Travis Sheridan on the St. Louis Startup Community

Every week, we focus on interviewing someone in the St. Louis community who’s doing interesting work, has a unique career path, or can offer insights on what it means to be successful in our region. This week, I sat down with Travis Sheridan, the executive director of Venture Café St. Louis and a fantastic person to get to know if you’re new to St. Louis.

My talk with Travis hit on topics we’re always thinking about at Move Up, Give Back. From effective leadership to career reinvention, Travis has a lot of experience in adjusting his skills to meet the challenges of a new opportunity.

Read on to learn about Travis’ perspective on work, innovation, and the St. Louis startup community.

What’s your background?
“My background’s eclectic. In college I studied organization psychology and organizational behavior. Early in my career, I became a manager at Citibank in charge of a staff of fifteen. It was interesting because the reason they hired me was to help manage through a merger. That experience gave me the opportunity to use the skills I learned in college, and I had to create a way to prove that I really could do the job.

From there, I worked in higher education, pursued a doctorate in organizational leadership and then found the world of startups. I’ve been in startups for the last decade and stayed involved in them after moving to St. Louis.”

Venture Café St. Louis is guided by the mission of building a more inclusive innovation economy and connecting communities. What is a typical day like for you as its executive director?
We do our weekly event every Thursday, so usually I check in and make sure we’re on track with preparations for that. As an executive director of a nonprofit I find that a lot of my work is building out the budget, looking at our strategic programming, and trying to find funding that aligns with that programming. We’re funded through grants and corporate sponsorships, and I focus a lot of my efforts on those funding sources.

The other part of my day is going out into the community and telling the story of innovation, telling the story of St. Louis, and sometimes telling my personal story. Oftentimes though, I focus my talks on the question: “How do we become better tomorrow than we are today?”

You’ve reinvented yourself many times throughout your career. How have your different experiences impacted your approach to work?
“I work hard and get the job done. My work ethic is that I will always produce good work and will meet every goal that needs to be met, but I’m not time bound. For myself and my team, there’s an understanding that, if your work is done and it’s Friday at one o’clock in the afternoon, go home! As a person who gets to shape and lead an organization, I like to create a culture where everybody is accountable for their element of the strategic plan and that they feel supported as they progress in their career. Even though I only have a staff of two, they both know where their careers can go.”

What excites you most about the St. Louis startup community?
It’s the ignorance of youth. As a startup community we’re still young, and we’re making young person mistakes, and we can get away with those mistakes because we know we have a lot to learn. We will make better mistakes tomorrow. We need to learn, and I like the fact that we don’t have the expectation that we are perfect yet.”

What advice do you have for someone interested in joining a startup?
“When it comes to a startup, it’s about defining your value and being clear about what you can bring to a team. Startups are all about efficiency. For a person interested in breaking into that community, it’s important to review your experience and figure out what you know, what you can do, and how it can impact a startup. The ability to articulate the impact you can make is huge.”

How have you witnessed the startup community and philanthropy intersecting in St. Louis?
“This probably speaks more about the millennial generation, but I see a lot of people in the startup community adopting the mindset of micro-philanthropy. If you look at the philanthropy young people do, it’s crowd-sourced, crowd-funding-type philanthropy. There’s a specific need and everybody is rallying behind that specific need by giving $5 or $10 at a time.

I think the startup community does this, too. They know they have limited resources, but what they do try to do is give their time to teach new startups and contribute to organizations that helped them get off the ground.”

You’ve said that innovation isn’t confined to tech startups. How can people seek innovation in their everyday lives?
“You’re probably an innovator if you start sentences with these five words: “In what ways can we…?” If you ever use that phrase or a similar phrase, then you’re probably an innovator. If you believe there’s more than one path from part A to part B, then you’re probably an innovator.

Don’t stop when you have the first answer. Look for three other variations of that answer.”

You came to St. Louis four years ago having no prior experience living in the Midwest. What ideas do you have for finding community when someone’s new to St. Louis?
“I met five people when I first moved to St. Louis: Jeff and Randy Vines, Chris Reimer, Jerry Schlichter and Rosa Mayer. All five were champions of St. Louis who helped reinforce my decision to move.

So, I think it would be cool to create an intentional way of connecting people new to St. Louis with five people willing to meet with them over coffee in five different parts of the community. These five people from different industries can offer five different perspectives. The conversations would offer new St. Louisans a great opportunity to learn about what’s going on in the community and help them feel comfortable in our city.”

What are your favorite ways to meet new people?
“I meet a lot of people at Venture Café. I also meet a lot of people through Boozestorming, which is an event I hold at my house the first Monday of every month. I started it in California, but I use it in St. Louis as a way to get to know people. I invite people over and everyone is asked to bring one of the following three things: their brain, a bottle, or a buddy. They usually bring all three, and when they bring a buddy it introduces a new person into the mix. I do it in my home because it facilitates a human connection, and we have a discussion based on topics that are submitted and chosen from a hat. It’s a relaxed atmosphere with engaging conversation and a great way for people to meet one another outside of their typical community.”

Photo credit: Lindy Drew of Humans of St. Louis.

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Emily Knippa

Emily Knippa is a St. Louis-based marketer and writer who focuses on content marketing, career development, and personal finance. She enjoys meeting people pursuing inspiring career paths. She’d love to meet you at the next United Way event. Say hello to Emily on Twitter at @emilyknippa.