Collaboration, Underutilized Assets, and Entrepreneurship in Pittsburgh


Last month I attended a discussion in Pittsburgh hosted by GTECH Social Capital Council around the issue of innovation in the reuse of underutilized assets. The event brought together a cross-section of interested participants, including lawyers, entrepreneurs, community and economic development professionals, and artists.

Of course when you hear ‘underutilized asset’, buildings and land automatically come to mind. However, the folks at GTECH, who are already working with assets such as waste vegetable oil and dirt, encouraged us to broaden our definition – and so our discussion turned to assets like neighborhood stories, rivers, hillsides, and people. That last one is important in two ways. Abe Taleb, of ReWork, mentioned that according to 2010 census data, when compared to the 40 largest population centers in our country, the Pittsburgh region has the highest poverty rate among working-age African-Americans. Success stories abound about how Pittsburgh is reinventing itself, but imagine how successful we could be if those efforts included everyone in our city? Second, we have existing networks of people and organizations working towards the city’s success, but many have different ideas of what success looks like and how we can get there. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing, but it tends to mean that our efforts are often siloed. Bringing all of those organizations together to share ideas and resources could help push everyone’s agenda forward.

Sara Thompson, of Pashek Associates, brought up the concept of economic gardening, a strategy focused on building economies from the ground-up. Instead of the traditional model of economic development, where municipalities participate in the zero-sum game of recruiting large employers to relocate, economic gardening encourages entrepreneurship. This is a comprehensive approach however, which relies on data to make informed decisions; coordinates continued learning and access to educational opportunities; sees community development and place-making as key components of economic development; and facilitates connections between a wide variety of stakeholders. The questioned that summed up our discussion that evening was, “How can we utilize this model in Pittsburgh to bring together the amazing organizations already working in the city to build platforms for entrepreneurship, especially while engaging the most disenfranchised citizens?”

Enter, the Pittsburgh Central Keystone Innovation Zone, or PCKIZ. PCKIZ is a consortium of higher education institutions, businesses, government agencies and community organizations, collaborating to enable the neighborhoods in central Pittsburgh to realize their potential within the knowledge-based economy. Last year, PCKIZ reached out to several local non-profits to create a winning proposal for U.S. Economic Development Association’s coveted Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge.

According to Carolina Pais-Barreto Beyers, Vice President of PCKIZ, “The complexity of this RFP made it clear that we needed to leverage the strengths and expertise of several organizations to craft a proposal that was appropriate for our region.” Furthermore, PCKIZ recognized this as an opportunity to address the needs of the region’s underserved communities. “When such a great number of people are completely disenfranchised from all the good things that happen here, our entire region is compromised,” says Beyers.

Working with the Hill House Association, Innovation Works, Duquesne University Small Business Development Center, the Community College of Allegheny County, and the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence, PCKIZ created the Southwestern Pennsylvania Urban Revitalization Project (SPUR). The overall goal of SPUR is to connect residents from underserved communities—particularly the Hill District—with the local energy and health care industry clusters, in part through the creation of employee-owned and/or community based businesses.

And the key to the SPUR’s success? Collaboration, of course. In Beyers’ opinion, “Collaboration among organizations is essential to make an impact of magnitude. Inviting partners of diverse expertise can tackle issues from various angles and in a holistic manner.”

This is just one example of how Pittsburgh is coming together to leverage our existing assets for the continued prosperity of our city. There are lots of ways to get involved, including the upcoming Pop City’s social innovation eXchange (SIX), January 31st at Point State Park. If you have other ideas for how to promote this work in Pittsburgh or elsewhere, leave a comment below!

Using Young Professionals as Regional Bait

The following article is a post from our guest blogger, Abe Taleb, co-founder of re|work.

This past Labor Day weekend I had the pleasure of visiting Zurich, Switzerland to attend the One Young World Summit. The One Young World Summit (OYW) is a conference for young people (ages 18-30) to meet and discuss global issues, such as business, health, environment, and religion. The summit in Zurich had 1,200 delegates from 160 different countries. I was selected to be a part of the Pittsburgh Delegation of 30, two-thirds of which was from local corporations (PNC, Bayer, Federated) and the other third from local nonprofits.

It was a very exciting experience, with the highlight of the event getting to be up on stage when Pittsburgh was named the host city for the 2012 Summit (getting to stand next to Muhammad Yunus wasn’t too bad, either). While this is great news for Pittsburgh, it begs the question: is the city ready to host a conference for young leaders? And more broadly, is Pittsburgh doing all that it can to attract young professionals?

While the OYW Summit was a worthwhile and unique experience, it had one inherent failure – instead of delegates engaging in meaningful dialogue, we were merely spoken to. The roster of speakers was, as expected, very impressive (Desmond Tutu, Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, Jamie Oliver, and Wael Ghonim, just to name a few); but rather than having a conversation with the delegates, many of the presentations felt as if they were speaking at us. Though I’m sure their intentions were in the right place – with hopes of inspiring us – what they failed to realize was that inspiration was in all likelihood the one thing that the delegates had even more of to offer.

In my view, this failure stems from the leaders of the OYW Summit, Kate Robertson and David Jones. While they are admittedly both very successful and passionate people, they are of a different generation and have a very different perspective than people our age. Though I very much appreciate their foresight in starting OYW, they should have quickly handed over the reins to leaders closer in age to the actual delegates. It had the feeling of your parents throwing you a party for your 16th birthday, and everything that they thought would be fun, ended up being a little lame. At one point during the 3-day summit, during a conversation on the global role of corporations, Kate Robertson grabbed her microphone and reprimanded the delegates for suggesting that corporations are corrupt. This act upset many of the delegates because it clearly communicated that she was more interested in promoting her own agenda than giving a voice to the attendees.

This all applies to Pittsburgh (and other cities facing the challenge of recruiting young professionals) directly. We need more young people leading initiatives that are focused on recruiting young professionals to our city. I have, on many occasions, found myself at an event focused on the recruitment and retention of young professionals, and realizing that the event itself was not being led by someone of the target demographic. One solution is to support initiatives already being started by young professionals and allowing them to flourish.

One such solution is the Business Bout, a local start-up competition put on by six young professionals who are giving away $5,000 that they raised just by throwing a Barbecue. Their reasoning for holding such a competition is because they want to have a positive impact on the region and see giving away $5,000 to a new business as a great way to do that.

An example that I am fascinated with from another city is MassChallenge, an international start-up accelerator based in Boston, Massachusetts. New companies can apply from any field for MassChallenge, and this each year they gather 100 entrepreneurs to Boston for three months to accelerate their businesses (many of them end up staying for longer). This has had many secondary effects, but most important is that young professionals are attracted to Boston (and not just for school) because they want to be around what is happening at MassChallenge, and to be a part of the positive energy. This is a strong example of an organization that was started and is led by young people but has the support many government officials. Most notably, Governor Deval Patrick, who has been so impressed by the work of organizations like MassChallenge that he declared Massachusetts a “State for Social Innovation.”

My hope is that both Pittsburgh and OYW can learn from successes like MassChallenge and find ways to support initiatives like Business Bout, both which allow young people to lead. For OYW the future success of the summits rely on it becoming a more inclusive and curated experience for the delegates. Hopefully with the Summit coming to Pittsburgh, the past delegates will have a greater role in its planning, and this will translate into more success for the city when it comes to recruiting young people. This is a huge opportunity for Pittsburgh to put itself on the map as a place for young professionals, and we will have an audience of 1,500 delegates from around the world to send that message.

About Guest Blogger, Abe Taleb

re|work, a Pittsburgh based social venture.