McKelvey's message much like Nike's: 'Just Do It'
But the philosophy behind those three little words is far more complex than a sneaker slogan
Entrepreneur and inventor Jim McKelvey’s talk at the Donald Danforth Plant Sciences Center on Friday (June 22) may not have been the speech some in the audience expected to hear. It was disturbing, and we human beings don’t cotton to disturbing; reassurance is much more to our tastes. McKelvey's example of the sad-story genre was disturbing because the incident that moved the speech forward was the murder of an innocent.
That death became a dynamic of the bigger civic disturbance or deficiency, one stirred for the audience by a man who is an inventor, philosopher and public intellectual. McKelvey's disturbance was animated not by name-calling, mud-slinging and incivility; rather it was replete with intelligence, conviction, compassion and good humor. In the end, it was inspirational.
The essence of the McKelvey philosophy can be represented by the old Nike slogan, "Just Do It," although McKelvey’s just-do-it challenge is colossally different. Just Do It is McKelvey's Weltenschauung, his world view, a way of operating and moving forward.
(If you want to find out more about McKelvey -- co-founder of Square -- and his achievements see David Baugher’s comprehensive Beacon report on him.)
This world view caricatures aversion to risk and tendencies to regard difficult situations as problems rather than opportunities. It laughs at the need to ask permission before taking on a challenge. McKelvey sees these characteristics as epidemic in St. Louis -- along with complacency and a lack of civic self confidence.
“Mostly we talk,” McKelvey said. “We need people who are ready to roll the dice and blow up the family fortunes. We need to create a different culture.” He said also that fear of failure holds us back. Failure, he said, is part of the creative process, a necessary part.
McKelvey practices what he preaches and Just Does It. He hacks. He hacks not in the sleazy Murdochian manner but in the sense of digging into and going beneath the surface of a problem, applying intelligence and common sense, and coming out of that process with a solution far greater than the sum of its parts. Google the word “hacker” and repeatedly you’ll see, “The World Wide Web and the Internet itself are hacker artifacts.”
Like the Web, McKelvey’s is a net cast widely. In his talk, he suggested a way to make St. Louis “sticky,” that is, to assure that once a person comes here and establishes a family here, she will stay. He emphasized the necessity of acknowledging that the life sciences are our advantage – and our economic future.
He dove into the deep end on crime and race, and in a key moment, and emotional moment, in the presentation, he told of the murder of the son of Russian émigrés who work for him, rehabbing real estate. The boy got a job as a pizza delivery person and was shot in the head by a customer for no apparent reason.
McKelvey, however, put the “no apparent reason” business to rest. There are reasons a person might be moved to kill someone he or she regarded as having been dealt a better hand, even if that hand were holding a pizza box. Such men and women, boys and girls, find no hope for any kind of future and see destiny as destitution. Environment and circumstance provide plenty of evidence for drawing such a bleak conclusion.
What to do?
Build jobs now, plan later.
How do you do that?
McKelvey proposes a real and metaphorical “House at the Wellston Stop.” To understand this idea, get off the train at the Wellston MetroLink stop and experience genuine urban pathology.
McKelvey’s plan calls for buying a house in the Wellston stop neighborhood and opening a computer-code writing school for kids, maybe even kids just one click of a trigger away from murder. He believes that code writing is simple, a six-weeks process, requiring little more educational baggage than some sort of discipline, self stimulated or imposed. The situation is an opportunity, not a problem.
Just do it.
After his talk, McKelvey was joined by W. Scott Bush, managing director of J.P. Morgan, also co-founder and president of GiveBack10, which serves wounded returning U.S. soldiers. Bush moderated a panel consisting of Benjamin Akande, dean of Webster University’s George Herbert Walker School of Business and Technology; Spencer Maughan, vice president of Venrock, a venture capital firm focusing on investments at the intersections between clean technology, agriculture and life sciences, and Judy Sindecuse, who is founder and CEO of Bride and Groom magazine and brideandgroom.com, and other successful startups.
Akande said unless St. Louis gets on the ball, it could be danger of becoming irrelevant, a condition he described as “worse than death.” However, he praised the Danforth Center as the go-to place for the plant sciences and called it “our new Arch” – that is, an institution of equivalent authority in 2012 as the Arch was at its completion in 1965.
McKelvey's remarks reflect an ambivalence many of us share. On the one hand we have Akande’s 21st century monument, the Plant Science Center, joining forces with the magnificent Jefferson National Expansion Memorial on the riverfront, and with Citygarden nearby.
We have here an internationally recognized inventory of architectural treasures, along with internationally reknowned universities, magnificent libraries, one of the two greatest botanical gardens (with research facilities) in the world.
We have celebrated musical and theatrical organizations and institutions dedicated with unusual creativity to the visual arts. We have film festivals and books festivals, new music festivals, even a Beacon Festival, just now winding down.
We have a vital literary tradition. We have grand parks and tiny parks and a growing system of recreation trails that spread all over the region, taking advantage of natural and human-made natural resources. We have sports.
But as McKelvey recognizes and warns us of, there is an alternative atmosphere of complacency and acceptance of the status quo: If it is not too terribly broken don’t bother trying to fix it, and if it's truly, dangerously broken, run from it.
He sees, however, the potential of entrepreneurial support programs such as Arch Grants and the spirit of Just Doing It they represent.
“To the extent that St. Louis is providing support, we’re drawing entrepreneurs from other parts of the world and that’s fantastic,” he told the Beacon recently. “That’s very meaningful.”