AI on the banks of the Mississippi River
There’s no better example of the promise of rural entrepreneurship than Sho Rust, who in 2018 moved from Los Angeles back home to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to found Sho.ai (Sho) — a tech startup revolutionizing the face of digital branding. Launched from Rust’s parents’ garage, Sho provides AI-enabled software designed to help businesses scale through its seamless brand system and management.
The CORI Innovation Fund (CIF) recently made a seed investment in Sho to help scale its growth. Says Jay Bockhaus, Managing Partner of CIF. “We are very pleased to support the company’s continued growth in Cape Girardeau, a community that is part of the Rural Innovation Initiative.”
Most recently, Sho has been expanding into new offices in an area of Cape Girardeau designated as an Opportunity Zone under the 2017 Federal Tax Cut and Jobs Act. This will qualify Sho as an Opportunity Zone business.
We recently spoke with Rust about what it’s like to be a rural entrepreneur and why he’s made the conscious decision to put down roots in Cape Girardeau and scale Sho in the town he grew up in. From an improved quality of life to a supportive entrepreneurial ecosystem, Rust shares how his hometown has been a springboard for his success.
CORI: How did your upbringing in Cape Girardeau influence your entrepreneurial journey? What was it like growing up there?
Rust: My family members have always been entrepreneurial risk takers. It’s been really cool to be back around my dad, who tried to start a digital agency when he was younger, and I was around to see the ups and downs of that. Here in Cape Girardeau, I’ve always felt a strong sense of family, friends, and loyalty, and have always appreciated that.
I’ve also been lucky enough to travel all over the place. I spent 10 years in Japan, two in France, three in New York, and 10 in Los Angeles. Through that, I also found out what kind of company I wanted to build and where I wanted to build it. Here in Cape Girardeau, there are fields, soccer fields, tennis courts, movies for $5 at the theater, open land. It’s a beautiful place. When I spent part of my childhood in Japan, I knew two things about America: Cape Girardeau and Disney World. I have a lot of fondness for Los Angeles and New York too, but it just so happens that right now, for this startup and team, Cape Girardeau just makes a whole lot of sense.
You were most recently on the West Coast but decided to return home to launch Sho. Tell us about your decision to come back:
My family is here. Oh, and overhead. For four or five people in an office in Venice Beach, that would disappear in a snap. But in Cape Girardeau, we’ve made it last almost three years. In terms of return on investment, we’re doing great. Because we decided to set up shop here, we’re not a startup just starving on ramen. We are a startup that gets to go to the movies and eat out every once in a while!
What is Cape Girardeau’s entrepreneurial ecosystem like? I’m sure it’s different from what you experienced in Los Angeles?
In terms of the ecosystem, I think that it’s still very young in some ways — there hasn’t been a big exit here yet. I’d like to see a tech startup get big from the ground up, one that is born here and scaled here. We really wanted to be that first startup, the first true big tech startup here in Cape Girardeau that leads by example, so to speak.
The good news is there’s a new center for media, there’s a whole new Marquette Tech District, gigabit internet everywhere, coffee houses. There’s definitely a huge push. I would like to see more investors in the area, just in general. But I understand that for investors to be here, there also needs to be results. And we’re looking to provide those.
After you got Sho off the ground, you chose to stay here with the intention of hiring and developing local talent. What has that been like?
One of the things we focus on is gathering good people to do good work. What we’ve found is that good people exist here in different communities. They’re here. We’ve been participating in every single Hackathon and talking to them left and right.
There’s this crazy kind of underground culture here that people aren’t aware. This kind of gamer-programmer type that is embedded here in Cape Girardeau, and they’re crazy good. They don’t understand their value just yet.
Launching a startup anywhere is stressful, but it seems like Cape Girardeau offers some of its own advantages that kind of offset that stress, including the cost. Has that helped you? Motivated you?
Absolutely it has. There’s more fulfillment, happiness, and bang for your buck when you go to a rural area. It’s that simple. I also think people are starting to wake up to the noise and distraction that can come with living in a city. Some people thrive on it, but others can be overwhelmed—let it drive their decision making. In places like Missouri, you will have the space to think and the space to meditate. It’s valuable.
What do you city-dwelling founder friends think of your decision to move to rural Missouri?
My big city friends come here all the time! That tells you something. I have a good friend, he’s a successful CEO who just raised a big round and even though he’s living in it, he’s coming here, to visit me rather than the other way around.
It’s a great story that you grew up here, went off and explored the world, but when it was time to start your own venture, you came back to what was familiar to you.
Yeah, Cape Girardeau is home. It’s where my family is. Home is almost always the place to be. And during the time of COVID, it’s been especially important to be home. I get to take care of my grandparents, and they get to take care of me. It’s a beautiful symbiosis.
What’s next for Sho?
Right now we’re in the process of expanding our offices. The investment from CIF was the rocket fuel we needed to take things to the next level. We are psyched to continue immersing ourselves into the Cape Girardeau tech community here and look forward to showing people the innovation happening outside traditional startup spaces. Hopefully more people will join us here away from the chaos and distraction.
The Rural Edge series
At CORI, we are interested in broadening the conversation about rural America and sharing stories from local change agents and entrepreneurs who are driving innovation in the small towns and communities they call home. Our Rural Edge series features conversations with the people who are changing the narrative about what’s possible in rural America.
To see more profiles of rural innovators or to learn more about CORI’s work building digital economy ecosystems in small towns across the country, you can sign up for our newsletter. If you’d like to nominate a compelling rural leader for the Rural Edge Series, let us know.