10 St. Louis leaders share insights on how things get done

THE SCIENCE OF INNOVATION

PFIZER’S CHRISTINE SMITH AND T-REX’S PATTY HAGEN

Christine Smith is a vice president at Pfizer and heads up the Biotherapeutics Pharmaceutical Sciences group out of the Chesterfield and Andover, Massachusetts, locations. The Chesterfield research and development team played a crucial role in creating the company’s COVID-19 vaccine. Patty Hagen is the executive director of T-REX, a nonprofit innovation and entrepreneur development facility located downtown. It operates a technology startup incubator and will soon open a new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency lab, Moonshot Labs.

Of all the things science and technology can do, what is the most powerful?

CS: One of the most important things that scientists can do is continue to ask questions. You have to ask the right questions, commit to learning every day, and adapt. That’s definitely what we had to do last year when we were developing the COVID-19 vaccine.

PH: The democratization of information and the speed at which information can be shared have great impact. Think about George Floyd and how that video captured the attention of people globally almost immediately—and then how society responded to that video, again globally. Those are things that I think are huge game changers for both our community and for the world. But we also face a lot of challenges around that: What’s good information? What’s bad information? How do we create methods and tools for helping people understand those differences? These are big questions, and we really need to deal with them as a democratic society.

What’s next for science and tech?

PH: We’re going to be building an extended-reality lab, which was sort of seeded by the pandemic—the need for creating new ways for people to interact virtually beyond Zoom and to deliver education to students. If you can imagine, you can teach someone to assemble an automobile engine as an avatar. You can interact in a chemistry lab with your cohort, with your colleagues, with your teacher in a virtual reality situation. Some locations are building digital twins of their cities, and that helps urban planners be able to assess how best to deploy emergency resources, police planning, how to deal with underground infrastructure.

CS: What we’re looking at is How else can we use this messenger RNA modality? Right now, we’re in a collaboration with BioNTech for this COVID vaccine using messenger RNA, and it worked. Now, can we use it in other areas?

How do you define success in your field?

CS: We have a new slogan, that we’re creating breakthroughs that change patients’ lives, and it’s never been more appropriate. This is what we have been doing—applications in oncology, inflammation, and immunology; our gene therapy programs in rare disease—that’s success for me. That’s what I want to talk about when I’m with my friends and family… It’s a noble mission. And it’s not easy.

PH: When we talk about success at T-REX, we think about success for the startups, but we also have to report metrics. We look at things like jobs created and grants awarded, how much inclusive activity is taking place. We’ve had over 5,000 jobs created since we started and over $620 million in annual economic output. But it’s almost case management, because each of these companies have their own specific needs. It’s more than just the metrics. It’s really focused on the individual companies.

How did you rise to the top of your field?

CS: I’ve tried to surround myself with people who are different than me. My glass is full all the time, but sometimes I need someone who will say [in a skeptical tone] “Wait a minute; let’s stop and think about how to approach this from a different perspective.” I need different perspectives at the table. I think I’ve been successful also because I am relatively quick to establish relationships. Because of that, I can be very open and honest with people, and they are, I hope, open and honest with me. I honor different diversities and approaches, and I’m flexible. My mind can be changed, absolutely, because I know I don’t know everything. But if I have a strong leadership team around me, we can do things that we didn’t think we could do, as evidenced by last year.

What makes someone successful in the tech and entrepreneurial world?

PH: We were talking about Elon Musk yesterday. Whatever you think about him, the guy is relentless. He cannot help but invent new things, think big thoughts, and pursue those things. Those are the kinds of qualities that I see in the most successful entrepreneurs. They are insatiable in terms of their curiosity.

What do you wish science and tech could change?

PH: A lot of our challenges are due to the digital divide. We really need to address how we can ensure that students across the spectrum have access to the tools and resources on the internet, so that they have a fighting chance to be successful. We’re not providing that as a society right now, and that’s happening both in underserved neighborhoods and in rural communities. In rural America, if you think about precision agriculture, it can really only work if there is good broadband access, good internet access.

CS: I wish we had a cure for cancer. Doesn’t everybody? We have made so much progress in the last decade and with immunotherapy approaches to extend life, but we need to cure the damn thing.

INVESTING IN COMMUNITY

THE URBAN LEAGUE OF METROPOLITAN ST. LOUIS’ MICHAEL MCMILLAN AND DREAM BUILDERS 4 EQUITY’S MICHAEL WOODS

Named the St. Louis American’s 2020 Person of the Year, Michael McMillan helms the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, which has held more than 25 mass-distribution events during the pandemic, handing out $4.2 million worth of food, toiletries, masks, and hand sanitizer to more than 90,000 families. Dream Builders 4 Equity executive director Michael Woods and Neal Richardson, who now serves as the organization’s president, both grew up in under-resourced communities and had experience in investment properties, so they started hiring a cohort of teens to rehab houses in such places as Hyde Park and Lewis Place.

How were your organizations started?

MM: The Urban League here in St. Louis was founded, sadly, after the crisis of the East St. Louis race massacre [in 1917], and we were also founded in the midst of the Spanish flu. It’s like history has repeated itself in the form of now dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and the racial justice issues that were really brought about last year after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others.

MW: It happened just because we were sitting on [co-founder Neal Richardson’s] couch, talking about How do we give the information that we have now? Neal has some investment properties, and I have investment properties. I have also published four books, and I ran a gym. So we bottled up all of our lived experiences and put it into this program.

MM: I love the fact that you all are partners on that. My only piece of unrequested advice to you all is always stick together and stay strong, because whether they say it or not, the fact that [the high school kids] see you all together, that is an inspiration.

Tell me about how your organizations have responded to the pandemic.

MM: As opposed to giving out food, clothing, toiletries, and all the things that we do at our three food banks throughout the community, we had to pivot to these large-scale events. We also do home deliveries, because not everyone has a car. And we’re continuing to expand that housing assistance, because we don’t want people to end up homeless because of COVID. We have also pivoted our employment department, because even in the middle of COVID, people are still hiring.

MW: This [pandemic] has been a true struggle for everyone involved, but one of the bright spots of 2020 was that people actually started paying attention to Black-led organizations, Dream Builders being one of them. Our organization has actually grown through this. Typically, with Dream Builders, we will do one property per year, and we will have a cohort of 15 young people whom we work with, but in 2020, we purchased around five properties. Plus, we have about 50 residents who we were doing free lawn care service for, and we invested about $50,000 into home renovations. We’re starting to scale. I want to thank the community, but I’m asking people to not just let this be a trend for 2020.

MM: The key is that this is a movement, not a moment. This is something beyond just “I’m going to make a charitable contribution in response to the death of George Floyd.” It’s hopefully going to be an institutionalized change in thought that no matter who is the president and CEO of a company, no matter who is the charitable director at that time, that it is ingrained into who these different companies and others are.

What are some changes that you think you’ll make after the pandemic? I read that the Urban League was going to focus on its Block Federation. Would you tell me a little more about that?

MM: Absolutely. The actual Federation of Block Unions is our oldest auxiliary. It was started in 1932 by one of my predecessors, named John Clark. The block unit is simply that: Everybody on that block, let’s say, the 3900 block of Wabada, would come together, and say, “We want this to be a safe, stable, healthy, substantial community.” The Urban League [also] has a Block Is Beautiful campaign, where we try to get individuals to take pride in their block to keep the neighborhood clean. It’s basically people taking an ownership and a pride in their own area.

MW: That’s the most important thing as far as how are we going to see a real transformation, especially in North St. Louis. We have to get that pride back. Dream Builders is focusing on that in Hyde Park. It’s a community that I live in, so I’m extremely passionate about it. Our goal is to rehab 25 properties in Hyde Park over the next five years and do 25 home renovations for seniors. We’re going to do five rehabs and five renovations per year.

How do you define success?

MW: Seeing our young people grow: Are our young people employed? Are they in school? Do they have real skills that they can take into the workforce? And then, when we talk about the community, are we really effecting change? Can you go into the neighborhoods that we serve, and can you see a difference? Is that community more excited about the future?

MM: My own success would be to hope that the Lord would bless me to be able to continue on with this work for another 25 years. And at the conclusion of those 25 years, to see an overall systemic change when we deal with metrics related to jobs, economic opportunity, educational advancement, homeownership, wealth, and the overall desire for St. Louis to be a more inclusive, welcoming, equitable region that is living the dream of Dr. [Martin Luther] King.

THE LENGTHS & LIMITS OF LAW

BRYAN CAVE LEIGHTON PAISNER’S LIZ BLACKWELL AND TUETH KEENEY’S JIM LAYTON

Liz Blackwell is a partner and litigator at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner. She has defended agricultural, food, and consumer product manufacturers at trial in high-stakes civil cases across the country. She’s also done pro bono work for victims of domestic violence and volunteered with the ACLU of Missouri. Jim Layton practiced for more than two decades at the Missouri Attorney General’s Office. For nearly all of that time, he served as Solicitor General —the State’s principal civil appellate lawyer. He is now of counsel at Tueth Keeney.

If you look at law as a tool, what’s the most influential thing you can do with it?

JL: In terms of the practice of law, it seems to me that the most influential things the law does are holding people and institutions accountable; stopping or slowing a process to demand a justification or explanation; and getting a definitive answer from a disinterested third party. Part of the reason that many of us are so concerned about criticisms of the judiciary that have grown over the last couple decades is that if judges lose their moral authority—if they don’t have respect from society—then we no longer have someone that can give that definitive, disinterested third-party answer to those questions. Our society needs someone like that.

LB: On a more personal level, the law helps people who think they’ve been wronged get to resolutions in ways that are socially acceptable and just and fair, as opposed to them having fistfights or pulling out their revolvers.

Is there anything you cannot do with the law that you wish you could?

JL: I can’t get answers from clients fast enough—it just takes too long—and this has gotten much, much worse in the pandemic.

LB: I would say you can’t prevent people from doing wrong things. I’ve done pro bono domestic violence work. I can get a restraining order prohibiting someone from coming within a certain number of feet of someone else; I can get that piece of paper, but it doesn’t promise that the person will comply. That’s outside the power of the law.

How do you define success for attorneys?

LB: Attorneys don’t get to decide cases; judges and juries do that. We don’t make the facts, either, but you can help the decision makers by ensuring that the facts relevant for your side get brought out and that you’re being an effective advocate and making the best argument. The other side does that, too, and if the process works the way it’s supposed to, you get to a just result in that back-and-forth. Trying to get your client the best possible outcome does not always mean winning. You could have winning as your goal, but that’s hard to achieve all of the time.

JL: There are lawyers for whom success is purely monetary. I must not be one of those,  because I chose for most of my career to make a government salary. Some of us view success less in terms of winning a case and making money and more in terms of how we’re contributing to how society functions.

Is there any way you’d change the practice of law if you could?

JL: I’m positive I’m in the minority on this, but I think we need to move toward the medical model, where we have different kinds of professionals. Since I was admitted to the bar, in 1982, the law has become increasingly specialized, and we’re at a point where it doesn’t serve clients well to have us all be generalists. So the idea is to have people who haven’t invested in three years of law school master particular areas at lower expense and serve some of the population that’s pro se [individuals representing themselves]. For example, you don’t need a law school degree to master landlord-tenant law, if that will be your focus. This would help the system better function and move things along.

LB: If I could change the practice of law, I would increase diversity among law firm partners. That’s become a big focus at a lot of firms, including my own. You lose out on the contributions of a lot of talented people by filling leadership positions with people who are all alike and come from similar backgrounds, so I’d like to see continued engagement on that. The other thing is more about attorney well-being: Some positive changes have resulted from the response to SARS-CoV-2. There’s more flexibility toward working from home, which has made life easier for some of us. Also, courts are more willing to have phone conferences, so you’re not spending half a day flying to a hearing that lasts 30 minutes. That reduces expenses for clients, which is good. Some of these changes will stick. I think that’ll be beneficial.

POWER IN POLITICS

REPRESENTATIVE SHAMED DOGAN AND FORMER LEGISLATOR JAMILAH NASHEED

Shamed Dogan is a Republican in the Missouri House of Representatives. His constituency is District 98, which includes parts of Ballwin, Ellisville, Fenton, and Wildwood. First elected in 2014, Dogan now serves as chairman of the House Special Committee on Criminal Justice. Jamilah Nasheed, a Democrat, spent six years in the House and eight years in the Missouri Senate, where she represented the half of the city that is District 5. She pushed through legislation related to education and criminal justice. She’s now a consultant.

Of all the things politicians can do, which changes society most?

SD: I think political leaders have a responsibility to lead people toward truth, first and foremost, to try to bring out the better angels of our nature instead of the worst by dividing people. Especially right now, with the partisan atmosphere we have, we’re going to disagree on a lot of different things, but there are solution-oriented people in both parties. That’s where you have to find allies and build coalitions to pass legislation.

JN: Passing legislation that impacts the quality of life of people who are usually not heard—that’s the most influential thing we can do. The base voted for me to go to Jefferson City not to be just an agitator who doesn’t get anything done. They wanted an elected official who could pass legislation, and I was able to do that without selling my soul to the devil.

So is passing legislation how you define success in politics?

JN: Being successful means that, at the end of the day, you can reflect and say, “Hey, I was never caught up in any scandals, and I was able to bring over a billion dollars home for different organizations that helped the most needy.”

SD: When I look back on my career, I ask myself, “Did you stick to your principles and the promises you made to yourself and your constituents and your family? And did you move the ball forward?” Those are things I think about. It’s not just winning elections; too many people get focused on that.

Is there anything politicians cannot do that you wish they could?

SD: Extending term limits would be helpful. By the time you figure out how to navigate the system and see who the players are and how to get things done on behalf of St. Louis, you get term-limited out.

JN: Politicians cannot legislate parental involvement. I think that a lot of our young girls are raising children without ever having parental guidance on how to raise a child. That’s one reason we see so much dysfunction and crime: because we have babies raising babies, and the cycle continues. It’s not for us to legislate good parenting skills, but we can put good resources and educational programs in place.

Who has too much power?

SD: Unfortunately, lobbyists and unelected bureaucrats in the executive branch departments have a lot of power, at all levels of government. One of the unintended consequences of eight-year term limits [for House members] is you give more power to them.   

JN: We have lobbyists with more institutional knowledge than officials the people voted in!

Who doesn’t have enough power?

JN: Black people in America. Our forefathers and ancestors worked in the cotton fields, and if it weren’t for those individuals that came over here unwillingly from the mother-land, America wouldn’t be what it is today… We have to break down the barriers of institutional racism and change the educational structure.

SD: One of the things I’ve told my colleagues, and they’re always shocked by this: In Missouri, the African-American community has twice as many people as the agriculture industry. I’m trying to move our party toward listening to and responding to this community, which is 12 percent of the state’s population. We talk a lot about prisons and poverty—and those issues are important—but the vast majority of the Black community is actually middle class. It’s a powerful community, and we need to act like it is.

How would you change politics?

JN: First, by working to get more African Americans involved. Many don’t believe politics works in their best interests, and they have reasons to feel that way: When you look south of Delmar, you see development and growth, but to the north, all you see is vacancy and decay. If we want to change the narrative, [investment] has to be equitable across the city.

SD: We need to look at doing nonpartisan elections in St. Louis County. There’s no partisan way to pave streets or provide trash service, and yet that’s a lot of what the county government does. It has nothing to do with abortion or hot-button topics on cable news. I’m a Republican, but I’m not a fire-breathing, do-whatever-the-party-tells-me-to-do Republican. I don’t think people should look at me or any county officials as if the D or R in front of their name is the most important thing about them.

UPBEAT & UNDETERRED

THE STAENBERG GROUP’S MICHAEL STAENBERG AND SOUTH SIDE SPACES’ JASON DEEM

Over his 45-year career, Michael Staenberg has developed and managed more than 200 shopping centers across the United States. At present, The Staenberg Group has $2 billion worth of retail development in the works, mainly in Chesterfield. Since 2004, South Side Spaces’ focus has been on renovating historic properties along Cherokee Street, a once thriving area that had been in disrepair until owner Jason Deem took a singular interest and began producing multi-function spaces, including Nebula, the first coworking venture in the city.

How does a developer define success?

MS: I look at success several ways: how my retailers are doing, how the community benefits, if it provides something the city is lacking, and whether I get a decent return… It’s not about making the fast dollar; it’s about doing what’s right.

JD: A successful development inspires additional development. It’s uplifting if one of our projects inspires other people to take an abandoned or vacant property and renovate it. Fortunately, it’s less risky to be the second guy in. We always hope for that piggyback effect.

What’s the most influential thing a developer can do?

MS: We try to be [tenants’] partner as much as their landlord: Have you thought about doing this? Did you know your competition was doing that? How can we best proceed together? Our managers and agents check in once a month to keep that dialogue going.

JD: One development doesn’t exist as an island. You have to consider the impact on those directly involved but also the project’s effect on the broader community… We consider how one business affects another.

How healthy was the commercial market prior to last March?

JD:    We had 100 percent occupancy in our buildings going into 2020. Right before the virus hit, we had a waiting list for the 11-unit commercial project we had just completed in Gravois Park. They’re all still there, but two of them never had their grand opening. It’s hard to get a small business off the ground in good times, let alone bad.

MS:   Internet shopping was definitely changing things. There was a decline of relevance of certain stores. Companies realized maybe they didn’t need three city locations, that one would suffice. This was starting before COVID… COVID just sped up the process.

Did you have to change the scope of certain projects or merely make adjustments?

MS:   We wanted to finish the Main Event and The Factory at the District, which will both open this summer… We take the longer view. We’re working on a pickleball concept, an iFLY, a comedy club, a cigar bar—a lot of entertainment ideas. When people feel more comfortable going out, we’ll be there with some new options.

JD: For the existing tenants, we were as flexible as possible and waived a number of lease requirements until we get to the other side. These buildings have stayed put for 50 or 100 years, so we didn’t want to make any major changes, based on a pandemic that may last one or two years.

Are there any constraints that you think should disappear?

MS: The world of development is evolving—more people are touching the ball. Cities need to quit looking at the internet: If they did it here and did it there… It doesn’t matter. You can’t just throw a one-size-fits-all raincoat on every development. Each is unique.

JD: The city needs an online plan review system. It’s very analog right now, especially amid COVID, when a lot of the building division is working from home… Blueprints are created on a computer. They should be able to be emailed, viewed as they progress through the different divisions, and ultimately get approved electronically.

How would you change the development process?

JD: I’d love to see St. Louis City incentivize the kind of development that we all want to see as a city. Incentives—things like tax abatement and TIFs—tend to be based on relationships rather than on data and independently verifiable criteria.

MS: You hear a lot about public finance, which is a great tool if it’s used right, which doesn’t always happen. Then people mumble and say, Well, let’s get rid of all public finance. It doesn’t work. It does work.

What will development look like moving forward?

MS: Drive-thru and pickup restaurants are doing well; service businesses are doing well. People are social animals—the internet’s not going to change that. But you will see fewer locations since people are now willing to drive that extra 10 minutes. The only thing I think will never come back is the mall. St. Louis will have one mall. That’s all you need.

JD: With interest rates low, residential investment and development in St. Louis will remain strong for the foreseeable future. Our company is focusing on several small development projects with commercial on the first floor and residential above. On a larger scale, the time might be right for some of the larger historic renovation projects, such as the Jefferson Arms building down-town, to get off the ground. That’s my hope.

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