Square co-founder (and Twitter chairman) Jack Dorsey started hosting events to bring together local business owners in California earlier this year. This fall he’s taking the idea to places normally off the tech world’s radar: Detroit, Minneapolis, Toronto, New Orleans, and the Bronx.
The series begins Aug. 29 in Dorsey’s native St. Louis, where he’ll host a panel with merchants in the Cherokee Street neighborhood. I recently talked with Dorsey about why the mobile payments company aims to help struggling cities. Here are edited excerpts of our interview.
Why is Square hosting the Let’s Talk events?
Square’s always been about providing tools to sellers of all types and sizes. We’re always building up a sense of community around these sellers, no matter how big or small they are. One of the things I think has diminished in this country over the past 15 years is that sense of community, that fabric between sellers, between merchants. Let’s Talk is a venue to start having these conversations again.
How did you select the cities?
We wanted to go to places that show a desire for independent entrepreneurship. All of these cities have been through these hard times. We believe that the local economy, the neighborhood places are a significant driver for improving the national economy and in many ways the global economy. We want to do whatever we can to help build the fabric of that community. So St. Louis, Detroit, Toronto, New Orleans, the Bronx, Minneapolis—all places that have seen good times and bad times, a lot of bad times recently. And we think sellers and merchants can help fix it.
In Stockton, Calif., and Detroit, you’re visiting cities with the two largest municipal bankruptcies in U.S. history. These are all places dealing with industrial decline. A lot of them have poverty rates far above the national average. How can Square address some of the problems?
No matter how much of our life moves online, we’re always going to have our favorite places around the corner from us. I think we’ve seen a diminishment of the town square: the coffee house, the bar, the salon. They connect us, not only to that shop owner, but to the community itself. If you improve this foundation, you have the potential to incite more conversations about what else needs to be fixed in the community—not just around commerce, but generally.
It’s something we believe very, very strongly in. My father, when he was 19, owned a pizza restaurant. My mother owned a coffee store in St. Louis. My great-grandmother owned a convenience store in St. Louis, and all were central focus points in the community. I don’t think that’s diminished with the rise of the Internet at all.
You and Square co-founder Jim McKelvey are from St. Louis, and McKelvey runs Third Degree Glass Factory there. What do you see happening in the small business community in St. Louis?
I fell in love with cities because my parents never left the city like a lot of St. Louis was doing. The city has been desolated, industry has moved out, businesses have moved out, people have moved out. It is seeing a renaissance. And a lot of it has to do with these businesses. People want local, crafted experiences. What I mean by craft, it’s not just the end product, but also the process. These are people who care about the work and put a lot of love and passion into building and creating what they’re selling. It’s local, crafted quality. St. Louis has seen a resurgence of this.
How does this fit into Square’s goals and strategy? How important is this face-to-face marketing?
One of the benefits we’ve had from early on is this is a product or service that people want to show off. People naturally want to share what works. It’s just part of being human, it’s a little special secret that you know and you’re dying to share. It does make running your business easier and growing your business easier.
None of these town halls is going to fix what’s going on in Detroit or St. Louis on its own. What do you want to see happen after you have these community meetings?
Square can only help provide a venue. It has to be the people of the community that fix their problems. We’re hoping to inspire a conversation that is ongoing. It has to be driven by the community: We need to talk, we need to take this on ourselves, we need to own it, we need to build it. And that’s the way to fix our community, and that’s the way to fix our economy.