J.P. Johnson, the new director of Venture Café St. Louis, describes it as an “immersive experience.” He compares it to church in terms of the benefits provided by regular gatherings and fellowship with like-minded people. “It’s opening and welcoming,” he explains.
Venture Café St. Louis offers networking and programming for St. Louis entrepreneurs and community members. Its popular Thursday Gathering is held at 4240 Duncan in the Cortex District.
But before landing at Venture Café, Johnson was involved in local government in St. Louis for about a decade. The St. Louis native, who grew up in the Clinton-Peabody public housing, admired U.S. presidents and felt drawn to government work and leadership from the time he was young. “I always knew I wanted to be involved in some form of public service,” says the St. Louis University High School graduate.
Johnson worked for Jay Nixon and Mayor Francis Slay, and he led local campaigning efforts for President Barack Obama. He spoke with St. Louis Magazine this summer from the porch of his home in the Tower Grove East neighborhood.
Why do you think networking, like the kind that happens at Venture Café, is so important?
I got my degree in political science, and the thing I find fascinating about human beings is our ability to expand the boundaries of thought ideation and engage in networking. But what’s networking without some form of intentionality? It’s just people having drinks at a bar, and that’s not who we are.
We like to take the best members and marry that with intentionality behind getting community members together around specific programming that can help us co-create. It’s a space where there’s no hierarchical structure—the intern can be at the same level as the CEO, but they meet eye to eye, face to face. There’s no formality to it.
What were you doing prior to joining Venture Café?
I’ve had the good fortune of working in local government for around a decade. In college, I always knew I wanted to go into some form of public service. From the time I was a young kid, I was enamored with presidents John Kennedy and Bill Clinton. I even tried to imitate their cadence [laughs]. That’s how much I was inspired by them. So, I always knew I wanted to be involved in some form of public service.
In college, I got to work for the Missouri Democratic Party as a field organizer for the gubernatorial campaign of Jay Nixon, who was the attorney general at the time. [Then I worked for] Obama for America. Right out of the gate, I helped coordinate a presidential campaign for the first African American to headline a ticket who became president. I was also a special assistant to Mayor Francis Slay during his last term before retirement.
You’re a lifelong St. Louisan. What does St. Louis mean to you and why do you love it?
Oh, it’s home, right? Being from St. Louis, the city is my comfort zone. I’ve traveled to some interesting places around the United States. I love D.C., I love New York City, I love San Francisco. Even Chicago—I’m super jealous of Chicago because we used to be bigger [laughs]. But even after that fire, they still grew [laughs]. But St. Louis is a world-class city. We have some beautiful spaces here with the myriad rivers that flow through the state. Our architecture is just so beautiful. We have things like the Old Courthouse, and the Arch, the tallest monument in the U.S. Living in a place like St. Louis is literally like walking through history.
I can even say the challenges [of St. Louis life] are intriguing to me. You know, being Black and being that St. Louis is such an impoverished place. Our history informs me of not only the challenges, but the opportunities to tackle those challenges. We have this history with so much racial tension but it’s also a place where we’ve been open to immigrants, so it’s the incongruency. But I think anybody born in any place that they’ve lived their entire life would probably feel the way I do about St. Louis. It’s home, and you tend to love where you came from.
Where do you see room for growth and improvement in St. Louis?
I think even with our challenges, St. Louis still has a lot of Fortune 500 companies. We have Centene here, Edward Jones, Enterprise, Emerson Electric, and Anheuser-Busch, obviously. We have structures and anchors, business-wise. Those anchor companies allow St. Louis to actively flourish, but you can’t have business activity flourish if it’s done in a vacuum. You need a good government partner along the way.
You need these guardrails that help to level the playing field, so everybody has a bite at the apple, not just folks that are three generations in and their parents have done this, and grandparents have done this. That’s why I like that St. Louis is friendly to immigrants; you know, we have more than 7,000 cybersecurity jobs right here in the region. We have good partners [in business to facilitate growth].
What advice would you give someone who wants to do what you do?
I think a lot of times—particularly in America—we purport ourselves to be so great and exceptional that we forget that it’s hard here, too. We have various areas—I came from one, the Clinton-Peabody Projects—that don’t look [good]. If you start from a poor foundation, everything that builds up top is going to be on shaky ground. So that’s the first thing.
I’d say don’t be afraid to fail or to challenge existing structures. Our most progressive changes came from folks eschewing respectability and saying: “No, this is not moral. This is not right.” So don’t be afraid to fail, and that’s what we preach at Venture Café at our cafés across the globe. Failure is a good thing, so long as you’re trying and you’re trying earnestly and honestly. Don’t be afraid to fail or to challenge structures and systems.