Jim McKelvey Q&A: Move buzz, LaunchCode expansion and more

Jim McKelvey is an e-commerce pioneer, inventor, artist and St. Louisan. He is the co-founder of mobile payment service Square and is a large supporter of tech education and entrepreneurship in St. Louis and beyond through LaunchCode, a training and apprenticeship program designed to prepare individuals for work in tech, and through his involvement with organizations such as SixThirty, ArchGrants, T-REX and Cultivation Capital. McKelvey is also a master glassblower and owner of the Third Degree Glass Factory in St. Louis.

McKelvey is not only a co-founder of Square, a mobile payments company, but sits on the boards of major St. Louis startups such as Lockerdome and organizations such as Cultivation Capital | Austin Huguelet/Missouri Business Alert
Jim McKelvey | Austin Huguelet/Missouri Business Alert

With buzz swirling about a rumored departure from the region, Missouri Business Alert recently interviewed McKelvey about the future of LaunchCode, the performance of programs such as SixThirty and Cultivation Capital and why his skip down to Miami does not spell goodbye.

This interview has been edited for length and content.

Missouri Business Alert: With the article that the St. Louis Business Journal just published on Thursday (July 31) about your move to Miami, the title makes it sound like you are moving there specifically to start a LaunchCode branch there, but in the article itself it says it’s more of a possibility. I was just wondering if I could get some clarification on that.

Jim McKelvey: So I was sort of surprised that that article came out. My wife and I have had a place in Miami for years, and we’re down there most winters. It just turned out that with my son needing to start school, we picked a school in Miami as opposed to a school in St. Louis this year. But as far as a move goes, I mean, I don’t know why this year’s any different from the last nine. So I was sort of surprised that they went with that angle to the story. It didn’t seem like it was particularly unique or relevant. But, you know, it is true we have a place down there and it’s great and a lot of friends and I’ve been offered some very generous help with LaunchCode to get it off the ground. So it will be the second city probably for LaunchCode. It’s great because it’s a different environment, a totally different business climate and it will be a very good test of the efficacy of the system in a different city.

MBA: So at this time it’s not a definite that there is going to be another LaunchCode branch in Miami?

JM: Oh, there will be. Oh yeah, we’re gonna do it. But if you ask me what our street address is, I don’t have one. I have so many offers for office space that I need to go pick one and see what—you know, we have to assemble a team, some of the team will come down from St. Louis, we don’t know, but it’s our next test.

MBA: Do you have any idea of a timeline on that or no?

JM: Well I’m moving down September 1, so that’s…my wife and son will be there two weeks earlier, but we’ll have things under way mid-September.

MBA: Aside from LaunchCode, what other projects will you be working on after your move to Miami?

JM: Exactly the same thing—I mean, I’ll still be working at Third Degree, still be involved with T-REX, still be involved with Cultivation Capital and SixThirty. I’ll still be on the board of Square. I’ll still be—I’ve probably got 20 other companies in various capacities that I work with or advise in some way. I do some speaking and traveling and none of that changes.

MBA: With that, do you plan to stay in Miami for a few years? For longer?

JM: No! We’re going to be down there for a while. We’ll be back here (St. Louis) for a while. We’ll be in Boston for a while. We’ll be going as we need to.

MBA: It says in the article that you considered other cities for expansion of LaunchCode, such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Denver and somewhere on the West Coast. I was wondering if there were any plans in place at this time for expansions into any of those areas.

JM: There are plans, but none of them concrete. We’re working now with various partners, and those partner organizations have their own priorities as well. So we’re taking our priority list, we’re matching it with edX and Harvard. We have some other institutions that are going to be participating and all of them have votes. So we’ve, we’re keeping it open right now.

MBA: Since you mentioned the organizations and projects you’ll still be involved with, how will you still be involved with specific things such as SixThirty, ArchGrants, Cultivation Capital, etc.?

JM: The same way I am now, which is fly in when I have to, phone in when I can and always make myself available.

MBA: Aside from expansion, are there any other LaunchCode projects currently in the works that are at the point of being revealed?

JM: Nothing yet, but we’ll have a big announcement probably in a month. There’s something very large on the horizon, but I can’t absolutely put an official word on it. But LaunchCode is going very well, and I think you’ll hear one or two major things every month from now on.

MBA: Also too, since it’s one of the last big things that LaunchCode has done so far in the last couple of months—Coder Girl—what is your view on the success of that so far?

JM: I was overwhelmed. I mean, when we had 300 people sign up from Colleen (Liebig)’s little Facebook posting it was a true signal that there was a demand by women for their own coding experience, and it fared well. Now we have Rosa Mayer from LaunchCode, who is running the operation. She’s also talking the class, I believe. And Rosa’s fantastic. She built T-REX. So we have real, real powerhouse talent there, and the ladies who are going through that are all doing it for their own reasons, and I can’t speculate on those, but I would imagine a lot of them want jobs and we’ll get them those jobs. As a matter of fact, we need more women. We have certain companies that I can’t mention that are just hiring women. They’re just targeting females. We’ve slipped a guy in now and then, but we’ve got a couple of companies that are saying “we want more women engineers,” and so we’re trying to provide that as quickly as we can.

MBA: What, in your view, have been some of the biggest successes as of late with, you know, we talked about LaunchCode, but also SixThirty just getting the grant from the St. Louis Regional Chamber’s Accelerate St. Louis, and ArchGrants and Cultivation Capital?

JM: Well, I mean, that’s a big deal. I think SixThirty is continuing to get strong companies, and that’s actually something I’m working on this afternoon. As soon as I hang up from this call we’re reviewing the next group. So I’m very happy with the way that’s progressing. Obviously, it’s too early to see how the performance of some of the early classes have been, but I totally think they’re very good.

MBA: How about ArchGrants and Cultivation Capital also?

JM: I mean, ArchGrants is fantastic. It’s been making very good—it’s been giving great visibility on the national scene. The companies, again, are very strong. There’s a company called WonderWolf, which is a FitBit for dogs that I’ve been working with pretty closely. I think they’re really cool. And then Cultivation has a very strong portfolio of companies that’s a little more selective. I mean, it’s probably a tougher thing to get a Cultivation investment than to get a seed grant from ArchGrants, but both are actually very selective groups, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what Cultivation’s announce-able results are going to be. I think it’s doing spectacularly, and unfortunately I can’t tell you specifically about the things, but I’m really happy about both of those.

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