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STL Personalities
Feb 01, 2013

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The Buzz List

St. Louis' most influential people, organizations and ideas of 2013.
Story: Edited by Jennifer Dulin Wiley; Written by Katie Davis, Amy De La Hunt, Ryan Martin, Gwen Ragno, Christopher Reilly, Matt Sorrell and Jennifer Wells
Photos: Tuan Lee

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The Godfather

Gerard Craft, 33, Chef/Owner, Craft Restaurant Group
With multiple James Beard Award nominations, the local and national press documenting his every move and full dining rooms at all of his area eateries, chef and restaurateur Gerard Craft is at the forefront of the culinary revolution in St. Louis. Since opening the fine dining mecca Niche eight years ago, Craft has been forging his own path, shifting effortlessly between cuisines and concepts with eateries as diverse—and successful—as the rustic French-inspired Brasserie by Niche, the modern speakeasy Taste by Niche and his latest project, Pastaria, a family-friendly joint in Clayton that reflects his love of simple Italian fare. As if opening yet another restaurant wasn’t enough, Craft also (nearly) simultaneously moved Niche from its original Benton Park location to a new space right next door to Pastaria. Craft says he always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but he thought he’d end up running a record label. Lucky for us, he found his way to the kitchen instead. –MS

The Historian

Waller McGuire, 56, Executive Director, St. Louis Public Library
Having just overseen a $70 million renovation of Downtown’s Central Library, executive director Waller McGuire has been a busy man. From the onset, his goal was to preserve as much of the century-old library’s history as possible while making it one of the savviest information sites in the city. Central still boasts its original architecture, but now features one of the fastest wireless networks in STL, a state-of-the-art auditorium and a creative experience room complete with laptops and touchscreens. Soon, the library will also boast an internet cafe, and McGuire is working to create a service that will allow members to check out iPads with their cards. Throughout the project, McGuire has continued directing all of the other St. Louis Public Library branches—he’s overseen a renovation of the 105-year-old Carondelet branch and stepped up the system’s commitment to modern information-gathering. But he isn’t finished yet. “We’ll [always] find new ways of doing things and new areas for improvement,” he says. –KD

The City Slickers

[1] Zack Boyers, 40, Chairman/CEO at U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corp.; [2] Nicole Benoist, 38, Managing Director at The Collective at MX; [3] Amos Harris, 54, Principal of Spinnaker St. Louis
The Mercantile Exchange (MX) District’s restaurants, shops, apartments, hotel and newly opened MX Movies owe their existence to the old adage about making lemonade out of lemons. When Spinnaker St. Louis inherited more than a million square feet of lemons Downtown during the recession, Amos Harris became the developer of two blighted buildings a stone’s throw from the Convention & Visitors Center, in an area that’s the main access point to the Arch and Laclede’s Landing. The MX District’s rebirth over the past 18 months has been transformational to the surrounding streets. Both Harris and financial backer U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corp. (a group of nearly 250 members overseen by Zack Boyers that has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to Downtown’s rebirth) are longtime supporters of Downtown, and the MX District exemplifies their belief that new development should be “about trying to create enough reasons for people to come and make a day of it.” This is where Nicole Benoist comes in—as the person hand-picking who will be among the vendors (36 boutiques, artisans and the like at press time) offering curated collections of their wares within a 3,400-square-foot retail space. Her background in fashion gives the Collective at MX enough clout to draw tour buses of non-city dwellers, and the city’s urban residents are coming out in droves to support this and the other lifestyle amenities featured at the MX. Together they are changing the perception of what Downtown can offer, and all of the MX’s occupants—from shops to eateries to the National Blues Museum planned for 2014—fit perfectly into their plan. –AD

The Visionaries

Lisa Melandri, 41, Director, Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis
When Lisa Melandri took her position as Director of CAM just last August, she brought with her some serious credentials. While she was Deputy Director for Exhibitions and Programs at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, the museum grew significantly, nearly doubled its staff and budget, and drew national and international acclaim. Now she plans to bring the same magic to St. Louis. “I’m really thinking in depth of what a contemporary art institution is and who it can serve,” Melandri says, envisioning a space that functions as a living room where people come just to “hang out.” It’s what she calls a “sea change” in perception. Part of that change is using the museum to its fullest capability, where even a discreet nook is potential exhibit space. “You should always be running into art,” Melandri says, referencing the highly anticipated Jeremy Deller exhibit this month. “I want to see art in the bathrooms and elevators.” –CR

Kristina Van Dyke, 41, Director, The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts
Kristina Van Dyke has an elegant goal for the future of The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts: to inspire people to think differently about themselves. She’ll call on her experience as Curator for Collections and Research at the Menil Collection, where she impressed the art world with her curated shows and reinstallations of the African and Pacific Island galleries. Her tenure at the Pulitzer began by analyzing the institution’s history to discover what has most impacted the St. Louis community. “It’s a laboratory,” she says. “A think tank.” A big exclamation point landed at the Pulitzer in the form of Van Dyke’s “The Progress of Love,” an unprecedented show (through April 20) initiated while she was with the Menil, which opened simultaneously in three cities on two continents— complementing her ultimate goal of creating a greater profile for the Pulitzer locally and nationally. –CR

The Dramatist

Deanna Jent, 50, Playwright/Producer/Director/Professor of Theater, Mustard Seed Theatre & Fontbonne University
“It’s like the theater princess dream come true,” Deanna Jent says of her play, “Falling,” which took a fairy tale journey from St. Louis to Off-Broadway late last year. Based on her real-life family experience with autism, the play’s original run at Mustard Seed Theatre was extended twice, allowing local producer Terry Schnuck to catch the very last performance and help catapult the play’s success in New York. The rest is theater history. Jent calls the remarkable experience “the result of many moments of grace and serendipity.” It seems grace is no stranger to the Fontbonne theater professor. Mustard Seed’s first production in 2007, “Remnant,” garnered six Kevin Kline nominations and instant acclaim, while her adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice,” “Till We Have Faces” and “Imaginary Jesus” have amply demonstrated her writing chops. “Jane Eyre,” directed by Jent, opens April 12. As for the future, Jent has plans to publish “Falling,” which will be produced in Brazil in 2014, and she’s already thinking about writing again. “I’ve always been writing things,” Jent says. “It’s the way I process the world and figure things out.” –CR

The Upcycler

Jenny Murphy, 25, Founder/Executive Director, Perennial
Jenny Murphy has been an upcycler since before the term existed—always scoping out and scooping up the interesting things people left on curbs and in alleys, and finding ways to creatively reuse them. As a sculpture student at Wash U, she got the idea to start Perennial as a fun, low-key way to encourage St. Louisans to make use of the discarded stuff all around them, thus diverting it from landfills. She first set up shop in her basement before moving to Perennial’s current South City storefront last year with the help of a $10,000 grant Perennial won in the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies’ YouthBridge Social Enterprise and Innovation Competition in 2011 and another $10,000 raised from private donors. Stressing the use of simple DIY practices, hand tools and homemade paints and finishes, Murphy works to spread the gospel of self-sufficiency and repurposing through classes at Perennial’s home base, and in places as diverse as private homes and corner pubs. She also partners with community organizations like the Center for Women in Transition. We’re told Perennial will soon be expanding its line of home goods handmade from salvaged materials as well. –MS

The Savvy CEO

Stephanie Leffler, 34, CEO, CrowdSource.com
A savvy businesswoman to the core, Stephanie Leffler is all about problem-solving—and identifying when a solution has the potential to become a lucrative business plan itself. Leffler has co-founded four successful companies with longtime business partner Ryan Noble, the latest of which began as part of its predecessor, Juggle. com. When CrowdSource.com outgrew its parent company, Leffler stepped up as CEO while Noble took the reigns at Juggle. CrowdSource breaks down large-scale projects into bite-sized tasks and distributes them to its massive force of skilled at-home workers. Each worker takes on as much or as little as he or she can, and gets paid a dollar or two per task. Meanwhile, the client company gets a massive project done without having to hire a dedicated workforce. It’s perfect for projects like tagging images for stock photo sites or writing product descriptions for online retailers. “We do things computers can’t,” Leffler says. –GR

The Heavy Hitter

Gabe Lozano, 30, Co-Founder/CEO, LockerDome
Ever since he played baseball as a kid, Gabe Lozano knew there had to be a better way of connecting with teammates and finding schedules. Now, years later, he’s the co-founder and CEO of LockerDome, a sports-centered social media site that allows users to connect over similar sports interests and create discussions. Originally, Lozano created a “Facebook for sports” model, but the idea didn’t stick. “We realized we were hitting users with the wrong equation,” he says. From there, he and his team built a more interest-based platform that spoke to multiple fans through sports topics like athletes or teams. Today, LockerDome has over 7 million active users, and is growing at an exponential rate. When asked what he’d like LockerDome to become, Lozano replies, “We want to be the standard.” With skyrocketing traffic, expanding tablet and phone applications and an ever-increasing group of investors, we’d say he’s well on his way. –KD

The Social Butterfly

Mark Sawyier, 28, Co-Founder/CEO, Bonfyre
Mark Sawyier dreamed up Bonfyre with colleague Ray Gobberg as a way to cut through all of the social media chatter and solve the problem that plagues most social media platforms: over-sharing. It’s “private by design,” organized around events and experiences rather than connections, and is as useful to a group of five friends planning a road trip as it is to the St. Louis Rams (Bonfyre’s first official client) engaging with thousands of fans at a home game. The app launched in October at DEMO, a well-known tech startup conference in Santa Clara, CA. Since then, it has been steadily building traction with a wide range of users for an even wider range of purposes. Sawyier attributes the company’s success so far to Bonfyre’s passionate team. It doesn’t hurt to have an advisory board of rock star venture capitalists like Rick Holton and tech entrepreneurs like Square co-founder Jim McKelvey and Contegix CEO Mathew Porter, either. The goal is to continue evolving with the ever-changing ecosystem of mobile technology. After all, as one of their mentors advised early on: “If you’re not evolving, you’re dying.”–GR

The Self-Starter

Brandon Williams, 28, Co-Founder, Venture Draft
There’s no denying that St. Louis’ startup world is burgeoning, and Brandon Williams is catapulting that growth. The former NFL player is co-founder of Venture Draft, the conference that brings athletes, venture capitalists and startup companies together to boost local business, garner attention for new companies and enlist athletes to help. Williams worked with Dr. Lance McCarthy to hold the first-ever Venture Draft in 2012. Thanks to the support of more than 15 athletes and sponsorships, venture capitalists from Silicon Valley, New York and other cities traveled here and connected with local entrepreneurs. In between juggling work for the Big Ten Network, helping his wife open a new boutique and raising a family (he credits his wife for all successes), Williams is already planning the next event this spring. “We want Venture Draft to be a hub for businesses getting capital,” he says. Based on his commitment and early wins, our money’s on him—100 percent. –KD

The Tough Guy

Cortland Finnegan, 29, Cornerback, St. Louis Rams
Cortland Finnegan’s buzz-worthiness isn’t just speculation—it’s documented. Among his many career highlights, capturing Brand Affinity Technologies’ No. 1 ranking for “rising sports stars” this fall was pretty much confirmation of what fans already knew—the man is exciting to watch. A social media superstar, Finnegan’s on-field feuds have resulted in millions of YouTube views, along with a boatload of comments—sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but always impassioned. To most, Finnegan’s style is aggressive; to some, it’s a little dirty—but so far, his larger-than-life persona has only worked in favor of the Rams. Finnegan laughingly attributes his uncanny ability to provoke aggression in opposing players to his upbringing and being the smallest kid in the group. Off the field, Finnegan is grounded—even humble—as he effortlessly charms onlookers with his devotion to family and passion for the game. It’s this passion that Finnegan hopes to one day take to the Super Bowl...we hope so, too. –JW

The Storytellers

[1] Jeff Keane, 45, CEO, Coolfire Originals; [2] Tim Breitbach, 48, Vice President of Story & Series Development, Coolfire Originals; [3] Steve Luebbert, 31, Vice President of Development, Coolfire Originals
St. Louis isn’t exactly known as a center for the entertainment industry, but STL’s Coolfire Originals is proving the Midwest is fertile territory for producing new TV shows. The trio of talent consists of Steve Luebbert, who helps get ideas in the pipeline and into development, Tim Breitbach, who shepherds the shows through production and gets them renewed for second seasons and beyond, and Jeff Keane, who oversees the whole shebang. Three-year-old Coolfire Originals (an offshoot of Coolfire Media) quickly found its niche producing mostly unscripted cable shows. So far, the company has sold six projects to five different networks, including “Welcome To Sweetie Pie’s” on the Oprah Winfrey Network; “Fast & Loud” on Discovery; and “Mom Friends Forever” on Nick Jr., with more concepts in the works. All told, Coolfire could have 10 shows on the air in 2013—not bad for a company firmly ensconced in fly-over country. In fact, the secret to its success has been precisely what many non-believers would consider to be its weakness—being headquartered in St. Louis as opposed to the coasts. The guys have found a mother lode of interesting characters and stories in their own backyard, with an appreciative audience to boot. –MS

The Wayfinders

Brain Drain members: [1] Logan Alexander, 24, Designer at TOKY; [2] Tara Pham, 23, Events and Communications Coordinator at innovate St. Louis; [3] Zoë Scharf, 23, Freelance Graphic Designer; [4] Matt Ström, 25, Freelance Designer, Developer and Photographer
Brain Drain’s pivotal moment came nearly one year ago, when the collective of twenty-somethings presented its ambitious vision for CityPulse, a digital and physical network aimed at improving all aspects of life in STL. Since then, the 12 collaborators have invested thousands of hours researching and planning for their “wayfinding system”—a combination of street beacons and online tools to collect and visually disseminate information using lighted “blips of activity.” Brain Drain’s members blend passion and practicality with an impressive ability to navigate the shoals of city politics. But they’re fast reaching what Zoë Scharf calls a tipping point. They’re in the process of lining up funding from grants and investors that could allow some of the core 12 to quit their day jobs and create a functional map for CityPulse by 2014. Intensive as it is, CityPulse isn’t the group’s only venture. Offshoots range from crowdsourcing soup dinners called Sloup to weekly Creative Happy Hour networking events where Brain Drain members fight what Matt Ström calls “the calcified bummer” of feeling overwhelmed by the city’s problems. They urge attendees to dive into civic boosterism, where catch phrases mean nothing without manpower behind them. What Brain Drain’s success shows, as Tara Pham so eloquently puts it: “St. Louis not only doesn’t suck; it actively rocks.” –AD

The Innovator

Zoe Robinson, Owner, Bar Les Frères, I Fratellini, Bobo Noodlehouse
Zoe Robinson isn’t one who likes to stay put creatively. Long a fixture on the St. Louis dining scene, she’s had success with restaurants as diverse as the Asian-inspired Bobo Noodlehouse and former Zoe’s Pan Asian Cafe, to the intimate Italian experience that is I Fratellini. With her penchant for reinvention, it’s no surprise, then, that Robinson’s latest creation, Bar Les Frères, goes in an entirely different direction. A tiny space, “about the size of a teacup,” Bar Les Frères is French-inspired, though anything but traditional. And while it’s located right across the street from I Fratellini, it most definitely has its own thing going on (think antique china, vintage armchairs and Swiss Army blankets to keep you warm while you wait for your table on the street-side patio). Robinson credits much of her success to the fact that St. Louisans have been so keen to take to her new culinary ideas, but we maintain it’s those ambitious culinary concepts that keep us coming back for more. –MS

The Arch-Etype

Sarah Spear, 31, Executive Director, Arch Grants
Sarah Spear wants to see St. Louis become one of the nation’s top 10 entrepreneurial cities, and Arch Grants—a global competition providing grants to start-ups based in the city that are scalable, innovative, show growth potential and demonstrate a commitment to St. Louis—is how she plans to get there. Under Spear’s directorship, the first 15 grants of $50,000 were awarded last year, with two to receive follow-up grants of $100,000 this spring. The companies have created 53 jobs and raised nearly $1 million in additional revenue—and hundreds of entrepreneurs have already applied for the next round of grants, with winners to be announced in May. Although Arch Grants is industry agnostic, most applications have been for tech and bio-science startups, along with some educational reform grants. “When St. Louis starts to become part of the national startup conversation, and people start moving here because of it, we’ll know we’ve succeeded,” Spear says. –CR

The Activist

A.J. Bockelman, 43, Executive Director, PROMO
As A.J. Bockelman helps create a path toward equality for the LGBT community at the local, state and national levels, he spends much of his time building bridges and laying foundations with elected officials who favor inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in non-discrimination laws (Missouri is one of 29 states where a person can still be fired from their job or denied housing for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender). Under Bockelman’s leadership, PROMO has celebrated many victories the last few years—eight new municipalities in the St. Louis region have passed non-discrimination bills in the last 18 months, including St. Louis County (November 2012), Kirkwood (December 2012), Maplewood (September 2012) and Richmond Heights (March 2012). In addition to working proactively on basic rights protections, PROMO also responds to legislative issues that could threaten the well-being of LGBT Missourians, such as the derailing of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill that would bar any discussion of sexual orientation other than during a class on biology. While the road to full equality veers sharply uphill, Bockelman remains optimistic as he enters his sixth year as PROMO’s executive director. “We know an inclusive community is a successful community; and I want to see success for Missouri,” he says. –AD

The Mentor

Jim McKelvey, 47, Co-Founder, Square
Helping transform St. Louis into a hub for startups is as important to serial entrepreneur Jim McKelvey as the success of his own business ventures. McKelvey believes there’s a funding gap in St. Louis that’s been an obstacle for new companies to overcome—it’s part of the reason Square, though founded by two St. Louisans, is based in San Francisco. McKelvey has worked hard over the past year to build an environment that’s friendlier to startups. He helped launch Cultivation Capital, an early-stage venture capital firm that primarily invests in STL companies, and started working as the lead judge with nonprofit business competition Arch Grants. He’s also affiliated with Emerald Automotive, which is working to establish a manufacturing facility in Hazelwood for its electric hybrid fleet van, and fellow Buzz Listers LockerDome and Bonfyre. “The focus on St. Louis is simply this: It’s my town. My family is here. My friends are here. I have a 314 area code wherever I am,” he says. –RM

The Collaborators

[1] Damon Davis (LooseScrewz), 27, Founder, FarFetched; [2] Corey Williams (Thelonius Kryptonite), 27, Artist, FarFetched
FarFetched began when Damon Davis, aka LooseScrewz, found himself producing several projects for friends—all musicians who, like him, were pushing the boundaries of convention and blurring lines between genres. He had the idea to unite them all under an imprint label, so everyone could benefit from a unified brand. Corey Williams, aka Thelonius Kryptonite, was one of the first to jump onboard. Strictly speaking, he could be described as a new-wave hip-hop artist, but it’s his unique performance style, often including an ensemble of musicians, that keeps fans coming back. Kryptonite’s dynamic on-stage presence also landed him the gig as official host of STL’s RAW:natural born artists. His first album, “Anchor Punch,” dropped in January, and he’s working on a collaboration with LooseScrewz called “Eklektrip” due out in May. FarFetched is a digital label that isn’t tied down to nostalgic media like vinyl and tapes, unless it’s for a special edition. Davis believes it’s all about attaching the music to a lifestyle—and FarFetched’s progressive electronic music is better suited to placement in TV, movies and games. Coming soon, for instance, is an interactive game that works like the memory game Simon, but uses samples from FarFetched artists in an audio mixing machine skin. We can’t wait to see what comes next. –GR

The Producer

Sarah Faragalla, 31, St. Louis Showcase Director, RAW:natural born artists
With a background in production, art direction and styling for music videos with musicians like Rihanna and commercials for clients like AT&T, Sarah Faragalla thought it would be difficult to find a profession she could be as passionate about when she moved back to St. Louis to raise her daughter after years of living in LA and New York. Then she came across RAW, the independent organization that helps artists develop and showcase their work during the early years of their careers. Faragalla quickly signed on as its St. Louis director, establishing her hometown as one of the 65 RAW cities nationwide. Thanks to RAW, numerous local artists in film, fashion, music, visual art, performing art, photography, hair and makeup are gaining vital resources, platforms and guidance. In fact, two local artists that Faragalla discovered went on to achieve national recognition at RAW’s annual award show in January. “St. Louis is filled with incredible talent, and I’m going to continue to make sure they are seen, heard and loved!” –KD

(Necklace by Hyper Haute, dress by Haus Designs, hair by Lady E Jay, makeup by Robyn Taylor.)

The Community-Builder

Dail Chambers, 30, Founder, Yeyo Arts Collective
Dail Chambers is driven to help people through art. In Memphis, she founded The Aids Project and was a member of Nia Artist Collective, but it’s her founding of Yeyo Arts Collective in St. Louis that brings all of her experience and passion together. Yeyo (“mother” in Swahili) is a group of women artists committed to women’s issues, including family, youth and community. It’s an initiative that helped Chambers garner a Grand Center Visionary Emerging Artist award, among other community recognitions. Chambers also founded the off-shoot Gya Community Gallery and Fine Craft Shop, where Yeyo now operates and serves the STL community by providing a reading center, classes and exhibit space for visiting artists. Perfectly illustrative of Yeyo’s spirit is its next project, Illuminate St. Louis. In collaboration with artist Bob Hartzell, members of the community create paper lamps at Yeyo workshops, to be hung around St. Louis in March to draw attention to St. Louis’ rich culture, history and beauty. –CR

Hair by Omar Sammy and Todd Ryan Wenick; Makeup by Kelsey Campbell and Kim Stuart; Styled by Skylar Finan, Morgan Gillespie and Maddie Smith; Photo Assistants Lauren Governal, Matt Kile, Soo Kim and Samantha Winkler

Behind-the-Scenes Video

Meet the writers of the 2013 Buzz List, as they introduce the most influential people, organizations and ideas of the year in this exclusive behind-the-scenes video. Get a look inside the week-long photo shoot in photographer Tuan Lee's Downtown studio, and see what writers Katie Davis, Amy De La Hunt, Ryan Martin, Gwen Ragno, Christopher Reilly, Matt Sorrell and Jennifer Wells learned from interviewing the all-star list of entrepreneurs, creative thinkers, entertainers and community mobilizers. Plus, hear from Lee and Executive Editor Jennifer Dulin Wiley about what went into planning and executing the ALIVE team's favorite photo shoot of the year.

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