Social entrepreneurs share tips for starting, growing businesses at Wash U event

Founders of socially minded startups from the St. Louis area gathered Wednesday for the latest installment of the St. Louis Venture Panel Series.

The panel, hosted by Washington University’s Skandalaris Center, was aimed at answering questions about becoming an entrepreneur.

Here are a few key points made by the founders on the panel:

Remain centered when making choices

Meghan Winegrad, founder of Generopolis, an ecommerce site that donates most of its proceeds to charity, said she established a set of values when creating her business, which went live in February. She returns to those values each time she is presented with a choice.

“(Focus on) what’s the next right thing, what’s the next right thing I can do that’s going to give me a learning opportunity and valuable skills which will then open up a bunch of other opportunities,” Winegrad said. “You know (the answer) inside of you. So follow that, because you will do good things when you do, and you’re not going to shine when you go against that.”

Charli Cooksey, the founder and CEO of WePower, an advocacy group for communities in St. Louis, said she creates a list of values she wants her business to stick to. She also makes a list of time-stamped goals for the future of her business.

“We constantly go back to our manifesto — what (are) our beliefs are, our values, and how do I show them through this work?” Cooksey said. “As long as we’re laser-focused on the end goal — whether that’s the 12-month end goal, the five-month end goal — I think we … see the day-to-day things that are thrown our way as inevitable pieces of the journey that we use as learning opportunities.”

Andrew Glantz, founder and CEO of GiftAMeal, a restaurant marketing app that helps users donate meals to the needy, said he finds it important to remind himself of his goals as he makes tedious actions or decisions. He and the other entrepreneurs said it’s important to stay focused on goals throughout the process.

“Doing all the small things and then seeing how those make an impact on the business is important and is more motivating for me,” Glantz said. “Not the most fun thing in the world is scheduling social media posts about our partner restaurants, but one social media post led to another restaurant reaching out to us. … It’s seeing the reason why you’re doing this.”

Change your characterization of ‘failure’

The entrepreneurs said they don’t view failure as a setback, but as an opportunity to learn and refine goals. Glantz said he is constantly adjusting in pursuit of his company’s goals.

“The very original version I had for GiftAMeal failed in about two months,” Glantz said. “For me, I imagine being a CEO as having a bunch of darts going toward a dartboard in slow motion. … Not all of them are going to hit, some of them will hit the ground, but then I can try to get at least one of them to hit in order to make something successful.”

Michael Woods of Dream Builders 4 Equity, a program that employs at-risk teens to rebuild abandoned parts of north St. Louis, said he embraces failure and encourages his team to take risks.

“I think the real distinction (between) education and experience is just going out there and failing as much as you can,” Woods said. “And then you go out there and you have a little more insight than the rest of the world, and (it) gives you a competitive advantage.”

Create meaningful relationships

The panelists said at first, it’s important to engage with potential mentors and others you admire in your field.

“To the extent that you can, it’s really important to pay things forward without the expectation of receiving something,” Winegrad said. “Become an asset or resource to people that you admire, or just everyday people. … You will grow your mentoring network and just your network period if you show that you are a giver and not just a taker.”

The entrepreneurs said that once a business is established, building a team with many skills will help advance it.

“Inevitably, when you’re starting something, you won’t likely be an expert at everything — it’s just nearly impossible,” Cooksey said. “And so you build a team of folks (who you can lean on). Investing in yourself is very important, and then as you grow in starting your company, investing in your team is really important as well.”

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