If you time-traveled back 150 years and made your way down to the riverfront, the first thing you’d likely notice would be the steamboats. A sign of change would be the barges along the levee. Railroad tracks lined the shore and ran to the St. Louis Grain Elevator on the North Side. Walk a few more blocks north, and there’s the St. Louis Refining Co., its four tall chimneys piercing the sky. Continue tracing the tracks, and you’d find warehouses, mercantile shops, and industrial plants.
Today, St. Louis’ built environment still reflects its industry, but you have to look far beyond the riverfront to see it. You might start with the health care systems and companies. Biotechnology and agricultural technology are big, as are financial services. Not to mention the universities. You might throw in some of the accelerators where cool startups are doing interesting work.
But just like the riverfront a century and a half ago, there’s a promising hive of industry springing up in a new location: the future home of Next NGA West in North St. Louis. The $1.7 billion facility for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is expected to open in 2025 on 97 acres in the St. Louis Place neighborhood, at North Jefferson and Cass avenues. With just three years until its début, local leaders are trying to transform St. Louis into a leader in geospatial.
First, though, the region will have to ramp up and diversify talent at a time when St. Louis faces a shortage of skilled workers.
Andy Dearing, president of Spatial STL Advisors and the initiative lead for the GeoFutures strategic plan, still gets asked: How do you define “geospatial”?
“I think, Wow, I wonder if the agtech or life sciences industries have had to explain that,” he says.
Part of the mystique might be that geospatial—simply put, data relating to geographic location—is everywhere.
When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark left St. Louis in 1804 to explore the Louisiana Purchase and Pacific Northwest, that was geospatial. When French cartographer Charles Picquet created a map to plot cholera outbreaks in 1832, that was geospatial. Each time you use Google Maps or GPS, you are engaging with geospatial technology. When people flocked to Tower Grove Park last November for a Pokémon GO tournament, using their smartphones to locate and capture little Pikachus? That’s geospatial.
The applications become more sophisticated—and more complicated. The military uses geospatial intelligence, often abbreviated as GEOINT, to survey human activity for defense purposes. Geospatial data can be used to fight climate change, for example, using remote sensing to gather data on massive glaciers, where conditions are too harsh for scientists to visit in person. Geospatial technology can help humans monitor crops to try and combat food insecurity. The field can even help us better understand our communities: who has what, who doesn’t, and how we might make our neighborhoods more equitable.
The anchor of St. Louis’ geospatial sector is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which employs 3,700 and pays salaries that average $75,000, well above the region’s average of $54,000. Next NGA West is the largest federal investment in St. Louis history. Now the region is trying to figure out: How do we build a geospatial innovation cluster to drive even more growth?
It might help to look to the past.
In the 1990s, Dr. William H. Danforth, then chancellor of Washington University, watched as a professor attempted to start a tech firm in St. Louis. The professor was unsuccessful, so he moved to the Bay Area, launched the company, and sold it—for $350 million.
Danforth decided to make investments that would take research being done in St. Louis and turn it into an economic engine. First came the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in 1998. Next, in 2001, an industry group that’s now known as BioSTL was formed. BioSTL then launched its BioGenerator accelerator in 2002. This was the beginning of St. Louis’ biosciences—life sciences and agtech—cluster, or what The Brookings Institution defines as “groups of firms that gain a competitive advantage through local proximity and interdependence.” In 2018, the think tank analyzed the success of St. Louis’ cluster. At the time of the report, St. Louis was home to 700 life sciences and agtech firms, of which 300 were startups. The report cited two things as key to making St. Louis’ agtech cluster successful: that organizations have “considerable industry expertise,” and that the region was committed to building out the sector on a long-term basis.
With geospatial, St. Louis is poised to witness a similar event.
In 2019, 29 leaders across the region’s business, civic, and academic sectors joined an advisory committee to create a strategic planning initiative called GeoFutures, under Greater St. Louis Inc. In a report, GeoFutures looked at five competitors—Greater Denver, Greater Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Silicon Valley, and Washington, D.C.—and found that “St. Louis stands out in the size, concentration, and growth of its geospatial and broader tech talent base compared with the nation and other regions.” The region already employs nearly 53,000 people in geospatial-related jobs such as IT and data science. Still, the authors of the report found, St. Louis’ competitive position is mixed. While workforce is a strength, tech development and risk capital are areas for improvement. But, the authors wrote, “While regions such as Silicon Valley are clearly ahead in their geospatial and broader tech sectors, no region has planted the geospatial flag and implemented a focused cluster strategy for leadership.”
The GeoFutures report recommended specific strategic priorities to advance the cluster, such as scaling up talent and workforce development to meet demand, raising innovation capacity, accelerating entrepreneurship, supporting community-led development in North St. Louis, and branding the city as a global thought leader in geospatial.
“The difference between the report that we generated as an ecosystem 20 years ago around life sciences versus the report that we put out around geospatial is that was a build strategy 20 years ago,” says Dearing. “This is a scale strategy.”
To scale, and to build a pipeline of talent, businesses are partnering with learning institutions to reach students as young as middle school. Dearing cites some examples. Gateway Global’s Zekita Armstrong Asuquo will be creating a workforce development center down the street from the NGA. She’s talking to students from North St. Louis and matching them with apprenticeships. LaunchCode created a geospatial track. Rung for Women and Maryville University partnered on a geospatial training program. “That stuff was not here a couple of years ago, and now there’s all of this structure set up, and we’re seeing more and more of those partnerships,” Dearing says. “That’s going to set us up for a lot of long-term success.”
One company making a more significant commitment to St. Louis and partnering with organizations to build the talent pipeline is General Dynamics Information Technology, the IT business arm of global aerospace and defense company General Dynamics. It aims to create the IT that underpins things such as artificial intelligence and machine learning. Although GDIT isn’t new to St. Louis, it is new to Cortex, where it opened its office on December 13. Deb Davis, a vice president and general manager, calls the move the next step in creating the partner ecosystem that will help the company cultivate talent here. One of the places it’s tapping that talent is The Little Bit Foundation, a nonprofit that provides students with coats, shoes, books, and more. GDIT partnered with STEMBoard, a woman-owned small business, to bring STEM kits into schools that Little Bit serves. Davis is also working with Little Bit to create a continuum of internship and career opportunities. “Once they get to a certain point, it’s almost too late,” Davis says. “They don’t necessarily catch the excitement and take that direction. …We’re working with middle school and high school students on that and really hoping to start building that talent pool much earlier.”
Local universities are also partners in building this pipeline. Harris-Stowe State University, for instance, is changing its curriculum in anticipation of the NGA opening its new headquarters. Freddie Wills, the vice president for STEM initiatives and research partnerships at Harris-Stowe, says the university is talking to industry, government, and other academic leaders to introduce students to the field of geospatial science. “We had to say, ‘If this is a major industry in our back yard, we have to be able to provide the knowledge that students need to graduate and then be viable and competitive for jobs in that industry,’” Wills says.
Changes in curriculum need to be approved by Harris-Stowe’s Higher Learning Commission and the Missouri Department of Higher Education, so the university is beginning with a minor in geospatial science, which Wills says is similar to a pilot program in that the approvals aren’t as involved. The university is also working with the NGA. In September 2020, Harris-Stowe and the government agency signed an education partnership agreement, which led the university to Maxar, a space technology and intelligence company. The school is now partnering with Maxar on a three-part mapathon in which students are mapping North St. Louis and using technology to address social justice.
“Mapping allows us to understand what the community has, what the community doesn’t have, what improvements are there to be made,” Wills says. “How many vacant lots are there? Mapping helps us to say, ‘Wow, there aren’t even any health care facilities within a 5-mile radius of this specific community.’” After they’re finished mapping, students can share the information with the city to support development.
Augmenting the historically Black public university’s curricula to include geospatial studies might also foster more diversity in the talent pipeline—another concern GeoFutures noted in its report. “St. Louis’ geospatial workforce, its university degree programs, and its entrepreneurial community far from reflect the region’s diverse population of residents,” the report stated. African Americans represent 9 percent of the geospatial-related workforce and 6 percent of geospatial-related degree program graduates. Unlike in the agtech cluster, addressing racial inequity has been a priority for the geospatial cluster from the get-go. One catalyst, Dearing says, was the neighborhood that the NGA is moving into.
“We, the collective community, and we, the collective investment, can’t do this wrong this time,” Dearing says. “It’s a big federal opportunity. We heard it loud and clear, talking not only with the Project Connect team that was engaging with the neighborhoods, but others who were saying, ‘How does not only my son or daughter, but my grandson or granddaughter see this as an opportunity?’ That really hit home. We said, ‘We’ve got to bake this in from day one.’”
That Harris-Stowe is not only at the table but is also a major player in the effort to grow geospatial jobs in St. Louis is a big deal, says Wills. “Without a Harris-Stowe, I don’t believe St. Louis could grow to that global epicenter of geospatial science,” he says. “The field needs to have some diversity—it needs to be something that’s inclusive of the community itself. We can’t say that we’re the global epicenter of something and not have inclusion.”
Others in the industry are already noticing the progress. In October, St. Louis hosted the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s GEOINT 2021 Symposium, the country’s biggest geospatial conference, for the first time. Dearing recalls a Fortune 500 company that told him it saw St. Louis as having a competitive advantage because of its talent and because the city was putting into place the infrastructure of partnerships that will be crucial to developing a diverse workforce.
“They’re seeing it as we’re building it and saying, ‘Not just talent, but the talent that we want, the future talent, this is where we can get it,’” Dearing says. “It’s not happening in the Bay Area. It’s not happening in Denver. It’s not happening in Washington, D.C. It’s happening here.”
At the same time that St. Louis business leaders and academics are pushing for more diversity in the geospatial sector, another group is staring down a different challenge: how to address the skilled-labor shortage. Ask Dr. Art McCoy to explain why
St. Louis is experiencing the shortage, and he’ll begin by pointing to the fact that a quarter of the city’s workforce is age 55 and older. They have savings, they have options…and some of them have health conditions. So when COVID-19 hit, some of them decided to find new roles that required less physical interaction. And that opened up a lot of opportunities.
According to the 2021 State of the St. Louis Workforce report, nearly 74 percent of companies that employ skilled workers, such as software developers and lab techs, are experiencing a shortage of applicants to those jobs, a 14 percent increase from 2020. To address the skilled labor shortage, STL.works, a workforce development collaborative that the Regional Business Council and St. Louis Civic Pride Foundation launched in 2019, is partnering with 12 public school districts—including Affton, Jennings, Normandy, Pattonville, and Ritenour—to connect students with these opportunities in five skilled labor areas: technology, health care, advanced manufacturing, trades, and public safety. STL.works and nonprofit partner STL Youth Jobs are also targeting 1,500 St. Louis Public Schools seniors through a Learn and Earn credit program.
Skilled labor jobs, according to STL.works, can require 12 months or fewer of training and come with an average salary of $60,000 plus benefits, but there is a range. For example, a web developer boot camp can be completed in as few as 12 weeks; that job’s median annual salary is $70,660. The average time it takes to train to become a machinist is 18 months; the average base salary is $40,000. On-the-job apprenticeships in plumbing and pipefitting could last as long as five years; the average annual salary is around $50,000.
McCoy, the leader of the STL.works initiative, served as superintendent of both the Ferguson-Florissant and Jennings school districts. He’s also the founder of the consulting firm SAGES, an acronym for “Sever the Achievement Gap in the Education of Students” and “Sever Attainment Gaps Existing in Society.” McCoy is a believer in the German apprenticeship model, in which students are paid to participate in vocational school and, at the same time, work as apprentices at a company.
While at Jennings, McCoy instituted three similar programs. The first was a “mini medical school,” where grade-schoolers donned white coats and stethoscopes to learn about practicing medicine; some of those students went on to Washington University and Harvard. The second program involved taking students to Mastercard to participate in a computer programming exercise, and by eighth grade, they were coding with Python. The third program focused on the trades. McCoy hired Building Futures, a nonprofit with a construction focus, to teach elementary students how to make tables. At the middle school level, he hired journeymen to teach students how to make Little Free Libraries. At the high school level, students learned how to build walls and how to rehab buildings. They then rehabbed a shelter for the unhoused population, and Clayco furnished them with supplies. McCoy created a pathway for the older students to obtain industry-recognized credentials. By 11th grade, they’d earned OSHA 10-hour, 30-hour, and power tools certifications, and they could operate forklifts. “My old custodians and maintenance people didn’t have those certifications,” McCoy says. “I had 40-year-old men saying, ‘Can we take these high school classes, because we want more pay?’”
Similarly, the STL.works plan is trying to reach workers while they’re still in school. First, school-to-work coordinator La-Vanda Cotton will visit schools to talk with students about the 100-plus businesses that are part of the Regional Business Council and who are looking for skilled workers. Cotton will follow up with schools after the presentation to discuss which industry students are most interested in, and then she’ll come back with professionals from that industry to talk about their jobs. From there, students can sign up for half-day shadowing experiences. If they choose to move on, they can sign up for a micro-internship—four or five visits when they can get hands-on experience with professionals. “The goal isn’t for these kids to get a four-year degree,” McCoy emphasizes. “The goal is for these kids to get a certificate that the industry recognizes, which then gives them a living-wage job.”
McCoy has also teamed up with Lee Metcalf, a vice president at Daugherty Business Solutions, on an initiative called Access Point, which targets the gap in IT. A survey by Daugherty found that St. Louis–area companies want to grow IT jobs by 4,000–5,000 positions in the next three to five years, but there is not enough talent even now to fill open entry-level positions. Chief information officers want diverse candidates. They want to stop poaching one another’s talent. Metcalf reached out to a number of companies and asked, “Would you consider hiring recent high school graduates?” They said yes—they didn’t need college degrees. So Metcalf worked with 25 students in the pilot program, training them for apprenticeships and then entry-level IT positions. Twenty-three finished the program; 22 were hired at Evernorth, a Cigna health services company, and one was hired at Daugherty.
FINANCIAL TECHNOLOGY, OR FINTECH, IS A GROWING SECTOR IN ST. LOUIS.
To understand the world of fintech, says Atul Kamra, managing partner of venture fund SixThirty, you first have to realize that the issues of financial health and medical health are colliding.
“Driving this collision is this perfect storm of pressures that challenges our sense of personal wellbeing,” says Kamra. “The shifting of responsibility of our healthcare and our retirement from institutions and the state to the individual, the rising cost of education, the rising cost of healthcare, an aging demographic…”
Where does fintech fit in? Kamra points to two companies from the portfolio of SixThirty, a firm that invests in entrepreneurs who are working to solve some of the biggest challenges in the financial and insurance sectors.
Consider the rising cost of college.
In 2021, student loan debt hit $1.6 trillion; the average U.S. household that has debt owes $57,520. Fintech startup and Salesforce-backed platform FutureFuel.io rolls together and refinances student loans, then uses such features as rounding up everyday purchases on a credit card and applying the spare change or rewards toward the loan to pay down the debt. On average, users shave four years off the life of the loan and $15,000 in accrued interest.
Take another societal challenge: paying for assisted living. One in three seniors will need nursing home care at some point in their lives, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, and a private room in a nursing home in the St. Louis area costs about $77,745 annually. “One of the biggest drivers of placing an aging adult into a longterm facility is the fatigue of the caregiver,” Kamra says. St. Louis–based TCARE is the mastermind behind a piece of software that tackles the challenge of caregiver burnout. It tracks 96 characteristics that identify this fatigue, and trained TCARE professionals create plans for the caregivers and connect them with local resources to help. The goal is to reduce longterm care service use, so people can age at home. “By decelerating it, you’re saving at a society level, at a family level, at an insurance company level, an enormous amount,” Kamra says.
Metcalf sees the solution to filling the IT gap as having four points: 1. CIO collaboration; 2. engaging with high schools to tap talented workers; 3. rethinking higher education’s approach to tech degrees; and 4. getting local nonprofits involved to help with some of the challenges that these students face in completing training programs.
As it stands, Metcalf uses what he calls “hypercare” to remove some of these barriers for students. Some of them don’t have cars, so transportation is an issue; some of them do, but challenges still arise. One young woman’s family needed to move and was shuttling possessions to their new home in the student’s car over a period of weeks. The student couldn’t get to class because the car was always being used. So Metcalf used $600 of his own money to hire Two Men and a Truck to move the family. “She’s in the program, and she’s now getting $20 an hour in an apprenticeship on her way to a $50,000 job,” he says, “but we almost lost her at the front end of this for stuff like that.”
NPower is another STL.works nonprofit partner that helps those from underserved communities launch careers in technology. Amenta Christian-Robertson was a student at the University of Missouri–Columbia pursuing a degree in chemical engineering when she decided that the program wasn’t for her. Her mom sent her information on NPower and encouraged her to apply. Christian-Robertson completed the training and now works at World Wide Technology as a global service desk analyst. NPower has paid for about half of her eight IT certifications. The prices for the tests alone range from about $100–$500.
Christian-Robertson is also enrolled at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, where she’s working toward a degree. Because she started her education in chemical engineering, she’s sticking to that track but envisions a career in biotechnology, perhaps as a chief security officer, after getting into the IT field.
“In all honesty, if I would have known about the NPower program before, I probably wouldn’t have gone off to college, because I’m set up right now,” she says. “I can make chemical engineering money, and I still don’t have a degree.”
Dr. Vasit Sagan, an associate professor in the department of Earth and atmospheric sciences at Saint Louis University, is the faculty director of the university’s Geospatial Institute and the head of its Remote Sensing Lab. Sagan uses satellite-based imaging, drones, and other types of imaging technologies to address global challenges. He’s predicted algae outbreaks and wildfires using technology and developed tools and methodologies to try to prevent such events. Today, he’s focused on agtech and food insecurity.
The world needs to produce 70 percent more food than it does now to keep pace with global population growth. But there’s only so much land, and water sources are shrinking. So Sagan is trying to develop hardy crops—sorghum, for example—that can withstand a harsher future environment with less water, that emit fewer greenhouse gases, and that pull carbon from the air and store it in their root systems. He has to be able to grow these crops on a massive scale and monitor them closely. He does so with the help of drones. Sagan’s work involves analyzing thousands—even millions—of samples and images in a short amount of time and using that data to make informed decisions. To do that, Sagan says, talent is critical, and there’s a big gap between domain expertise and tech skills.
Experts like Sagan have a wealth of knowledge in geospatial science, agriculture, and crop science, but they don’t necessarily have the knowledge or time to write code or automate processes. The GeoFutures report found that while the geospatial workforce includes more traditional occupations, such as cartographer and geographer, “the talent base and skill sets are increasingly oriented within ‘related’ IT and data sciences roles, such as systems and software engineers, data analysts and scientists, business analysts, and design engineers. Some of the top skill requirements in regional geospatial job postings include information systems, programming in Python, data manipulation, and algorithm development, in addition to knowledge of core geosciences—a clear demand for ‘hybrid’ skill sets.”
Sagan thinks this could be remedied with outside-the-box thinking in academia. “The only way to do this is to look at our curriculum, look at the market and changing landscape, and adapt our education programs to the changing market,” he says. “St. Louis is becoming a global hub and center for geospatial science, research, and development. It takes time, for sure, but I have no doubt that that’s coming.”
Telling stories like Sagan’s—how a career in tech and geospatial can help solve some of the world’s most pressing issues—is something that Dearing believes GeoFutures and St. Louis will need to do while growing the workforce.
“For today’s youth, it’s not about the paycheck,” Dearing says. “I mean, granted, they love the paycheck, but it’s about the impact. And so that’s our opportunity—this industry is highly impactful.
“The future job in geospatial is not going to be a mapmaker,” he adds. “That’s what the NGA needed 30 to 40 years ago. Tomorrow’s geospatial professional is somebody who can take all of this data and solve problems with it, using maps as a means to tell the story. We’ve got to figure out how to tell those narratives and provide those pathways to grow here. I think that’s how we not only grow the talent here but also keep this talent here.”
Supporting Women in the Workplace
THE PANDEMIC HAS DISPROPORTIONATELY IMPACTED WOMEN, BUT SOME ST. LOUIS PROGRAMS ARE WORKING TO ADDRESS THAT.
As a little girl, Sara Lopez would arrange her dolls and stuffed animals as if they were seated in a classroom, waiting for the day’s lesson. For as long as she can remember, the 43-year-old wanted to become a teacher. She’s followed that track for more than two decades while working as a teacher’s aide, a parent liaison, and, for the past four years, as an educational specialist with the Higher Education Consortium of Metropolitan St. Louis. But Lopez recently reconsidered whether she wants to spend the next 20 years in education. “It’s getting tiring,” she says.
With the help of Rung for Women, a nonprofit focused on helping women advance their careers, Lopez enrolled in the geospatial analyst training program through Maryville University, with the hope of restarting her career in St. Louis’ burgeoning tech industry.
In some ways, Lopez is lucky. She’s actively choosing to make a career change. But in recent months, many other women haven’t had that luxury. The unemployment rate for women reached as high as 16.2 percent in the immediate wake of the pandemic but has since dropped to less than 5 percent. And yet that drop comes with a caveat: Many women have left the workforce due to child care and other issues, and they are no longer counted in those unemployment figures. Some of that is because of difficulties with reentering the workforce at the same leadership level as when they left.
“I think the pandemic set us back at least 10 years,” says Leslie Gill, Rung’s president. “Women were just starting to make gains in leadership roles and supervisory roles at large companies. Now they’re having to leave those organizations and re-enter at a different level. That’s why Rung is so necessary. We can reskill quickly and get more women into leadership-level pathways and into careers where they have a quick path to leadership.”
Although women comprise approximately half of the country’s professional workforce, they account for only 34 percent of STEM workers, according to data compiled by the National Science Foundation. Yet progress is being made toward creating more opportunities for women to break into fields that have traditionally been dominated by men. For instance, LaunchCode’s CoderGirl program is an initiative focused on teaching women how to code, while NPower, a national program with a branch at Harris-Stowe State University, is designed to give people who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM the training and connections they need to break into tech jobs.
“We’re seeing a lot of interest from women who want to pursue new careers, specifically in technology and geospatial,” Gill says. “These are fields where women have historically been underrepresented, so there are a lot of opportunities for training and certification. You can earn a certification for an entry-level geo-analyst job in four months. You can upskill quickly, and you can get into a field that pays a good wage and has growth potential while having a lot of flexibility and the possibility of working remote.”
For Lopez, a first-generation college student, shifting career paths in her 40s has sometimes felt like a daunting task. She admits she’s reluctant to leave a familiar field for a job that, until recently, she never pictured herself pursuing. But Lopez also hopes that her leap of faith helps the children she’s worked with to see that career possibilities await them.
“Part of me was like, ‘Am I sure I want to continue with this?’” Lopez says. “The other part of me was like, ‘You have the resources. Take advantage of them. When are you going to get this opportunity again?’”
A New Nest
WHEN THE PANDEMIC SHUT DOWN NEW YORK CITY, ENTREPRENEURIAL COUPLE CHRIS AND REBECCA VAN BERGEN REIMAGINED THE OFFICE AND MOVED TO ST. LOUIS.
When Chris and Rebecca van Bergen opened a midtown Manhattan office a dozen years ago for their fledgling nonprofit, Nest, they felt like New York City was the place they had to be. Nest provides training to artisans whose handcrafts are their way of life and connects them with brands that want to incorporate fair-trade practices into their business. At the time, being in New York seemed like the only way that Nest could be a part of the philanthropic community and have ready access to their brand partners.
“I think that was really reflective of the way business was done,” Chris says. “If you didn’t have a presence there, you’d be asked, ‘Well, why aren’t you in New York?’”
Turns out, there are lots of good reasons not to be there. When the pandemic washed into NYC in March 2020, Nest’s office—like nearly every other one in the Big Apple—went dark. Moving to remote work was necessary, but once it happened, the van Bergens began questioning whether a shift back to in-person work would be necessary, too. Suddenly, the future of work became the present. Nest no longer needed to be in New York, and neither did its 22 employees. So in the summer of 2021, the van Bergens transitioned Nest to a fully remote work environment and moved to St. Louis, where Rebecca was born and earned her degree in social work from Washington University.
“Once we made that decision, it really opened up a world of opportunities for us,” Chris says. Some of the obvious benefits included not paying exorbitant rent rates on a nonprofit’s income in an expensive city, which allowed Nest to reallocate that money to other priorities, such as programs to support makers and to help employees set up home offices and arrange for childcare. It also gave the staff insights into the lives of the makers, who are based out of their homes.
“To be such advocates for that style of work and not offer a very generous home-based work package to our employees felt a little contradictory,” Rebecca says.
Other benefits appeared as well. Nest quickly found that because it was no longer hiring to a specific location, its job-candidate pool could be larger and more diverse. The pivot to remote work also eliminated burdensome city commutes and made day-to-day scheduling more flexible for employees, improving work/life balance in the process.
That’s not to say there haven’t been hiccups. It takes longer for new employees to adjust to their positions while onboarding from afar. When conversations and collaborations can’t happen organically, like they might in a typical office setting, Chris says it’s important to be more deliberate about creating opportunities to interact. Staff retreats and field immersions are some of the ways that Nest is trying to maintain cohesion.
Overall, the nonprofit is fulfilling the same mission that it has for the past 15 years. Only now, the van Bergens are doing so from St. Louis. Moving back to Rebecca’s hometown hasn’t just been about being closer to family. It’s also allowed them to see the importance of their work firsthand. Makers United, a Nest program focused on fostering a diverse, inclusive makers market, has been operational in St. Louis for more than a year.
“The maker scene here is awesome, and we’ve loved getting to know people at the Delmar Maker District,” Rebecca says. “Small business in New York is hard to come by, honestly, because the costs are too high. But all these great development projects that are happening here—Made, Craft Alliance, Delmar Divine—are all happening simultaneously. It provides a really great energy.”
That makes a question like, “Why aren’t you in New York?” a lot easier to answer.
This story is from the December 15 edition of The Big Think newsletter. Subscribe to The Big Think to read about the people and policies transforming St. Louis, delivered every other Wednesday.
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