Local focus: TopOpps' Chisom Uche Believes Community Matters
Chisom Uche, TopOpps’ fiercely intelligent and civically-motivated marketing specialist, is a sterling representative of St. Louis’ entrepreneurial community. A recent graduate, Uche is passionate about his community, his work and has a vision for the future—St. Louis’ and his own.
We have teamed up with Cultivation Capital to tell you this story.
Uche arrived in St. Louis in 2010, attending Washington University initially as a pre-med student. He previously lived in Houston, Texas, and immediately took a liking to the accessibility and energy in St. Louis.
“It’s definitely a small big town. Being from a mega city like Houston, Texas, it’s very overwhelming and very low in commutability. St. Louis is very digestible. There’s always something to do, so many different parts of the town that have so many different vibes,” he says. “I can’t see anyone saying they’re bored in St. Louis. If you take the time to explore, there’s always something to see and always somewhere to be.”
For Uche, exploration opened up the city in an unforeseen way. As plans for a medical degree began to waver, he took an internship with Bonfyre after his sophomore year. There, the raw energy and interpersonal commitment of the St. Louis startup scene electrified him.
“Being a part of it that early in the game—where St. Louis was transitioning into a small business, entrepreneurial scene—I saw what that meant and I felt what that meant. I saw people who really wanted to be passionate about their companies and put their heart and soul into something,” he says. “They were willing to grind and with people who live in and also invest in the city. They felt a responsibility to help them grow their projects so openly; that’s something I don’t think you can get anywhere else.”
He was hooked. Pivoting from his med school plans, he pursued a degree in psychology with a minor in entrepreneurship and legal studies. It wasn’t just the infectious electricity that permeated the startup scene that called to him, it was the city that housed it. St. Louis had drawn Uche in, and he became a champion of the mission of rebirth the city was on.
“I haven’t really experienced anything like this where people are so invested in building a community and a startup community in a city that, I think, needs it,” he says, praising St. Louis’ commitment to fostering home-grown talent and building from within. “It’s been great. People take interest in it and take interest in each other and what they’re trying to build as far as companies and organizations. That’s infectious.”
Joining TopOpps in August of 2014, Uche immersed himself in the world of collaborative tech development. Outside the office, his life was weaving ever more intricately into the fabric of the city. His exploration and growing network eventually led to an opportunity to give back, and he seized it; helping out with the basketball team at Lyon Academy.
“That was my first moment where I knew I could do something that was not involved with work, and something that isn’t in the scope of what I’m doing day to day,” he says.
Uche is an avid basketball player, putting in three years as the captain of Wash U’s club team. He was able to couple his love of hoops with a desire to help kids, and the experience provided clarity of vision for a young business mind.
“If you want to be an entrepreneur, you have to understand the environment you’re in, because that environment and that community help you build. That’s also who you want to start hiring, people you want to start partnering with,” he says. “Truly revitalize the community, because that’s the motto: put young talent in these cities and help engage in subtle change and help them revitalize community and city around them.”
While Uche’s words are clinically thoughtful, his speech is honest and tinged with affection. His motivations aren’t economical. He believes in the idea of community, with success—financially or otherwise—being a byproduct of simply working toward a better reality.
“I think one of the worst things you can do when trying to grow your career profession—as well as things you try to do outside of work—is trying to do things for financial gain. When you put money as your motive, you’re almost always willing to curtail your happiness,” he says, pointing to his work with Lyons Academy. “It wasn’t, ‘well that’s a resume-builder.’ It was more, ‘what do I enjoy and what can I help others enjoy?’”
For Uche, that enjoyment is stoked by the exploration of new places and new points of view. He’s an avid proponent of networking, though “not just the professional boring sense.” He enjoys “being able to go into a room with different personalities and find common ground and interests, really exploring that together,” he says.
Uche believes that’s the next step to growing the startup community in the city. While St. Louis has a growing list of incubators and collaborative environments, Uche believes the communities are siloed off, preventing the realization of the city’s full potential.
“I don’t know if you notice, but I think they all foster different types of people. In that sense, I think if the people in these unique hubs are only speaking to each other and thinking with each other, they’re getting a very limited experience and very limited exposure,” he says. “So you have these entrepreneurial minds, and I think what’s missing is a way to collaborate between all these incubators and get that type of mindflow going. If that happened, I think the potential for what St. Louis could bring out as far as new enterprises or startups could be almost limitless.”
Uche likes limitless. Even as the conversation drifted to transportation (he’d love to see bike-sharing in the city) and hobbies (he has recently taken up learning golf as a new challenge), his thoughts were ever-expanding, working to solve the problems in his adopted community.