Meet Cape Girardeau.

Cape Girardeau, population 40,000, is a beautiful town in southeastern Missouri, located on the banks of the Mississippi river. Like many rural communities, its economy had struggled to rebound from the Great Recession, and while the economy was transitioning to more tech-based employment, Cape Girardeau was slow to develop a digital economy.

In 2014, Cape Girardeau residents, James Stapleton and Chris Carnell set out to change that. They saw an abandoned building downtown that the city was ready to demolish, and they didn’t see any local organizations dedicated to the tech startup ecosystem. So they decided to start their own. Thus Codefi was born, the first technology and entrepreneurship incubator in all of southeastern Missouri.

It wasn’t long before Codefi took off, giving digital workers a place to gather and support the creation of a new generation of local tech startups. As more companies were launching — including carGo, created by the Codefi founders themselves — the leaders realized they needed to build a local talent pipeline. Code LabsOne was Codefi’s effort to do just that, a 24-week software developer course that has equipped local residents with the skills needed to work in tech. Codefi also runs the Youth Coding League, an afterschool computer science competition that has introduced area or regional youth to the future-ready skills they’ll need in a changing economy.

All this success caught our eye as we were searching for communities for the first round of RISI’s Rural Innovation Initiative, when we chose Cape Girardeau in 2019 as one of nine communities to receive intense technical assistance as they continued building their digital economy ecosystem. After a sprint to complete the federal grant process, Cape Girardeau was one of three of our communities selected for a highly competitive i6 Challenge Grant from the US EDA, with a total of $2.2 million raised from grant and matching funds. With this award in hand, Codefi has continued to grow, and as community director Sarah Gant put it, they are trying to make Codefi the tech hub district of Cape Girardeau.

Successes already abound. Since its inception, Codefi has helped support the launch of over 50 startups, raising more than $20 million in equity investments and has created nearly 200 jobs. They have trained 150 adults how to code and have introduced computer programming to over 1,000 youth.

And as just one example of an innovative Cape Girardeau startup, Sho Rust moved back to his hometown of Cape Girardeau after a stint in Los Angeles, to start his automation and branding startup SHO.ai, which has received a seed investment from the CORI Innovation Fund. Sho, who had been living in Venice Beach, has found focus and calm in Cape Girardeau, and leaving the high-cost LA area has been integral to his startup’s success. As he put it, he has been excited to immerse himself further in the growing local tech community and show the region that an innovative tech startup can happen right here in Cape Girardeau, where the freedom from distractions and chaos fosters true innovation.

Innovation and tech entrepreneurship can happen anywhere — and Cape Girardeau is proof that rural places are part of that equation.

The Rural Edge series

At CORI, we have a saying: once you’ve seen one rural community, you’ve seen one rural community. America’s small towns are diverse and dynamic, and through our work with our Rural Innovation Network, we have the privilege of working in depth with 18 communities building digital economy ecosystems. To highlight these incredible places, Siegel Family Endowment and the Walmart Foundation provided funding for us to create video stories highlighting our communities’ efforts.