The other day was a perfect example of why it feels bittersweet to be leaving Pittsburgh at summer's end. When people ask me "How's Pittsburgh?" I tell them that I've been pleasantly surprised. Inevitably eyebrows shoot up in disbelief and the curious pry further, "Really?" Then I launch into my speech about how Pittsburgh's post-industrial decline created a vacuum that served as a magnet for change agents. Usually whomever I'm talking to will search for hints of denial in my face and probably think, 'Poor girl, there must be something in the water..." While that is certainly true (chlorine from Marcellus Shale fracking), there is definitely something special about the 'Burgh. Let me tell you about my day, and maybe you'll understand.
First, some context: I've been working with former Echoing Green Fellow, Andrew Butcher, co-founder and CEO of GTECH Strategies, to develop GTECH's local support base. GTECH, which stands for Growth Through Energy & Community Health, is a thought and action leader in the region and nationally that works with communities to transform economic and environmental liabilities into assets. Their most well-known projects here are the fields of sunflowers planted on vacant lots, of which Pittsburgh has many.
So the other day I had a meeting with a local venue to talk logistics for an upcoming GTECH event. The venue is the Waffle Shop in East Liberty (historic Brooklyn-esque neighborhood). The Waffle Shop originated as a CMU student art project with a community development twist. It's a cool diner space with weird late night operating hours and yummy waffles. The coolest part though, is that there is a talk-show stage open to the community, with film equipment used to stream the shows live online. In this way, the Waffle Shop serves as a collaborative "third space" for the community to perform and dialogue. We are very excited to be organizing a GTECH event, which will be a brunch panel discussion on Social Entrepreneurship, at such a fitting venue.
After my meeting at Waffle Shop, I couldn't resist going next door to Conflict Kitchen's take out window to grab an Iranian sandwich to go. Conflict Kitchen is a take out stall that only serves foods from places that are in conflict with the U.S. Right now they are offering sandwiches from Iran, and in few months they will change the entire facade of their storefront window and their menu to reflect another country (North Korea, Afghanistan, Venezuela...you name it).
After savoring my sandwich through another meeting for a school project, I headed over to CMU's Project Olympus for an Idea Lab roundtable discussion on Social Entrepreneurship in the region and nationally. The Idea Lab is student social enterprise incubator led by and for grad students to develop early-stage ideas. Project Olympus is an incubator space and program for for-profit student enterprises that spin out of CMU, of which there are many. It was interesting to have such a rich array of organizations represented in the discussion - Idea Lab, Project Olympus, UPitt Law's Innovation Practice Institute, Scenable, and SponsorChange. We started by talking about Pittsburgh's potential as a hotbed of social innovation. Apparently at a CMU talk last year, Mayor Fetterman of Braddock, PA (itself, a very special place) said something in the spirit of, SW PA, and Pittsburgh in particular, has the potential to be the silicon valley of social entrepreneurship because the need is just so big. Agreed.
With projects like PopUp Pittsburgh, a constant stream of innovation challenges, and companies like Google setting up shop to scoop up nerdy talent, things are looking up for the 'burgh. There does seem to be a dearth of available funding in the area for social ventures. However, PA just recently joined the ranks of NYC, VT, CA and a few other states that allow for the creation of Benefit Corporations (B-Cors) with charters specifically stating that the purpose of the corporation is to not only bring value to shareholders but also to have a positive impact on people and planet. Annual audits will be conducted to ensure that this holds true.
So if you are planning a social venture to do with economic development, consider Pittsburgh as an ideal testing grounds with opportunities and incubators galore!