North County Inc. 2021 Leadership Awards

Patricia Parker, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor in Zoological Studies, and Karl Guenther, the assistant vice chancellor for economic and community development, were among the honorees at Friday’s 44th annual North County Inc. Leadership Breakfast. (Photo by Steve Walentik)

North County Inc. celebrated the work of two members of the University of Missouri–St. Louis campus community among a list of 20 honorees at the 44th annual Leadership Breakfast on Friday morning at the Marriott St. Louis Airport Hotel.

Karl Guenther, the assistant vice chancellor for economic and community development, shared an Excellence in Partnership Leadership Award with Lynette Watson of the University of Missouri Extension’s Small Business Development Center for their joint efforts to launch the North County Small Business Accelerator to support local restaurants and retail businesses. Patricia Parker, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor in Zoological Studies and director of the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center, meanwhile, received a Diversity & Inclusion Leadership Award for her role in the creation of the Collaborative Laboratory Internships and Mentoring Blueprint, better known as CLIMB, to benefit high school students at four area school districts.

“On behalf of the University of Missouri–St. Louis as well as MU Extension, we’re just grateful for the chance to partner with North County Inc. and with businesses in North County to support more thriving communities,” Guenther told the crowded ballroom as he accepted the award Friday morning. “The richness of North County is throughout this this room. North County Inc. always creates the tables for us to come together, to work together and to be able to build and support strong communities.”

The North County Small Business Accelerator grew out of discussions by an economic development committee convened last year by North County Inc., an economic and community development advocacy organization serving the north St. Louis County community for more than four decades. The committee thought through ways they could assist small business owners in an area heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and they decided to develop a program to provide technical assistance and business coaching for small restaurants and small retailers.

A total of 10 businesses were selected to be part of the inaugural cohort. Watson and her team at the Small Business Development Center developed the curriculum for the free six-week program, and they are helping the owners incorporate planning, accounting, marketing and human resource processes from a best practice perspective.

“Karl has partnered with us to help with the measurables for this initiative,” North County Inc. President and CEO Rebecca Zoll said. “The College of Business Administration will be helping with some additional marketing instruction. The value of this program for each business is more than $10,000. All of these services are being donated.”

While the business accelerator grew out of the pandemic, Guenther said the partners hope to continue it. He is excited to witness the impact.

“I think anytime you’re working on something where the final product is greater than any one entity on its own could produce, it’s an exciting project,” said Guenther, who represents UMSL on North County Inc.’s Board of Directors. “To have that collective effort and support our local communities fills the soul.”

Parker has found it similarly rewarding watching the growth and development of CLIMB since she started imagining the program in 2014, when the killing of Michael Brown shined a national spotlight on racial injustice and inequality.

“I understood that I could not solve that problem, but I could contribute what I was able to contribute to the community-level solution,” Parker said. “That is to find the things that each of us can offer to help correct an imbalance.”

Parker had spent much of her career working internationally to study disease ecology with a particular interest on avian malaria in the Galápagos Islands as well as helping to train international students from countries such as Madagascar, Peru and Papua New Guinea. But she found herself turning her focus locally to reduce the opportunity gap facing students in underfunded districts.

She developed the paid summer internship program to help high-ability but low-opportunity students from Jennings Senior High gain hands-on lab experience in either chemistry, biology, physics, psychology, education, mathematics or computer science. The students were paid $12 per hour and also received assistance with career development, navigating the college admissions process and learning presentation skills.

The program has grown steadily with the help of Rhonda Key, now the assistant superintendent for high school education, school safety and alternative education in the Hazelwood School District; and Miranda Ming, the regional executive director at EAGLE College Prep. It now serves students in Ritenour, Riverview Gardens and University City, in addition to Jennings, and Parker expects to add Hazelwood next year.

“It’s wrong for me to pretend to have done this by myself,” Parker said. “It is a partnership. It is a really functional, mutually respectful partnership. Dr. Key and Dr. Ming are in the community every day, and they are deeply invested in it. Because of them, we’ve been able to expand. It is thrilling to me to see this program grow and to see it be so well received by all these other districts. Once they hear about it, they want to be part of it.”

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik

Eye on UMSL: Tending the gardens

Biology student James Ott and Sustainable Energy & Environmental Coordinator Katy Mike Smaistrla pull weeds last week in the native gardens north of the Recreation Wellness Center.