CAREER Q&A

Making a more diverse entrepreneurial environment

Cheryl Watkins-Moore moved from medicine to business before she launched an initiative to help women, minority ethnic groups and immigrants to enter the STEM start-up community.
Nikki Forrester is a freelance science writer based in Davis, West Virginia.
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Dr. Cheryl Watkins-Moore headshot

Cheryl Watkins-Moore advocates for greater diversity in the biotech start-up industry. Credit: BioSTL

Cheryl Watkins-Moore is the director of the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) entrepreneurial inclusion initiative at BioSTL, a non-profit that provides resources, capital and training opportunities for bioscience start-ups in St Louis, Missouri. Creating a more inclusive business community requires additional support, not an entirely separate pathway, she says.

What is your background in medicine?

When I was growing up in Chicago, Illinois, my paediatrician was an African-American woman. She was the impetus for my consideration of medical school, and she was always interested in both my health and my career. After I earned my undergraduate degree from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, I went to podiatric medical school to learn how to care for and treat feet, and then to a surgical residency programme at St. Bernard Hospital in Chicago.

How did you transition into business?

When I finished my residency, I started teaching at the hospital. One day, after fighting with an insurance company to receive payment for a surgery I’d performed six months earlier, I decided to start a master of business administration programme in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. I focused on finance, marketing, strategy, health care and entrepreneurship because I knew I wanted to start my own business. The first company I started in St Louis was a medical-marketing consulting company, which I built over three years.

How did you get involved with start-ups in St Louis?

I got engaged with the startup community as an entrepreneur in residence with BioSTL. By looking both within the organization and at shared laboratory and office spaces, BioSTL leadership noticed that the start-up community in St Louis was largely made up of white men. That’s not what you want when you’re trying to build an innovative environment. They asked me to design and lead a programme, drawing on my experience in health care and business, that would be supportive of women, minority ethnic groups and immigrant populations developing new STEM ventures in our region.

What is the aim of the inclusion initiative?

Most people think we’re trying to create a separate track for women and immigrants to get into entrepreneurship, and that is absolutely not what we are doing. We understand that those populations need a little more support when it comes to building businesses, so the intention is to get people into the St Louis bioscience start-up scene by helping them to understand business and exposing them to entrepreneurs from similar backgrounds, so they can recognize that this is attainable.

How did you develop and grow the programme?

We started with three strategic initiatives: increasing awareness, providing training opportunities and consolidating resources in the region to benefit those entrepreneurs. Those initiatives were based on my experience — I was thinking about all the obstacles and challenges that I encountered in the business world. So far, we’ve reached more than 1,300 folks, and almost 350 people have gone through the training programme — out of that, we have 8 founders who have raised $50 million in capital.

What resources do you provide?

We collaborate with the Center for Emerging Technologies, an organization that offers a ten-week business boot camp that walks entrepreneurs through the process of vetting their business ideas. We also host the Vision conference, which aims to support, educate and celebrate women, minority ethnic groups and immigrant entrepreneurs. The Entrepreneurially Thinking podcast, which I co-host, features conversations geared to inspire our listeners to be innovative. We invite guests from academia, the start-up community and the corporate world to talk about what they’re doing and to show that you can be entrepreneurial no matter what your background.

Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

I always tell young people that it might be a lateral move, but if it’s an opportunity to learn something different, that lateral move might be the best thing for you. Not only do you gain new experiences, you also gain new contacts. Everyone always has some nugget of wisdom for you: you just have to be willing to listen.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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