The St. Louis Business Journal presented the inaugural Fire Awards to recognize local companies and organizations making strides in the innovation economy. Tuesday evening’s event was held at the Book Cat Club.
UMSL Accelerate and the DEI Accelerator program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis won the award in the Fire Starters/Community Builders category. It was up against other finalists BioSTL, Harris-Stowe State University MECCA and the Skandalaris Center for Interdisciplinary Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Washington University in St. Louis.
The UMSL DEI Accelerator was an attractive choice for the awards committee as noted by Nathan Rubbelke, editor of St. Louis Inno at the St. Louis Business Journal and member of the award selection committee.
“UMSL’s commitment to boosting diversity in the local startup economy and its success in providing paid internships to students, giving them real-world experience with startups, stood out to us,” Rubbelke said.
The win is further recognition of the impact the program has had not only on the participants of the DEI Accelerator program but on the region as many of the participants have been able to expand their businesses while also creating jobs and boosting to the local economy.
For example, Tony Davis’s business, Pop Pop Hurray recently secured a contract with Busch Stadium to be the official popcorn for the St. Louis Cardinals. Akeem Shannon, founder of Flipstik and a member of the first DEI Accelerator cohort, was able to get his product in Target stores across the country.
These participants experienced the kind of success the DEI Accelerator program was designed to achieve. UMSL Accelerate Founding Executive Director Dan Lauer explained the origins of the program in an interview the St. Louis Business Journal conducted in connection to the Fire Awards.
“The idea of a purpose driven accelerator comes from our mission and call to be a beacon of hope,” Lauer told the Business Journal. “There are a lot of conversations and initiatives around workforce development and job creation and anchor institute. Charlie Hoffman, dean at the time, created a culture of innovation and allowed for alternative and new programs. I noticed the stress in summer of 2020 in the city and felt that early access to capital for underrepresented founders is a glaring problem. We created a presentation and Ameren, Edward Jones, Express Scripts said ‘yes’ to a pilot along with private anonymous donors.”
The Fire Awards were created to recognize people and organizations who’ve stood out in the innovation community.
“Entrepreneurship is hard, so celebrating successes is important,” Rubbelke said during Tuesday’s awards reception.
The evening began with a mix-and-mingle cocktail hour, and St. Louis Business Journal Publisher Robert Bobroff opened the formal program and introduced featured speakers Jeff Pittman, the St. Louis Community College Chancellor, and Jim Eberlin, a successful entrepreneur who received the Inno Lifetime Achievement Award.
“First-year startups across all sectors, from high tech to neighborhood services, are creating an average of 14,700 new jobs in the St. Louis region each year,” Pittman said. “They have an average annual wage of $54,300. And over the last seven years, first-year startups have added over 100,000 jobs to our region.”
Then the winners received their awards.
Lauer was unable to attend Tuesday’s event, but Director of Operations Michael Butler stood in for him and read a speech Lauer prepared.
“Our intention is to be a first-choice university for entrepreneurially minded students,” Butler said, quoting Lauer. “Many are thinking about how the ecosystem can be better if we work together, smarter and more selflessly. It’s nights like this that are a catalyst for more.
“Finally, this does not happen without incredible team, like Michael Butler – who was pressed into addressing you – Monique and Mike Bynum, Chancellor Kristin Sobolik, Dean Joan Phillips, a committed development team and donors, sponsors, students, faculty and alumni. For without them, none of this happens.”