GVMS Profiles:Pete Peters
“So tell me a little bit about you before I tell you about myself,” he says. Pete wants to know who this kid is who is interviewing him. I explain I write fiction in a graduate writing program at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. “So you’re writing a little fiction here?” he says again, laughing. Good, he’s funny.
I have little chance to begin asking questions before Pete is questioning me, putting me in touch with others in the St. Louis area. This seems like par for the course with Pete. Immediately he comes off as helpful, but not only that. He is genuinely interested. And further, he has the experience to follow through with that interest. He asks me how long I envision this interview taking. I expected maybe thirty minutes. “Oh, that’s no problem.”
Who is Pete? Where has he been? It seems like everywhere. He’s been in St. Louis nearly forty years, but jokes that he’s still “a new kid on the block.” After earning his PhD from the University of Wisconsin, he ran a protein chemistry lab in Calgary while teaching genetics. Later, he moved to Houston and taught biochemistry to medical students at Baylor. Pete later was recruited by the Arizona biotech company, Vega, eventually running quality control operations on pharmaceuticals being developed by Genentech. Later, he moved to St. Louis to work with Sigma for seven years, then to Bethesda, Maryland to be an administrator at the National Institute of Health. Finally, in the early 90s, Pete received an offer back in St. Louis to work with pharmaceutical consulting firm Mattson Jack where he spent 15 years.
Pete explained all this to me in one near non-stop stream of personal history. Here is a man who crossed the United States multiple times, held a variety of roles in several scientific enterprises, and now sits at a table recounting it, seemingly as if it were yesterday. He became acquainted with Ken Harrington at the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies and eventually, over the course of a year, formed the foundation for what would become GVMS.
“I was going to ask, what is it about St. Louis that makes you want to stick around for so long. But now it sounds like it was circumstance,” I say.
“No, I like St. Louis. It’s a Midwestern city, people are easier to work with. More honest. Less litigious. People are friendly. I enjoy the Midwest.”
Over the remainder of the conversation, he describes for me with enthusiasm the numerous ventures he has mentored in the past. He describes how he likes to work with his hands. Not everything has to be biotechnology. Pete’s history working as a consultant, developing connections in the community, defines his ability to critique business models for his mentees. I check my watch, and we’ve long passed the thirty-minute mark, the hour mark, and he’s fondly recounting past ventures. He lists success after success.
“So that’s your approach then. It’s not to tell people what they need to do to make their venture work, rather to facilitate changes that they need to make,” I ask.
“You raise a good point,” he replies. “A good mentoring program in my mind presents different ideas with different approaches to the mentee. That person should select what they’re comfortable with… It’s a fun process.”
By the end of the conversation, I feel as if I have been mentored. Pete’s enthusiasm for the project is in no way diminished, he is not tired from his long history. Quite the contrary, he is energized, excited even, and it is obvious that his tenure as Chairman at GVMS, but mostly as mentor, is just beginning.
We get great ideas all the time: products, services, new ways of doing things. The innovative spirit is a foundational element of the contemporary economy, our culture even. But every so often, an idea comes along that changes the game. A bombshell. Something that not only provides measurable economic benefits, but, in this case, also fosters happiness, dignity, and community. When I spoke over the phone with Rey Castuciano about his project Table Wisdom, I quickly discovered that we were talking about just that kind of revolutionary idea.
On the other end of the phone, Rey was in a meeting; a scheduling error placed our call at the same time. After a bit of deliberation, we decided to go forward with the interview anyway. Why is this relevant? I’ve listened to the recording several times, and this moment is fascinating. Rey realized he had another chance to present Table Wisdom to fresh ears, and the passion took over, dominating the rest of the discussion.
Rey isn’t providing one service. He’s providing two simultaneously. Table Wisdom connects non-native English speakers (whom Rey describes as ‘foreign-borns) with seniors in nursing facilities. They meet for (at first) five conversational sessions. The non-native speakers get practice with English, while the seniors are able to connect and converse in a way that they often aren’t able to. The program, he describes, is still new:
“We’re still building the actual platform. And it is difficult because each market has their own particular needs. We need, right now, to find the common ground between the two populations. Keep it simple and then we would also like to measure the feedback we get to let us address particular desires and needs.”
Where exactly did this idea come from though? In 2014, Rey and his mother spent nearly six weeks caring for his father in a nursing facility after he suffered a debilitating stroke. They would go in shifts, his mother in the morning, and Rey in the afternoon. He saw how so many residents would wake up, eat their breakfast, watch television, eat their next meal, and on and on like this for the rest of their lives. You’re incredibly lucky if someone visits once a week.
But let’s back up… Rey moved to the United States from the Philippines with his parents in the late ‘80s. His father, who practiced law in the Philippines, ended up taking fairly low wage jobs, even working night security, to pay the bills. All of this due to a lack of solid English communication skills. Despite this, Rey grew up to earn his Bachelor’s Degree in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics from UCLA and his MBA, Finance & Marketing, from University of Southern California, Marshall School of Business. After spending over fifteen years in industry, from science to finance to marketing, he had his experience in 2014.
If his father would have had access to a program like Table Wisdom when they came to the United States, he would have had far greater access to the English language, and potentially could have even practiced law again. Nursing facilities too might not have as negative a reputation as they get had Table Wisdom been in place so long ago.
“We’ve got to just keep focus on making sure the foundation is strong. We just need to be focused on delighting our customers. Really listening to them,” he says.
“Sure, well it sounds like you’re in the business of happiness in a way. Right?” I ask.
“Some of our students have been going out with their mentors, you know. To restaurants, with their families. Heck man, I don’t even get invited to them.”
We both laugh hard at this. Helping young adults learn English and providing companionship for seniors is one thing, but what Rey and his team have created is really an entirely new community.
“Well that’s more than you could have imagined I would think. That’s incredible,” I say.
“It’s very cool, it’s very cool.”
And it is. These are the sort of ideas that make you slap your forehead and say “of course! Why weren’t we always doing this?” Now, with five pilot locations, Table Wisdom really is starting to take off, and has produced some real successes. It took someone whose experiences combined in such a particular way for the idea to come together, and it is clear that we are going to see the program grow into something truly remarkable.
“How are you going to sell this thing? What are you going do to make people want it? And after that how are you going to produce it? How are you going to be competitive? How many other people are making the same thing?” says Harvey Gershensen, one of the original mentors of Gateway VMS.
When I ask him about his perspective on the mentoring program, this is his take. Harvey talks further about how the idea behind the experienced mentor is not to simply state what they know; rather, they are to apply their experience to a particular venture’s problems. Often, that problem is on the business side of things: marketing, demand, etc.
Right off the bat, when I sat down with him at CET, Harvey comes across as fun, sarcastic even, but no-nonsense. He’s an 88-year-old World War II veteran with a background in science and business; in other words, he’s been around. He describes for me a bit about his mentoring requirements. “We require them to record what happens at mentoring sessions. We require them to set up an action statement, we require them to set up the next mentoring session. So we’ve developed a good system. If they don’t want to work that hard, they drop by the wayside.”
But dropping by the wayside doesn’t seem to be the norm. Harvey, just like others I’ve met with at GVMS, focused on the successes. He spent a good portion of our interview listing off those successes, something I’ve discovered is common practice among the mentors.
I ask him where he sees himself, moving forward.
“Me, personally?” he says.
“You, or GVMS.”
“I’m 88 years old, buddy. I’ve got a time limit!” And for the second, or third, or fourth time in this interview, we’re laughing. But he has a way of joking, and leading it to something real. “Let me give you a statement I’m fond of using. Change, progress are not synonymous. There’s a lot of change, very little of it is progress. St. Louis is getting to be known as a good place for startups, and it’s mostly this street right down here. Cortex.”
He explains that part of what he’s talking about is the culture around startups. We aren’t in the bygone days of the shirt and tie. Now, there are ping pong tables and fruit bars. It’s the Silicon Valley culture. And while it’s different in many ways from when Harvey ran a battery manufacturer upon returning from the war, there has always been a common thread to what makes a venture successful. “It’s universal. The things that make you successful are to create the demand and then fill it. It’s not rocket science. GVMS serves a great purpose because it’s not the end of your development but it gets you off the ground.”
When we started the interview, and I introduced myself as a graduate student, his response was “That’s not terminal, you’ll get through it,” and laughs and says it’s the same way he viewed his degree at Washington University. To me, this is analogous to the experience of a new venture. Graduate school is the start of a new phase in an individual’s development, as is the formation of a startup. And to this end, Harvey’s role at GVMS is to provide some of the tools necessary for success.