Connect the Dots: The Convenience Revolution Has Arrived

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connect the Dots: No Promises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connect the Dots: The Joyride’s Finally Slowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connecting the Dots: Uncertain New Year

Appeared in Ladue News on 1/25/2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connect the Dots: Our Untapped Opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.