlights of Difficult 2009

11-Dec-2009
Published in: St. Louis Business Journal
Author: Gil Stuenkel

The St. Louis County economy is not quite firing on all cylinders yet, but those who closely watch the employment picture see encouraging signs.

After beginning 2009 with a jobless rate of 8 percent, St. Louis County saw its unemployment rate shoot to 9.7 percent by June, according to data from the Missouri Department of Economic Development. The rate has since begun to decline; it was 9.3 percent in October.

The county's job market took some hits, among them the closing of Chrysler's operations in Fenton, affecting 1,200 workers there, and the loss of 600 jobs at Pfizer's facilities in Chesterfield. Still, the county's diverse economic base helped it show "some resilience," according to Denny Coleman, president and CEO of the St. Louis County Economic Council.

The bright spots most often cited are financial services and health care. Notably, Edward Jones, Scottrade, Express Scripts and Centene Corp. all expanded this year despite the lingering recession.

Thanks to its $4.7 billion acquisition of WellPoint's pharmacy benefits management unit, Express Scripts is poised to become the region's largest publicly owned entity. Benjamin Ola Akande, dean of the school of business and professor of economics at Webster University, believes the company isn't done growing.

"They have accounted for more than $400 billion in economic impact in the last three years," he said. "I see them making (more) strategic acquisitions."

Express Scripts currently is building a high-volume prescription fulfillment center here that will create 270 jobs. Construction of the $60 million, 12-acre expansion at NorthPark is under way and scheduled for completion next April. The center will feature state-of-the-art pharmacy automation for the dispensing, packaging and shipment of 110,000 prescriptions a day.

Edward Jones plans to add 250 jobs as part of its latest expansion. That number is in addition to the 500 jobs the firm added in exchange for state tax credits to help finance its $260 million campus in Maryland Heights, where it recently added a 372,000-square-foot building. The new jobs will be spread between the company's North campus in Maryland Heights and its South campus in Des Peres.

Scottrade this year purchased two buildings and two parcels of land in Maryville Centre, and it announced earlier that it would add 250 information technology jobs.

Akande sees Scottrade as a growing global force in online securities trading. "This is a home-grown company with global impact," he said. "It puts St. Louis on the map as one of the financial capitals of the new generation."

Centene's $186 million headquarters in Clayton will be that city's first new office building since 2001, and it will comprise more than 460,000 square feet of office space and more than 28,000 square feet of retail space. Centene, which provides managed care programs and related services to individuals under Medicaid, will fill about 200,000 square feet of the space.

Future opportunities

As 2009 draws to a close, the county is "well-positioned for a rebound," said Rod Nunn, vice chancellor for work force development for St. Louis Community College. "Too often we fixate on the jobless rate from month to month, and this contributes to a negative investor and consumer psyche."

Akande said the area should emphasize attracting manufacturing companies that will recognize the availability of workers. "And we have idle plants, big spaces," he said. "St. Louis County really has the opportunity to reinvent itself."

Manufacturing now accounts for 12 percent of the county's economy, Akande said. Higher education and health care make up 21.6 percent, and financial services represents another 9 percent.

Johnson sees plant science and nutrition as an emerging area where St. Louis is well-positioned to take a world leadership role. "We are on the front edge of revolutionary developments in plant science and technology related to agriculture," he said.

County Executive Charlie Dooley said the completed rebuild of Interstate 64/Highway 40 and new construction on Highway 141 will have a big impact next year. The completion of the work on Highway 141 will open thousands of acres in west St. Louis County for new development.

Steve Johnson, senior vice president of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association, said there has been a "significant increase in (out-of-town) companies looking for new facilities." However, he cautioned it would be six months to two years before any of those inquiries lead to new area jobs.

Gil Stuenkel is a St. Louis freelance writer.

Getting St. Louis IT on the Dean's List

12-Aug-2009
Published in: St. Louis Commerce Magazine
Author: Bill Beggs, Jr.

Someone once referred to the Mississippi River and environs as "the Third Coast." If that's the case, St. Louis is smack dab in the middle, between other big river (coastal) cities such as Minneapolis and New Orleans. This puts our information technology fortunes in perspective, if you consider the popular mythology that nothing much happens in this sector anywhere but on the East or Left coasts.

Those in the know would encourage the great unwashed to take a closer look at what the St. Louis IT Coalition and business incubators, plus civic and corporate forces throughout the region, are doing to raise the bar for this tech sector on both of our coasts; i.e., the east and west banks of the Mississippi.

None of this would be possible, of course, without a strong commitment from colleges and universities throughout the region.

We surveyed a sampling of the business and technology "brain trust" deans, chairs and other leaders at college and university business schools in Missouri and Illinois to get their perspective on what's happening, and what the future holds, here on the Third Coast.

Here are the questions we posed:

What can higher education in St. Louis do to attract IT talent to the region?

Since many IT grads tend to move around as they move up, how do we keep them engaged so that they remain here rather than leave for a job on a coast?

How is the incubator environment and the corporate community rising to the challenge of IT workforce development and retention? Are we indeed "on the Dean's List"? If not, how do we get there, and where do we stand now in comparison to other IT-savvy regions of the country?

Here's what our sources had to share:

Keith Womer, Dean

College of Business Administration University of Missouri-St. Louis

Our focus is on educating the St. Louis workforce. Our undergraduate, masters and Ph.D. programs in information systems are focused on the intersection between business and information technology. Some of our students start with us right out of high school, but others come back for a new focus on their career.

At the undergraduate level, we mostly are involved with developing IT talent for St. Louis rather than attracting it. One message that we all need to deliver is that IT is a good starting point for a career in business. We also need to communicate the message that there are good, entry-level IT jobs in the United States. Of course, there is a great deal of messaging on the other side of this issue to counteract. The UMSL Summer Camp Extreme IT is one of our efforts to combat this perception.

The need for professional IT project managers is great and, in my opinion, this is the crucial next step for many IT professionals. We support the search for IT talent by providing the graduate programs in business and information systems that permit IT professionals to move from implementing technology to managing the IT workforce. UMSL's Masters of Information Systems program and the Information Systems emphasis in our MBA program provide this crucial link for those who are serious about an IT career in business.

In addition to the availability of graduate education, to retain IT talent, St. Louis must provide a work life that is second to none. Companies that are regularly ranked among the best places to work have little trouble holding on to their talent in IT or in other fields. On the other hand, a company that quickly moves to outsource its IT work whenever the economic wind changes will find that holding onto IT talent is very difficult indeed. I think the key to retaining IT talent is demonstrating that the company is willing to invest in talented people. This is not just paying market wages, but committing to education and corresponding career development. I believe that progressive companies are doing this, but we need more of them.

At UMSL, IT Enterprises (ITE) is designed to be a major force in translating innovative ideas into thriving businesses in the fields of information technology and life sciences. To succeed in this mission, the enterprise offers state-of-the-art infrastructure and access to the expertise of university faculty and students. In concert with the University of Missouri's fourth mission, ITE fosters innovation to support knowledge-based economic development. ITE provides all of the services that IT entrepreneurs need to start successful companies.

I believe that we have the programs and opportunities that are necessary for St. Louis to be among the very best places to pursue an IT career. What we need to do is to let young folks know what the entry opportunities are and to work diligently to insure that there is a clear career progression from those entry positions to the very top.

Benjamin Akande, Dean

School of Business & Technology, Webster University

Business schools should seek out young men and women who have demonstrated potential and interest, and invest time and resources to develop them. Retaining talent can only happen if there exists a formalized collaboration between B-schools and the IT sector.

St. Louis' effort through the IT Coalition and RCGA is gradually yielding fruit. St. Louis has a plan and is committed. In time, we will own a piece of the sector.

Craig Klimczak, Vice Chancellor

Technology & Educational Support Services St. Louis Community College

High-paying IT jobs still in high demand require years of educational preparation and experience. Further, IT technologies continue to rapidly evolve thus demanding lifelong learning. Higher education institutions need to continue to evolve their IT educational programs to remain current with the changing technologies and create new non-traditional professional development offerings. Professional growth and development are often tied to educational attainment, so St. Louis area higher education institutions need to provide this access.

IT grads seek rapid promotion and want to work on interesting projects. The St. Louis region needs to develop a critical mass of IT development project opportunities and embrace a mobile workforce. St. Louis IT culture is one of long-term employment focused around systems maintenance. Shifting our thinking to look at IT projects as construction projects opens the door for a more mobile IT talent workforce. As one project ends, those skills can move to the next organization in need of them.

For this to occur, IT organizations need to act more collegial by sharing their future opportunities with other IT organizations that are wrapping up projects. Local organizations such as the IT Coalition and St. Louis Works are promoting these relationships among local employers. Further, both are working to inform the IT workforce of opportunities.

The incubator environment thrives on the mobile talent workforce and thus provides the opportunities to work on new and interesting projects. These opportunities keep the best and brightest engaged and working in our community. Retention needs to be viewed as retention in the region, not necessarily with the same company.

We need to rally business and community support around the efforts of the RCGA, St. Louis Works and the IT Coalition. These groups are promoting the region's IT talent base and are working to build the collegial environment that will sustain a mobile yet engaged IT workforce. Creative people need a variety of opportunities to stay fresh and engaged.

Robert Talbott, Professor

School of Business and Entrepreneurship Lindenwood University

To attract IT talent to the region, we need to offer educational courses in the latest technology and to show the benefits thereof. Moreover, we need to show how critical IT is to our region, how St. Louis has a large number of companies that rely heavily upon IT, and that there are abundant opportunities to develop a hearty network among IT professionals in the region.

A primary concern for IT workers is staying current in their field. To keep them engaged, they need to be provided with opportunities to improve themselves and to update their skill sets. In addition, competitive salaries and bonuses are still quite important, along with opportunities for promotion and development and generous accommodations for personal and/or family time.

Regarding IT workforce development and retention in the corporate environment, I feel that the corporate community could do much in the way of improvement. IT workers move from one job to the next based upon the lack of job satisfaction, which is abundantly recognized not only in the job network but also in scholarly articles. This lack of satisfaction can come from varied sources: weak promotional opportunities, overwork, poor development opportunities, poor compensation/raises, family-work imbalance, and the like. Rising to the challenge of IT workforce development and retention is achievable but may cut into the short-term bottom line. Consequently, organizations must weigh any short-term losses against strategic long-term gains. Retaining IT workers means retaining an organization's IT and (to some extent) business knowledge, prized company assets.

We are striving to be a recognized region, though some will remain dominant for decades: e.g.; Silicon Valley, Redmond, Wash., etc. St. Louis has had numerous IT breakthroughs, but to become a top player, the area will need considerable, highly visible breakthroughs in IT across different industries, along with strong entrepreneurial IT ventures. Moreover, the promotion of our existing IT base: i.e., the IT workforce and the existing companies that rely heavily on IT and are industry leaders' is vital. In addition, area universities must continue to develop research and to offer courses in leading technologies, from academic and practitioner standpoints.

Kian Pokorny, Ph.D.

Associate Professor & Chair, Division of Computing McKendree University

Over the past five years at McKendree we have experienced approximately a 40 percent decline in the number of students choosing one of its computing majors, compared with the 70 percent decline in undergraduates choosing a computer science major nationwide. Many of those entering the first course are unprepared for computer programming, which has traditionally been the first introduction to the computing disciplines for entering college students. High schools do not have a uniform curriculum in computing and students do not understand what career opportunities exist in IT.

We have taken several actions in recent years that have had a positive impact. First, we diversified our degree programs. In the past, we had the traditional majors in Computer Science and Computer Information Systems. Now we have added new majors in Information Technology, Interactive Media and Computational Science. These new majors provide options for students that help to initiate the inquiring process for many students. They begin to realize that there are many career paths in the IT field, not just solitary confinement to a cubicle as a programmer.

Secondly, we have restructured our introductory courses to allow students to experience a larger view of the IT world in their first year of college. The first semester course goes beyond computer programming to introduce topics in database and network administration; computer architecture and organization; software engineering; artificial intelligence and game programming; and careers in computing. Students begin thinking about the vast career options in the IT world and receive an overview of topics to come if they choose one of the computing majors.

These two strategies have enticed new students who would not have been interested in the rigid introductory programming/calculus sequence of our traditional Computer Science major or the rogramming/accounting I & II sequence that begins our traditional Computer Information Systems major. Our Information Technology major appeals to those teenage whiz kids that own and maintain enough computing equipment to run a small country. The Interactive Media major attracts students who are visually inspired. Game programming is the big pull for this one, but also students are reminded that simulation software and scientific visualization also fall under this category. Our Computational Science major allows students to incorporate areas of application in the degree program. Students can specialize in areas such as biology, chemistry or economics and finance allowing them to experience how integral computers are in helping people in the world solve difficult problems. We continue to maintain strongest enrollment in the CS and CIS majors.

The bottom line is that we have recognized that the student population has changed over the past 10 years as has society's use of technology. Students are not just interested in computers for the sake of computers. Heck, everyone has one. Students want to do something important with their lives. They want options that impact society. One of the goals of our new programs is to show how computers and information technology helps solve the difficult problems the world faces.

Gary Giamartino, Ph.D.

Dean and Professor of Management School of Business, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

Is there an IT talent "deficit" in the region? I've heard folks claim that, but I have never seen any data to support the notion. I think we are growing splendid IT talent in the region, now.

Let's think about what resources we have in the area: major universities that engage in research and teaching, offering undergraduate and graduate degree programs that should be able to meet the region's needs. A number of smaller colleges and universities that have undergraduate IT-oriented programs. Several community colleges that deliver technically oriented curricula.

With all those educational institutions producing graduates every year, I am not convinced that there is a deficit in IT talent in the region. We see more indicators that the number of undergraduate students majoring in information systems in our business school will continue to grow as long as students believe that there are productive careers to be made in IT. Much of the media coverage in recent years of IT outsourcing led people to believe that there would not be good career opportunities in IT.

There may not be as many innovative IT companies in this region as one would find in Boston or the Silicon Valley, but there are some outstanding innovative IT companies that have been started by regional IT talent. We should not be so quick to discount the talent and resources that are here. We should do everything we can to continue to grow those resources for the future.

There are encouraging signs that the corporate community recognizes the need to have an innovative, vibrant climate in which entrepreneurial IT companies can grow and flourish. The leaders involved in the St. Louis IT Coalition have demonstrated their support by sponsoring awareness-raising events like the Gateway to Innovation Conference and the Emerging Technology Forum series. Both events stress skill building for individuals, benchmarking best practices of corporate performance, and innovative ways in which companies are using IT to solve business problems.

John Lewington, Ph.D., Associate Dean

John E. Simon School of Business Maryville University

I don't know of any stats to measure the "Dean's List." However, I don't think we are on the list compared to California, Washington State, or the New England area. Our region is focused on biotech...Monsanto, Novus International, Danforth Center, Bunge, etc. A city our size cannot spread itself across too many business sectors.

That said, the region needs to provide programs that deal with the present needs of IT-courses that focus on project management, and the new virtual economy. The Internet has, and is continuing to, increase productivity in marketing and supply chain management.

We have award-winning companies in the virtual space–e.g., Scottrade and leaders in healthcare cost management–e.g., Express Scripts–that are both dependent upon cutting-edge IT to manage their businesses.

Washington University and Saint Louis University both have large entrepreneurship research grants and programs. There's always money for great ideas.

Commerce Matters with Benjamin Akande: Barack, Inc.: Lessons From Obama's Campaign

24-Jul-2009
Published in: Ladue News
Author: Benjamin Ola. Akande

Business schools who use case studies as a basis for teaching understand the value that lies in learning from the success and failure of others. Combining their own observations with those of media experts, authors Barry Libert and Rick Faulk break down the unprecedented campaign of our 44th president and what businesses can glean from it in their new book Barack, Inc.: Winning Business Lessons of the Obama Campaign.

The authors offer critical lessons from one of the most successful presidential campaigns of all times. Some of the lessons are tried and true business practices, others are cutting edge. Together, they lay out a blueprint with practical insight on managing projects, the ability to focus and the power of results. Barack, Inc. is not a love letter lauding the candidate (now president) as perfect. In fact, Libert and Faulk use mistakes and how they were handled to highlight lessons from the campaign.

Take for example "no drama" Obama's unflappability. Staying cool under pressure and ignoring all distractions allowed the candidate to stay on message, correct problems seamlessly and adjust quickly. Like a well-heeled business leader, he could do this because of his soundly built organization, the contingencies it had at the ready and the organization's ability to implement those plans at a moment's notice. Staying cool also means leading with humility, a trait that doesn't come second nature for most business leaders. But, the upside of putting egotism and pride aside to gain feedback from bright, opinionated people will always pay off with a more cohesive workforce.

In Barack Inc., the authors wrote candidly about the Obama campaign's use of social networking. From Facebook and Flickr to Twitter and YouTube, it could be said the candidate was able to blog and text himself to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Tapping into the world of the iPod generation (18 to 28 year old voters), Obama's supporters were able to register millions to vote for the first time while also setting fire under individuals who sparked a nationwide virtual campaign. Only by embracing the new, nurturing 'netroots' and knowing when to let the platforms speak for itself like the Obama campaign did can business in the 21st century compete in a Web 2.0 world.

"We are the change that we seek," Barack Obama said on the campaign trail. And according to the authors, his choice to embody change over running away from it or turning it into a marketing ruse made all the difference to his campaign. He used it to challenge his opponents, who campaigned on 'past' experience and to share his vision of the future. "Change is the engine of both politics and business, the power of growth and progress," the authors write. What better time than now for business leaders to initiate change for their companies and become the new brand of commander-in-chief their organizations need to battle the current economic realities?

Taken by Obama's strategy for success and what it can do to help turn businesses around, the authors call on their readers to e-mail the dean of their favorite business school and urge him to offer a crash course in Obama campaigning and leadership. I think I will heed that advice and contact the dean of business at Webster University asking that he look closely at this request!

As a student of leadership, I believe that leading is a marathon and the race is won not necessarily by how fast you go but by your ability to pace yourself. Obama's tenure as President of the United States will not be measured or remembered by what he did in the first 100 or 200 days but by the collective achievement over the next 1,460 days in office. It's a long way from here to there; but the leadership he displayed during the campaign and in the initial days may provide some verification of his potential for success. To find out whether that potential becomes a reality or not, we will have to wait until the end of this marathon.

Word of Mouth Epidemic

22-May-2009
Published in: Ladue News
Author: Benjamin Ola. Akande

This being the information age, I think we sometimes forget the importance of personal communication. In 1990, just after Lexus introduced its luxury cars in the United States, the company realized two minor problems with the LS400 would require a recall. Lexus had decided from the beginning to build its reputation around quality workmanship and reliability, and now, a little more than a year into the brand's launch, the company was being forced to admit problems.

Most recalls are handled in a public announcement via TV, radio, letters to owners, fax or in publications. Lexus wisely decided to convey its message about the recall in the most personal and direct manner. So the company called each owner on the telephone the day the recall was announced. When owners picked up their cars at dealerships after the repair work was completed, each car had been washed and the tank filled with gas. If an owner lived more than 100 miles from a dealership, the dealer sent a mechanic to the owner's home; in one instance, a technician flew from Los Angeles to Anchorage to make the repairs!

Needless to say, the company emerged from what could have been a disaster with a reputation for outstanding customer service that continues to this day. One automotive publication later called it "the perfect recall." By going the extra mile in a personal way, Lexus successfully kick-started a 'word-of-mouth epidemic' about the quality of its customer service–something that would not have happened had the recall been conducted through letter, fax or media broadcast.

This is a story about the value of communication. The effectiveness of our message can depend more on how the message is delivered than the message itself–and that includes our dealings with colleagues, business partners and clients. Do you take the easy, least resistant way to communicate your message? Have you become addicted to e-mail, more comfortable sending those impersonal sound bytes than meeting face-to-face? Do you prefer to leave a message on the voice mail rather than engage in a telephone conversation? Are you eager to draft memoranda to colleagues outlining an idea and/or concept and shy away from calling a meeting or walking down the hallway for a brief discussion? Beware.

We live in a world of instantaneous information where we demand immediate response(s) to all our questions. We find a way to get what we need, when we need it. But all this immediacy comes with a steep price. We have dehumanized the value of looking someone in the eye, observing their body language, and assessing a positive or negative reaction to our message. Remember: There is no replacement for that. Gone are the days when we rely on the variation in a person's voice for an indication of how they respond to our ideas, comments, observations. Today we have literally to read between the lines, to guess what the words truly mean, hoping against hope that the written word is accurate.

How are you communicating your message? That is something everyone, from friends to business associates, should ask themselves. And is that communication the most effective way to convey your message?

Finishing What We Start: A Lesson in the Power of the Positive

27-Apr-2009
Published in: MarketWatch
Author: Benjamin Ola. Akande

The following is a statement by Benjamin Ola Akande, Dean, School of Business and Technology, Webster University:

During these times of global and personal disarray, it's easy for an overall gloom to creep into our lives, without our even being aware that it's happening. Yet amid the doom and gloom, we can usually find paradigms of courage so inspiring they help us put life in perspective. I had the privilege of witnessing one such example during the recent graduation ceremony of Webster's Marymount campus MBA program in California.

Among the graduates was a young woman in her mid-30s whose personal story speaks to the resiliency and character of many, many people the world over. As the festivities sprawled across this picturesque campus on the tip of the Pacific Ocean, I noticed this young lady with a bandana on her head. You couldn't miss her. She displayed a youthful vigor, warmth and energy that belied her sobering circumstances. For while all those around her were jubilant amid the congratulatory wishes of family and friends, she had accomplished something in addition to earning a degree: She had beaten breast cancer. She had successfully completed her education while balancing work, life, family and a battle with cancer. Yet it was clear by her demeanor that neither energy-draining chemotherapy nor the threat of death had dampened her spirit.

So how does all this figure into a column on business? Call it a lesson in the power of the positive. This woman clearly focused on what could be achieved, rather than what could not'something businesses, investors and consumers can all benefit from, especially these days. She did not let the darkness overtake her daylight. Instead, she illuminated her world and those of her classmates, as well, with her light. As I watched her, it occurred to me that many of our students across the world of Webster face mind-numbing challenges while striving to get an education and earn a degree'a sobering thought when we are inclined to grouse about the shrinkage in our 401Ks.

No, life is not fair, but is that important'or even relevant? Many who work hard to overcome challenges are still thrown additional curve balls at 96 miles an hour, yet they step up to the plate and wait expectantly for the next pitch. But just like these 'batters,' we as a nation are being tested in today's economic climate. It is a test of attitude and character. Are we acting with integrity no matter how tough our circumstances get? Are we able to remain positive and prevent the ensuing economic times from bringing us down?

Life is a long marathon with rough roads, speed bumps and unexpected turns along the way, but the winners are those who have trained their minds as well as their bodies. It's a journey that we all get to travel just once, and the obstacles along the way make our achievements all the better. In closing, I recall the poem by Patrick O'Leary, Nobody Knows It But Me, which speaks to the journey of life, the personal battles we confront daily, and the importance of tapping our inner selves to help us finish what we start.

There's a place I travel when I want to roam,

And nobody knows it but me.

The roads don't go there and the signs stay home,

And nobody knows it but me.

It's far, far away, and way, way afar,

It's over the moon and the sea.

Wherever you're going that's wherever you are,

And nobody knows it but me (you).

Soapbox: The Web Savvy Generation

5-Apr-2009

Published in: Financial Times

Author: Benjamin Ola. Akande

In his book, How Will Millennials Manage?, Professor James Heskett of Harvard Business School says leaders of the future must be able to embrace change. No problem: born between 1982 and 2000, 115m iPoders are waiting in the wings and fast-paced change is what they are all about.

Who are these iPoders? They are a growing population that is internet-savvy, phone-addicted, opportunistic and digitally conscious.

The iPoders have extra limbs to accommodate an iPod, BlackBerry and laptop. This iGeneration is the first raised exclusively on computers. They move at breakneck speed, texting, e-mailing and twittering. Technology is their oxygen.

From the horrors of September 11, 2001 to the limitless possibilities of digital technology, the iGeneration has seen the worst and best the world has to offer. An added burden is that they have become the post-great- recession generation.

So what will the future look like with iPoders at the helm? It will be a future of innovative doers, who value independent thought. To stay relevant, organisations must successfully recruit and retain them. Andrea Hershatter, associate dean at Goizueta Business School, Emory University, says of iPoders: "They don't feel entitled because they are special. They just want to have those who are closest to them support their quest to achieve and accomplish meaningful goals."

The iPoders want things to move at a pace that is incomprehensible to the baby boom generation.

The greatest challenge for iPoders is discovering that wisdom cannot be attained from behind a laptop or from an iPhone. They want a world without limitation: wireless access any time and anywhere. While they form and sustain their social and, some day, business connections, technology is their one true, constant companion. My advice to iPoders is to seek what Professor Dorothy Leonard of Harvard calls "deep smart" – achieved by learning from other people's mistakes, seeking wisdom from others and, if I may add, embracing the traditional mode of learning in the classroom.

An iPoder's rule of thumb is: "Don't ask until you've Googled" – and they see technology as a way to answer all life's questions, as well as to meet people and stay connected with friends. Trust does not need to be developed face to face. For a generation that uses the internet to buy everything from cars to diapers, trust can be nurtured through social networks and e-mails.

I recently asked some students: "What should business schools do to engage iPoders? Their responses were pointed. The iPoders want schools to recruit young faculty who are practitioners in their fields. They are concerned about being competitive in a tight marketplace and question the value of faculty with little or no corporate experience. They question the readiness of such faculty for the corporate world when their academic preparation has been based on strategies learnt in the classroom that may not be relevant in today�s financial environment.

The iPoders want business schools to introduce delivery methods that use blogs, social networking sites and texting. They predict that the future belongs to those schools that transform themselves by operating in the internet-driven space.

Organisations that harness the iPoder's understanding and appreciation of technology, recognising innovation long before it arrives on the scene, will be the destinations of choice. The organisations that iPoders will be attracted to are the ones savvy enough to welcome emerging trends, bold enough to change long before they have to and smart enough to recognise technology as the currency of the future.

The iPoders know the economic climate offers opportunities enabling them to emerge from today's crisis empowered and ready to transform the future. They are determined to learn from the failures of the previous generation but do not want to waste time doing it. Their sense of constructive impatience gives us hope for our future.

Benjamin Ola Akande is dean of the School of Business and Technology, Webster University

E3thos.com Launches 'My Street,' Featuring Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande, Dean, Webster University School of Business and Technology

20-Mar-2009
Published in: MarketWatch

E3thos.com, an online portal dedicated to delivering urban video content, announced the launch of "My Street," featuring Dr. Benjamin Ola. Akande, dean of the School of Business & Technology at Webster University (www.webster.edu/sbt). "My Street" is a finance show that informs urban America about the impact of the economy and Wall Street on middle-class households.

"Now, more than ever, Americans are terrified, especially middle-class Americans," said Dr. Akande. "They listen to all the financial jargon and wonder, 'What does it mean for me or my family?'" "My Street" is designed to inform middle-class Americans how each move on Wall Street affects their street.

"My Street" is a 10-minute weekly segment that will discuss topics ranging from the financial crisis, mortgage issues and global markets, to mergers, acquisitions and trading stocks. The show can be seen on E3thos.com, on the "O Acres O Mule" Channel (http://www.e3thos.com/demands).

"There are many finance shows currently on cable TV that we have recently seen are not being totally true to their viewers," explained Clifford Franklin, chief executive officer of E3thos. "Our intent was to produce an authentic finance show for America -- a show not controlled or influenced by Wall Street's power structure, but accountable for its news to America."

Besides presiding over one of the world's global business schools, Dr. Akande has served as an economic consultant to the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program. He also consults for several Fortune 500 companies on matters relating to global diversity, corporate strategy and leadership.

About E3thos.com

E3thos.com is an all-video urban network. It is our goal to allow urban consumers, with a focus on African American consumers, an uncensored voice in what goes on locally, regionally and nationally as it relates to news, current affairs and lifestyle information. This will be the soapbox; the stage; and the microphone for telling the country and the world urban views regarding today's issues. E3thos will provide an unfiltered voice for journalism professionals, content providers, bloggers and others who have something to say about the world around them.

About Webster University

With its home campus in St. Louis, Webster University ( www.webster.edu) is a worldwide institution committed to delivering high-quality learning experiences that transform students for global citizenship and individual excellence. Founded in 1915, Webster offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs through five schools and colleges, and a global network of more than 100 campuses. Its 20,000-plus student population represents almost 150 nationalities. The University's core values include excellence in teaching, joining theory and practice, small class sizes, and educating students to be lifelong independent learners, fully prepared to participate in an increasingly international society.

Since opening its first campus overseas in Geneva in 1978, Webster has become a recognized leader and innovator in global education, with an international presence that now includes campuses in London; Vienna; Amsterdam and Leiden, the Netherlands; Shanghai, Shenzhen and Chengdu, China; and Bangkok and Cha-am, Thailand. Webster also has educational partnerships with universities in Mexico and Japan.

Most Influential St. Louisans

23-Feb-2009

Published in: St. Louis Business Journal

Benjamin Ola Akande, Webster University

As dean of Webster's business school, Akande runs the region's largest MBA program and one of the truly global business schools, which offers academic programs at more than 100 campuses spanning three continents. Webster has more than 20,000 students worldwide.

Lessons from Humpty Dumpty

20-Feb-2009
Published in: Forbes.com
Author: Benjamin Ola. Akande

As a child growing up, I was raised and nurtured with nursery rhymes, some made up by my parents, others borrowed from a long list of universal rhymes. One has stayed with me all my life: It is a story of risk, failure and perseverance, the story of Humpty Dumpty, the anthropomorphic egg who tried to defy the odds and met with interesting results. Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty Dumpty together again.

The key word is the very last one: 'again.' It implies that this wasn't the first fall for Humpty; he was a serial risk taker. In my eyes he was bold, fearless, unrelenting and entrepreneurial. Humpty obviously believed in setting stretch goals and was very familiar with the reality called failure. But, this egg refused to allow failure to define him. Failure for Humpty was just real-time feedback, an opportunity to regroup, reassess and try again until success was eventually achieved.

That attitude is a most valuable skill in today's challenging climate. The wall is a simple metaphor for the singular act of overcoming adversity. Climbing a wall is moving beyond where you are, overcoming adversity, challenging conventional wisdom, pursuing goals that are not easily achievable and refusing to give up in that pursuit.

There are many people the world over who now find themselves faced with the greatest challenge of their lives. They have lost jobs, homes, life savings and are gradually losing confidence. They are down because they have fallen. As we contemplate the severity and hopelessness of the present and seek to overcome the uncertainty of the future, I believe it's helpful to invoke the story of Humpty, a journey of endurance and the willingness to keep trying. The lesson behind a childish rhyme speaks of the courage to seek challenges, to gratefully accept help when needed and to persevere when there is no apparent reason to do so. It's also a reminder that even when you do everything right–remain loyal to your employer, invest your money in a 'foolproof' fund, pursue the American Dream--you may fall and fall again. Remember, when we fall we should strive to get back up and not allow setbacks to define who we are.

No one is perfect. At times, we make faulty judgments. Perhaps we overreach as we try to make life better for our families. Sometimes, we act based on fear versus hope. At other times, our overconfidence leads the way when it should be tempered. Occasionally, our desire to keep pace with our peers leads us down a slippery slope. All of these imperfections speak to the story of Humpty and the resolve to scale the wall of obstacles. There is a little Humpty Dumpty in all of us. We have fallen, yes. We have been broken, certainly. But somewhere deep inside–behind the doom, beyond the gloom–we still have our eye on that wall and are ready to successfully climb it, cracks and all, as insurmountable as it may seem.

In closing, I am particularly impressed with Humpty's support group: his friends, all the king's horses and all the king's men. They provided the ultimate safety net. We have all climbed that wall and have fallen many times, but if it weren't for our 'king's horses and men,' getting back up would have been impossible. They gave us the endurance to keep on keeping on. These are the kind of friends we all need, especially these days.

As we grapple with these difficult financial times, may our journey be blessed with good friends and may we learn as much from our falls as we do from our ascents.

Benjamin Ola. Akande, Professor of Economics, Dean, School of Business & Technology, Webster University.

Ten Most Interesting: Benjamin Akande

29-Jan-2009Published in: Ladue News Author: Trish Muyco-Tobin

For as long as he can remember, economist Benjamin Akande has been fascinated by success, specifically by what makes people successful. Given to perusing several books at a time, Akande is currently enjoying Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success. "It's a very interesting book about why people succeed," he says. "One thing is very clear: In many instances, success doesn't come because we're born with the intellectual capacity to be successful, it comes as a result of hard work."

Akande himself is an American success story. Born in Nigeria, he spent much of his childhood at boarding school, away from his parents and four sisters. He says having a certain level of independence allowed him to discover himself. "It was a time to grow up: to make mistakes and learn from them. It was all about education and preparation."

Education was the reason Akande came to the United States 30 years ago. He attended Wayland Baptist University as an undergraduate, received a doctorate in economics from the University of Oklahoma, and completed post-doctoral studies at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Akande's interest in economics began in his teens. "I wanted to understand how the economy worked, as well as what caused interruptions, when things don't work as they should," he says. A penchant for reading soon followed. "I read everything I could get my hands on, newspapers, magazines, fiction. Back then, we'd get most of the papers two days later. But it didn't matter. I'd read them as if they were new," he recalls. "Being able to see and read different writing styles helped me formulate my own. It also expanded my imagination and took me to places I'd never go."

Since 2000, Akande has been dean of Webster University's School of Business & Technology, overseeing 13,000 business students and working with 1,500 staff throughout the university's worldwide system. "My responsibility is to provide leadership in curriculum and innovation, as well as ensure that we're constantly challenging the most important people at Webster, the students."

Aside from his duties as dean, Akande also maintains a strong public presence in print, on the airwaves and around town. He's been recognized as one of the city's most influential leaders, serving on the boards of The PrivateBank, Newberry Group, Xiolink and Beyond Housing, and consulting with a number of Fortune 500 companies. "I'm constantly engaging the private sector, seeking input and building relationships," he says. "The experience has served as my laboratory of sorts, as it has enabled me to implement ideas that could grow and transform organizations."

When he's not making presentations to business and financial organizations or delegating academic directives, Akande can be found listening to jazz, reading a book or two, or spending time with his wife, Bola, and their daughters, ages 16, 13 and 8. "We hang out, play pick-up soccer in the backyard or ping-pong, the kids are not as good as me but they're getting there." He also enjoys storytelling. "It's having a conversation with my kids, and a way for me to stay connected with my past."

A Letter to President Obama

22-Jan-2009Published in: Ladue News Author: Benjamin Ola. Akande

Dear President Obama,

During the campaign, you offered America hope and promised to restore a civility and practicality to the nation's highest office so that, together, we could rise to the challenges and opportunities that lay at our doorstep. Now it's time to make some wise choices.

In your acceptance speech on the evening of Nov. 4, 2008, you were pointed in your statement that, "While we breathe, we hope." As President, your greatest challenge will be effectively leading a cabinet of highly qualified and highly opinionated individuals who will undoubtedly have differing ideas on how best to resolve the major issues we face. Your leadership will be tested early and often, and while you have assured Americans that there will be setbacks and false starts, your willingness to make tough choices early on will set the tone for the revival of a shell-shocked economy and a battle-fatigued nation. Yet the fact remains that hope will not reduce housing foreclosures. Hope does not stop a recession. Hope cannot create jobs. Hope will not prevent catastrophic failures of banks. Hope is not a strategy.

I would like to offer 10 priorities to consider:

The Deficit. Don't be concerned about increasing the deficit in the short term. There is an urgent need to stimulate the economy now not at any price, but almost. Your recovery plan must combine tax cuts and structured spending in areas that foster long-term economic growth, specifically energy, healthcare and education. This is one time when we need to act for today to ensure that tomorrow will be much better.

The Auto Industry. I want to urge you to reject extending additional bailout monies to the Big Three. Chapter 11 bankruptcy is the best thing that can happen to these automakers. They need help quickly, but not in the form of government largesse. This is a time for 'tough love,' not a time for enabling poor performance, corporate arrogance and unwise decisions. They will thank you in the long run.

The New New Deal. There is urgency to rebuild America's roads and bridges, but the real opportunity is to anchor your recovery plan on a renewed energy policy that is timely and targeted. The imperative should entail: 1) a green bailout for U.S. automakers; 2) green infrastructure; 3) tax credit for companies to produce alternative energy; 4) a construction program for a new smart electric grid; and 5) increased investment in mass transit using green technology. The projects must be shovel-ready to get people back to work immediately.

2009 Homeowner Protection Act. Now is the time to change the bankruptcy laws to protect homeowners from the vagaries of the marketplace. We have expedited Chapter 11 bankruptcy for businesses to keep them from going under when they run into financial turbulence, and we should do no less for homeowners. It does no one any good to force poor and middle-income Americans out of their homes, and we know that vacant houses destroy even the best neighborhoods. An expedited homeowner protection plan would allow for the restructuring of the mortgages of millions of Americans who are under water. Stemming the flood of foreclosures will reinvigorate the confidence of banks and provide a shot in the arm for the credit market, putting the economy back on the right foot.

Strengthening Middle Class America. Your administration should push to expand the earned income tax credit as a relief measure for the middle class and give Americans making less than $150,000 a $500 tax credit per person on the first $8,100 in income. This will increase the rate of spending and the rate of savings by the middle class, which will be a source of new capital to spur growth.

A Health Plan for All. The greatest fear among most Americans is the possibility of losing their jobs, and with the loss of jobs comes the real possibility of loss of health insurance. We need a comprehensive program that provides health insurance to the unemployed and to the uninsured, and it must happen posthaste. For a nation of our wealth to have any of our citizens go without health care is nothing short of criminal.

Rewrite Financial Service Laws. One of the key reasons for the current financial crisis has been weak regulation of the financial services industry. There needs to be a comprehensive overhaul of enforcement policies of the Securities Exchange Commission. Demand disclosure and stipulate new accounting requirements.

Restructure Bailout. The first $350 billion of the financial market bailout has done very little to jump-start the economy. The next $350 installment must be directed at assisting homeowners and expanding consumer credit.

Foster a Bipartisan Approach. Divisive politics got us into this mess, unifying politics can help get us out of it. The country can no longer afford to see things in terms of red and blue or black and white. Enduring solutions will emerge from the gray.

Caution Consumers. President Obama, I urge you to use your presidential pulpit to speak to Americans, to encourage them to be cautious and prudent in their spending. While consumer spending is a key to the economic revival, at times it may be wise to counsel consumers to, in the words of former St. Louis Fed President Bill Poole "Put their foot on the brake way before they get to the stop sign."

What America needs, more than ever, is your ability to give hope through your leadership. May you have the inner strength to move this nation from uncertainty to certainty. I wish you well.

My Best,

Benjamin Ola. Akande

Dreams Do Come True

19-Jan-2009Published in: CNN AC360_ (Anderson Cooper 360) Author: Benjamin Ola. Akande

As a child growing up in Nigeria, I was a dreamer. My parents never dismissed my dreams. They were always encouraging. No matter how outright unbelievable my dreams were, they would assure me that dreams do come true. Dreams provide a glimpse of what the future will look like. I wish I could have recorded all those dreams.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream was recorded. It was a dream that was played out in front of thousands of people and like most dreams, no one really knew how it would play out. As the dream was recalled over the years, it became clear that this was a significant and compelling vision of the future. Martin’s dream was in the form of a remarkable prose on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Most of us can hear him recite this dream in our subconscious. “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.” It is a dream that visualizes a future where all those things that seemed impossible and improbable will happen despite overwhelming obstacles.

The election of Barack Obama was a manifestation of Martin’s dream. I would like to believe that Martin Luther King’s dream highlighted how difficult it is to make change happen. Martin spoke about how mountains and hills (obstacles) shall be made lower and rough places (institutional changes) will be made straight. The recognition was that monumental changes of this magnitude take considerable time. Indeed, it takes the force of nature to break through the harsh reality of status quo and history.

Dreaming enables us to transcend the present and position us on the balcony for a better view of the future. And, because dreaming offers no restrictions, the greatest dreamers are often characterized as crazy and out of touch with reality. What history has shown us is that you may vilify them, you can criticize them, and you may even assassinate them. But, you can’t kill a dreamer’s dream. MLK’s dream took a long time to come to fruition, with small significant steps and some big setbacks along the way. But on Nov. 4, 2008, the full realization of the great civil rights leader’s dream came to pass with the election of a junior senator from Illinois as the first African-American President of The United States.

Martin Luther King taught us that adversity is a lot easier to overcome than success. And that is the power of dreams. He knew it would happen. He even foresaw that his own demise may keep him from seeing his dream come true. “I’ve seen the promised 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.” Forty-five years later, his vision is still unfolding. But one thing is crystal clear. Dreams do come true.

Click here to read Dean Akande's story on AC360°.