Continuing on our quest to interrogate the experts populating our city, I met with Dr. Jerome Katz, the Coleman Chair of Entrepreneurship at Saint Louis University. He agreed to meet me for coffee at a Bread Company in West County, where he tells me about his journey, the state of entrepreneurship in St. Louis, and how he wound up in his variety of acclaimed roles.
Dr. Katz is a formidable man, towering well over six feet tall, his face obscured by a salt and pepper beard. Perfectly professorial, he’s drinking a glass of iced tea and eating a bagel when I meet him. He’s keenly aware of how easily he can intimidate people with his pedigree and accomplishments as much as his stature. He is kind and gentle, not just with his words, but how he says them. They come out softly and easily, as though he goes through the world sharing worldly advice and parenting roomfuls of people at a time. “Between us, I’m irrelevant at this stage. People like you are relevant,” he tells me. “I’m sixty-one years old. St. Louis is betting, probably correctly so, that I’m pretty much going to be here. But you’re young, you have a whole world of opportunities in front of you. Why are you in St. Louis? And that’s where the concern is and where the challenge is, and because of that, where the excitement is.”
Dr. Katz is hardly irrelevant. He received his Ph.D at the University of Michigan in 1981, taught at UPenn’s prestigious Wharton School, started his own consulting business while still an undergraduate at Rhodes College, which he later sold for a small fortune, has authored nearly a hundred papers contributing to entrepreneurial discourse, sits on the board of several scholarly journals, and wrote his own textbook for entrepreneurship classes, which is now used by over 200 other schools across the country.
But he’s focused on the next generation of entrepreneurs. “We need to keep stepping up our game to give our young people a reason to stay here, and give other young people a reason to come here,” he says. “Having every franchise, chain of food and beverage and coffee is not going to make St Louis more exciting… …The things that’ll make St. Louis exciting are the businesses that are started by vibrant young people.” They’ve taken notice as well. Dr. Katz has earned a coveted “Hot” rating on the website www.RateMyProfessors.com, where students can rate professor performance, and many teachers have met a less-than-favorable fate.
Dr. Katz’s variety of experiences, which, if you ask him, have been equally important to his entrepreneurship education as his doctorate, include partying with Elvis in Graceland, slinging car tires in assembly lines, moving out of his parent’s house while still a teenager, working a litany of odd jobs to pay for his undergraduate education, and participating in not one, but three Ph.D programs. These are the types of examples, or stories he’ll use to both entertain and teach students about real-world applications of entrepreneurial principles, as his students note. One remarks “he taught through examples in his own life,” and another urges SLU students to “go to class and listen to him.” And he still signs off on his emails as “Jerry” instead of “Dr. Katz.”
Today, there aren’t as many indicators of his past life growing up in Memphis as there once were, the kid whose first foray into entrepreneurship was selling car parts in the family business. “I was 350 pounds,” he says. “Imagine a teenage kid, 350 pounds, always dressed in a blue jean jacket, blue jeans, pair of cowboy boots, [and] a really big Jew fro,” he says. I try to reconcile the image with how he appears today: well-groomed, wearing a sharp, polished suit, shiny shoes, and a pair of glasses that someone like Benjamin Franklin would totally wear.
The same year he took a job selling auto parts, he moved out on his own while still a teenager. All he says about it is, “My father and I had a disagreement. And he was right.”
“That must have been hard,” I tell him.
“I don’t think of it as such,” says Dr. Katz. “It was downright peculiar, but peculiar in my family was pretty normal.”
While Dr. Katz had a tumultuous relationship with his father during his teenage years, it is complicated. He also takes enormous pride in his heritage. “I’m the least interesting person in my family,” he says, with a self-deprecating laugh. He tells me about his mother and father, who were Jews living in Poland, and emigrated to the U.S. after World War II. Both had survived concentration camps. His mother, Nina, was sent to Auschwitz, and his father was moved around several times.
His mother has been extremely verbal about her experiences in order to spread awareness. In a 1997 article from the Memphis Daily News, she said, “‘This is what I must do. I must go out and tell the world of what happened over there. What happened over there could happen anyplace, anytime in our future.’” Of the 3,000 at her camp, only 800 survived.
Soon after, she reunited with Morris, Dr. Katz’s father and her childhood sweetheart, who had also survived. In a 2004 article about her experience, Nina Katz said she “‘had searched for [Morris] but had heard he had died, but he found me… …I told him I thought he had died and he replied, he wouldn’t do a stupid thing like that.’” They spent four years in a displaced persons camp, married, and came to America to settle in Memphis.
“Their war experiences made it hard for them to do things like take orders,” says Dr. Katz, as the ambient sounds of blenders running, coffee brewing, and bread baking murmur with punchy, staccato inflections in the background, grotesquely light and flippant in comparison to the weighty subject matter of our conversation. “The best way for them to cope would be to have a business of their own.” Upon settling in Memphis, Dr. Katz’s father started a business. He used to work with his father as a kid, doing everything from stocking and mopping to inventory and working with customers. He grew up around entrepreneurs, and their philosophies became ingrained in his very being.
To make a business work, Dr. Katz believes in starting from the ground up. Working in his father’s shop and selling auto parts in his earlier years taught him humility, respect, and how to work hard. In this regard, Dr. Katz had an advantage over others attempting to break into entrepreneurship. His earliest years taught him the best lessons.
“Do you think it’s important for entrepreneurs to have that ground level experience?” I ask. He firmly nods. Nothing is a replacement for it, and his experiences on the ground level of companies continued into college, which he paid for entirely himself. He played music and worked at a Firestone tire plant to finance his education at Rhodes College, formerly Southwestern at Memphis when he was there. He’d lift and toss tire after tire from one assembly line to another for hours.
“Entrepreneurship education really doesn’t make you ready to be the next Steve Jobs. It doesn’t make you ready to make you the next Bill Gates…we basically make sure you don’t make the dumb mistakes that will put you down here,” he says, motioning to the bottom end of a hypothetical performance spectrum with his hands. “We move your minimum level of performance so that you will survive. For a lot of businesses, that’s an enormous difference.”
As part of the program, Saint Louis University invites visiting entrepreneurs to participate, network, and speak to students. Allowing students to learn from entrepreneurs in the field helps contribute to a healthy ecosystem of networking, allowing the environment here to thrive. “In the past two years, there’s been explosive growth,” he says. “The community is paying more attention,” he says. “It convinces entrepreneurs that they are valued.”
“When entrepreneurs come into our classes and see the sorts of stuff we’re able to do, they just turn to our students and say, ‘If I had the kind of training you had, I would have avoided mistakes that cost me thousands.’” He would know, from experience. At twenty, Dr. Katz implemented the talents and knowledge of his teachers and channeled them into his own consulting business, J.A. Katz and Associates. Dr. Katz also played live shows and recorded a few albums, a vocation which turned a profit and significantly contributed to his vast reservoir of experiences.
“You know the Jungle Room, at Graceland?” he asks me. Years ago, he went to a party, thrown by Elvis, in which anyone in the music industry made it onto the guest list. Elvis had a wall where he’d let musicians carve their initials, his way of letting them leave a mark on the world, in some way.
“I was given permission by him, to carve my initials,” says Dr. Katz between sips of iced tea. “This was sort of like rite of passage. You’ve achieved something.”
“You knew Elvis?” I ask.
“Well, let’s put it this way…he’d throw, in effect, the Christmas party for the music industry of Memphis, from the highest of the high to the lowest of the low. And there, right there, scraping the bottom with the lowest, was me,” he says, laughing. “The whole place was open to us. Food and drink…” I can see him going back there in his mind. I look at him, my mouth falling open, slightly aghast at the highly respected college professor before me, opening up this storage unit of his past lives and sorting through it.
Forty years later, he went to Graceland to visit the room with his wife and children, and they saw the carving up close. The kids were incredulous. “‘Mom, do we believe dad’s stories?’” one of them asked. “My wife, who’s a clinical psychologist, and is completely unflappable, said, ‘The crazier the story, the more likely it is to be true.’”
Stories like this do not match up at all with the Dr. Katz before me today. The imprints he leaves on the world take a different shape, an earned capability. Upon graduating from college, Dr. Katz embarked on a variety of academic programs. According to him, his Ph.D “took three tries,” and he achieved “two ABD’s: All But Dissertated, and one time all the way through.” All three were psychology programs: one in clinical psychology, one in industrial psychology, and one in organizational psychology.
However, Dr. Katz had an important epiphany before completing the former two programs. “I woke up one morning and realized I didn’t want to work with crazy people anymore,” he says. “which is not a good attitude for a clinical psychologist.” Eventually, he wound up in the University of Michigan PhD program in the field of organizational psychology instead, and was awarded his doctorate in May of 1981.
This is why Dr. Katz is so awesome. He’s a combination brilliance, humility, and lightheartedness that is totally rare, and a perfect example of the type of academic you’ll find in St. Louis. Intellectuals as well-decorated as Dr. Katz frequently run the risk of being stuffy, pompous, or inaccessible, sometimes all at once. He’s completely aware of the stereotypes, and answers with accessibility, constant snapshots into his teenage years, his formative experiences, and family life, as if to say, “I am not who you think I am.”
Before he leaves, Dr. Katz pulls out a battered brown leather wallet that he carries with him at all times. Inside, there are several family photos covered behind clear plastic sleeves that glint in the afternoon light as he turns them towards me, proudly displaying his family. His face is a weathered compilation of his experiences, marked by a kindness flickering over it that has always been there. Whatever pain, fear, and tragedy that he has surely experienced in the sixty-one years he has spent on this planet has not extinguished that flame. Under any normal circumstances, you would absolutely never know any of these things about him. We never know what people are carrying around with them, until we ask.
For more information about Dr. Jerome Katz, visit http://eweb.slu.edu/