Why St. Louis?
We are St. Louis, period. We are not an East or West Coast city, nor are we a Lake Michigan coast city. We were born on two mighty veins of water rushing through us. During the infancy of our great country, we were the furthest great city west before the vast, wild frontier. We pushed into the wilderness. One of our forefathers, James Eads, built a bridge perfecting technology that John Roebling borrowed to build his great suspension bridge in Brooklyn. We matured alongside the great cities of the East and were before those in the West. But enough of the past. The present is more relevant and interesting.
I hear about the crime stats all the time. Yes, there is crime in St. Louis. But, what we do not hear much about is the progress, movement, and reactualization of a forgotten city. People are doing great things here. St. Louis is a city for the brave and bold, with citizens that are taking risks and restoring what has been forgotten.
What many fail to see is that we have a 1.3B GDP economy (which is 1% of the GDP for the entire country). During the worst economic times our country has seen since The Depression, our city’s economy barely ticked down and has been growing since 2009. The entrepreneurial community is growing here. Tech startups, restaurant openings, and construction developments can be seen, heard, and felt. We take risks. These risks are progressing the landscape, the culture, and the world. We love being the underdog, seen as less significant, for we know the secret that greatness can come from the humble. It is true: St. Louis is not safe. We are dangerous.
Why The St. Louis Curator?
In short, we created it because we believe in the greatness of St. Louis and want to help further it.
To give you the longer version, it starts with my story. I graduated from seminary with the dream of starting a church in New York City. I loved St. Louis and never wanted to leave, but I always wanted to go to New York. I wanted to follow my dreams, my calling.
I got a position in a large influential church. I started working at one of their new churches in order to get experience to start my own. The church was in Flushing, Queens, with primarily Asian congregants. I think I was placed there because I look slightly Asian, but culturally I was different. Since St. Louis has never had the largest Asian population, especially when I was growing up, I was a mixture of cultures. After a year and a half of working at the Living Faith Community Church, I was fired.
My dream turned into a nightmare. I didn’t have a useful degree: a Bachelor’s degree in English and a Masters of Divinity. Most people in New York City didn’t even know what a Masters of Divinity was, so I had to call it a Masters of Theology. Even then, it wasn’t exactly marketable. A woman that I knew from Living Faith told me she had a temp job for me at Citigroup. What the hell did I know about banking? Not much. I didn’t know much about anything. But I did know I needed to stay in that city; my time wasn’t done.
At first I hated the job; especially the cubicles. It wasn’t that I lacked gratitude for the work. I had just never worked in an office before. I fell asleep at my desk a couple of times during my first six months there, but it all changed when I realized I could get things done in this global organization. I saw that I could have an impact on the world. I was working in Citi before the Great Recession, when it was still the largest bank in the world. I learned, worked, tried, and I flourished. Don’t get me wrong, I worked hard and long hours doing inglorious, menial work. Data entry was and still is data entry. However, during my time there I was promoted and grew professionally, emotionally, and mentally. I ended up getting a job in the front office, wore pinstriped suits to work everyday, and helped some of the wealthiest people in the world with their banking needs. I got an expense card and enjoyed using it. But it didn’t take long for me to see that I wanted to do something different.
Right before the stock market dropped into the abyss and Lehman was still around, I left my “secure job” and joined an interior design firm that started up. They had incredible partners with a wealth of experience, contacts, and talent. The partners were also my friends. So I took a pay cut and left Citi to become their Director of Business. It took about six months for me to realize that working in this position was not the right fit, and I was unwilling to risk my friendship with the partners to keep the job. So this time, I fired myself. But I jumped without a parachute: I didn’t have another job waiting for me.
I took a month to just think and pray. I flew back to my beloved hometown to get some great home-cooking and revisit some of the key places in my story. I wanted to remember who I was, the things I loved, the dreams I dreamed. I went back to the physical places in my story to conjure up those memories. The first place I went was my elementary school, then my high school, the seminary campus, and finally my previous church. Looking back helped me to move forward.
We were in the belly of the Recession, and fear was thick and pervasive. It was in the newspapers, on TV, and in our bones. I felt it too. But something happened right before I left Citi that helped me face it.
The COO of the Private Bank, the subsidiary of Citi in which I worked, died right before I left. He was in his early 50’s and at the top of his game. He was obviously successful, but what made him especially unique was that he was loved. His passing was sudden, caused by an aneurysm. Not only did his family mourn, but so did we at the bank.
I was reminded that I too am finite, and will die. And I better live recognizing that fact. This gave me the ability to try something I’ve never done before: I started a company. In fact I tried to start two, one that created websites and the other designed t-shirts.
Was I afraid? Of course. One of the major lessons I learned from the passing of my COO was that I could not live in fear. I had to face it, and push through my fear of failure. Besides, what’s the worst that could happen? I would go bankrupt and move back in with my family. Sure it would be embarrassing, but shame was not a strong enough deterrent to stop me from truly living with death on the horizon. After all, dead men feel no shame.
The t-shirt company failed, but the other didn’t. Even so, it definitely wasn’t an instant success. It took years for it to grow. I started in early 2008, so people weren’t exactly spending money. I did have some work, and I was very lucky. A client of mine from the bank gave me a great start.
In early 2009, I moved to San Diego. It wasn’t for the sun and beaches. I’m a Midwestern boy at heart and I love the crazy climate St. Louis has. I moved for a girl. After 7 months of 70 degree weather, blue skies, and countless fights with the girl, we broke up. I had had enough of the weather that made me feel like I was in The Truman Show. I made my way back to the land of hail and tornadoes.
What I didn’t mention was that I had essentially no new projects during my time out west, which meant I had no income. My first client (and friend) told me that there was a possibility for a large project with a nonprofit. It wasn’t like I was just waiting around during these seven months. I emailed, called, and hustled. I had exhausted my contacts and was left to prayer and watching Jon Stewart on Hulu (when it was still free). I waited. I even tried to apply online for some banking jobs. My fear of failure was becoming a reality. Bankruptcy for me was imminent.
Then my friend told me that the nonprofit wanted a proposal from me. I put one together on a Google Doc, and at that time I didn’t have an LLC. I only had my name as the service provider. I finished the proposal in two days and emailed it out with a prayer. Two weeks later they called me and asked me if I had time that week to fly out. I said, “Absolutely.” I used the last bit of money I had left and bought an overpriced plane ticket to New York City. I walked into their board room and they said, “We would love work with you.” I had just landed my largest client.
When I first moved back to St. Louis, all I could think about was getting away. I had a hard time dealing with the fact that I was back in my hometown. I might have seen it as some kind of failure, and I just wanted to be back in New York. So as soon as I moved back, I started to travel. I was away every month to various cities to hang out with friends and look for new clients. I ran away. Or I should say, I flew away. I became a snob. I had forgotten how much I loved St. Louis, and tried to get away as much as possible. After several months of this, I started to get tired of feeling unsettled. So, I made a decision.
I felt I needed to stay put for a few months to set some roots. At first, I thought it was just so I could make friends and settle into a church community. After the first month, my plan was working. I started to meet interesting people, from politicians to designers, to artists, and entrepreneurs. During this time, I even met my wife, Rachel. I also started to see the buildings. Oh, the glorious brick buildings. I was falling back in love with my hometown, and I was able to see it afresh. I saw my city through new eyes, and I was able to see the vast potential in St. Louis. I started to see the progress that the city was making. I started to sense the passion, the opportunity, the dreams. I started to see the greatness. Certainly it is not as overt as New York, but nonetheless it was there. It was just subtle and less mature. In fact, it was being reborn. And I wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to contribute to it. It was during this time, I realized that New York didn’t need someone like me, but St. Louis did. In a sense, I was being reborn with St. Louis, leaving what was behind and moving toward what lay ahead.
With my business partners and friends, we have purposely established our businesses in the city and invested in its rebirth. We realized that this city needed a platform where the stories of contributors to the rebirth can be told, even heralded. This platform needed to be beautiful, informative, and inspiring. We dreamed of a place where the creators, makers, and doers of St. Louis and what they are creating, making, and doing could be put on display, like art in a gallery.
Thus, The St. Louis Curator is born.
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