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INNOVATION PANEL—From left: Sean Luther, Priya Amin, Nisha Blackwell, Joshua Pollard, and Juan Garrett. (Photo by J.L. Martello)

Looking at how funders, government and community assets can coordinate to support community-driven innovation and entrepreneurship is perhaps one of the more critical aspects of realizing the desire to make sure all residents can take part in what Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto calls the innovation economy.

As part of Inclusive Innovation Week, The Allegheny Conference on Community Development and InnovatePGH hosted a roundtable discussion on these topics with several of these innovators: Nisha Blackwell, founder and CEO of Knotzland Bowties; Priya Amin, co-founder of Flexible LLC, an onsite emergency business daycare service; Juan Garrett, executive director of Riverside Center for Innovation, and Joshua Pollard, President and CEO of Omicelo, a real estate firm dedicated to development without gentrification.

Moderator and InnovatePGH Executive Director Sean Luther led the April 6 discussion with the panelists about successes, obstacles to be faced and overcome, and resources that can be leveraged or are lacking.

Blackwell said she started her business out of necessity, tiring of holding multiple low-wage jobs, and building her passion for sewing and creating into a business. She was recently in New York City for a successful meeting with clothing wholesales to carry her merchandise.

She said the biggest challenge she faced was being one of the only “makers” in a largely tech-oriented innovation space. When she started out she got some support which came with a free membership to the now-defunct TechShop. When the membership expired, she ran into a problem.

“I’d made all these designs for my packaging boxes on their equipment, and when my membership expired—I could use someone else’s, occasionally, but I couldn’t afford the membership,” she said. “When it closed all my designs were there. That, to me, is a fundamental problem. It’s a major barrier because people just starting out don’t have money for that. So, I think that kind of capability needs to be underwritten to grow more (product-based) entrepreneurs.”

She also said communication at the community level needs to be better because there are some resources in the community that people who might want to start a business aren’t aware of.

Garrett, who started at Riverside as an accountant, is primarily focused on building capacity in small, minority owned firms, many in the construction trades. A lot of what he finds is people are not as tech savvy as they should be. Some of it is basic stuff, he said.

“Take email. I have an account, juan23@aol.com. Now it’s clever and cute, but if you’re in business and trying to get a contract to do a particular task or service—you better have one that reflects that expertise—Juan23 isn’t going to show up in Yahoo or Google searches for accounting,” he said.

Pollard, originally from Braddock, was sponsored to attend Sewickley Academy and after college ended up at Goldman Sachs where he built and managed a $1 billion real estate hedge fund. He said healthy communities can build healthy economies.

“How affordable is affordable housing if it comes with unaffordable health problems; mold in the basement, lead in the water and violence in the street,” he said.

Amin settled on her business daycare model after seeing how women in the corporate space could be held back because of failures with childcare providers.

“It took me a while to ‘find my people’ who would allow me to build this,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to look outside the city. You’d be amazed what you can find on the other side of the river. It took me four years—because they were across the river.”


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