Nisha Blackwell (Photo by Julia Reynolds)
Nisha Blackwell is stitching up her neighborhood and making it stronger. Blackwell was born and raised in Homewood, a majority black neighborhood in east Pittsburgh. Today, it has 2,000 vacant lots, 600 vacant buildings and a population only 17 percent of what it once was. She sees a brighter future ahead — one with a more diverse maker movement.
“It’s been underinvested for a very, very, very long time, but I’m looking forward to the growth of businesses, and not just business as a whole but minority-owned businesses, black-owned businesses, and the residents of the community benefiting from some of the changes,” Blackwell says.
One of those businesses is hers. In 2014, after getting laid off from a coffee shop job, the self-taught seamstress made a hair bow out of some used fabric for a friend’s daughter’s first birthday. She left the party with orders for six more. “It kind of snowballed into people asking for other items on top of hair bows, and hence came the bow tie,” Blackwell says.
Rehab work inside a former Pittsburgh factory building where a working artists' collective rents space (Photo by Jim Judkis)
Blackwell has taught others in her community how to sew the bow ties; they earn some extra income and pick up a new skill. One of her seamstresses went from sewing to helping to manage sourcing partners and training other seamstresses. She wants to start her own business at some point, Blackwell says.
It all happens in Homewood, at 7800 Susquehanna Street. Knotzland is a member of Radiant Hall, a Pittsburgh working artists’ collective that rents part of a former Westinghouse manufacturing facility there.
Including more entrepreneurs of color is a goal of many people in maker groups in the U.S, and the building’s landlord, Bridgeway Capital, recently engaged Blackwell to that end. She’s serving as a part-time consultant to help bring more entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds into the maker movement.
“Once I got out there and started doing shows and markets, I started to notice there was a lack of representation of makers of color, and also makers who were maybe single mothers,” Blackwell says. “Looking back at marginalized communities and single mothers and women who don’t have the support system in their homes, there are completely different needs … . Not to downplay the efforts of people who have those support systems in their households.”
Bridgeway Capital is a Pittsburgh-area nonprofit founded in 1990 that specializes in making loans to entrepreneurs and connecting them with business education opportunities. As a federally certified CDFI (community development financial institution), Bridgeway focuses on supporting businesses located in historically underinvested areas, like Homewood. One of Bridgeway’s goals is for those businesses to create jobs that employ people from those areas — specifically, jobs that pay at least 125 percent of minimum wage, currently $12.50 in Pittsburgh but just $7.25 in Pennsylvania.
About five years ago, according to Bridgeway’s Adam Kenney, the CDFI also started doing more real estate work to support the growth of businesses. It helped Pittsburgh printer Commonwealth Press acquire a new space when it lost its old location to condominiums. Bridgeway has also acquired property with an eye toward economic development, like the old 150,000-square-foot Westinghouse building. It’s even acquired some of the vacant land around the property.
“A lot of times these makers will get successful, they’ll find an old warehouse in a transitional neighborhood, and later someone buys them out and they’ll be displaced,” Kenney explains. “We’re a stable landlord, able to offer long-term leases, and below-market rent.”
Being a nonprofit also means Bridgeway doesn’t simply have to lease a space to the highest bidder. It can pick and choose tenants based on who might create the highest number of jobs, or who might create the jobs that are the most accessible. With an economic resurgence in Pittsburgh driven by “eds, meds and tech,” particularly the growth of robotics (including Uber’s autonomous car shop and Google), Bridgeway is betting on the maker movement’s potential for blue-collar job growth as a way to bring at least some of its less privileged residents along for that ride.
“It’s the spaces in between those larger sectors,” Kenney says. “We really want to make a pathway out of poverty through the maker movement. It’s not an easy thing, but it’s definitely our goal.”
Others see what Bridgeway sees. There’s Blackwell, of course. And the Hillman Family Foundation put up three years of funding support for Bridgeway to launch a Craft Business Accelerator to support those within Pittsburgh’s burgeoning maker movement.
Kenney, who used to be executive director of Touchstone, a nonprofit crafts school in the Pittsburgh area, was an ideal pick to lead the new accelerator. He also worked previously as a glassblower. “I had a Rolodex of people that I knew were very skilled but also committed to growing their businesses,” he says.
Kenney estimates that there are anywhere between 500 to 1,000 people in the Pittsburgh-area maker movement, though not all of them are interested in turning their hobby or artwork into a business. “The maker movement has been so democratizing, really anyone with a glue gun is a maker, which is great, but the ones we were focusing on had serious business characteristics and/or aspirations,” says Kenney.Bridgeway calls members of its Craft Business Accelerator “producers” instead of just makers. Part of their education is expanding who they tend to employ. “Right now when producers grow, they hire their buddies. The problem with that is, their buddies are interested in doing their own thing, so you get two good years out of them at best,” Kenney explains. “If you could find someone that was interested in having an honest day’s work, a meaningful manufacturing job for five to 10 to 15 years, that gives everyone stability, it gives everyone what they want.”
Kenney wants to connect producers to some of the same workforce development organizations that have been helpful to Bridgeway borrowers in other sectors, like Partner4Work.
As a carrot to draw in serious makers, the accelerator created Monmade, a platform to showcase the products and the producers of the accelerator on a national scale. It’s sort of like a Pittsburgh-centric Etsy, with a little more emphasis on the producers and their stories. As one example of what Monmade does for Craft Business Accelerator members, it showcased products from five members at this August’s NY NOW trade show in NYC, a national home decor and gifts exhibition. Monmade took orders at NY NOW from buyers as far as California, while also cultivating relationships with other wholesale buyers.
The accelerator also connects members to each other, especially at regular mixers held around the city. Knotzland connected with fellow producers Modesto Studios and Ashley Cecil to collaborate on a flora-and-fauna-themed line of bow ties to celebrate Earth Day in 2017. “It was just about getting us in the same room so we can come up with these dynamic ideas,” Blackwell says.
While the accelerator is mostly a virtual network of producers right now, Kenney envisions having a physical home at some point, perhaps at the 7800 Susquehanna building, where Bridgeway is finishing up a build-out for more tenants on the fifth floor.
As a part-time consultant for the accelerator, Blackwell intends to shape what that space looks like by focusing on both outreach and making sure the program itself accounts for a diverse array of backgrounds as it grows.
“You have to be intentional about that, and that’s often the part that’s missing from these other initiatives around economic development and spaces that aren’t thinking about it intentionally from the jump,” Blackwell says.
These days, when she’s selling at a market or event, Blackwell routinely strikes up a conversation about the accelerator with every maker of color she can find, gauging their interest and their needs.
“At first I was a little bit nervous, because I wasn’t sure how people would take to me trying to help them, especially older people, because I feel out of place when it comes to my elders. But they’ve been the most responsive because it was like they were waiting for something like this to come along to support their efforts,” Blackwell says. “If I can make sure we can make the room, our community, the platform reflective of the real community we’re working with, I’ve done my job.”