When You Build It But They Don’t Come (Yet)

Bridgeway Capital

Pittsburgh, PA

The Practice

Pathways cohort member Bridgeway Capital developed the Creative Business Accelerator (CBA) to help grow Pittsburgh- based creative businesses (artists, makers, designers, and craftspeople) into micro- and small manufacturers who create jobs and ignite innovative, equitable growth in the region. The CBA provides emerging and established creative businesses with better access to elements of business success: space, capital, peers, markets, guidance, and workforce. To better align with Bridgeway’s mission, the CBA wanted to engage with more entrepreneurs with the racial diversity to ensure equitable economic growth. Only 16 percent of the 175 makers in CBA’s network were entrepreneurs of color. One-quarter of even that extremely small number — eight in total — were pursuing their creative businesses as their primary employment. African Americans, in particular, envision greater financial independence and opportunity arising out of entrepreneurship, but experience deep frustration with the barriers keeping them from pursuing their business plans.

Bridgeway Capital engaged with African American creatives to identify solutions that would help more come to the CBA and take advantage of the program’s business-propelling resources. Based on those conversations, the CBA launched ORIGINS, a multifaceted initiative to improve access to business development services for makers of color. ORIGINS comprises five components: the cohort, a peer network of African American creative businesses characterized by mentorship and collaboration; the incubator, six-12 weeks of individualized in-depth guidance for businesses; an online platform, which celebrates African American creatives, provides them greater visibility, and connects them to wider audiences and markets; the residency, 12 months of subsidized light industrial space to businesses ready to ramp up production; and new market opportunities, including subsidized booths at retail events.

ORIGINS fully subsidized high-touch, one-on-one product development and marketing consultation to an inaugural cohort of 16 African American makers. The CBA is tracking pre- and post-program sales and social media data to validate ORIGINS’ ability to increase African American creatives’ visibility in target markets.

CBA has analyzed Pittsburgh-area supply chains and market demand to help ORIGINS participants to identify and access potential new markets. Monmade, another CBA program, helps to connect local makers with new markets, is working in concert with ORIGINS.

“What’s most compelling to us about the ORIGINS approach is that it lets the CBA help entrepreneurs access capital to grow their businesses while simultaneously helping African American creatives expand into new markets,” says Lee Wellington, executive director of UMA. “Growing businesses aren’t just saddled with debt; they’re also able to quickly access opportunities to leverage that debt and grow their businesses. It could not be more squarely aligned with what we’re doing at UMA—in particular with the Pathways to Patient Capital cohort program.”

ORIGINS’ outreach and engagement is a key part of making the program successful. “Nisha Blackwell brings direct experience to bear in her position leading outreach and strategy for ORIGINS. She is the founder and owner of Knotzland Bowties, an apparel manufacturing business, and has worked for over three years to engage and understand the needs of Pittsburgh’s African American creatives. The ORIGINS program is the culmination of this effort, and provides customized business development and marketing programs designed to close the barriers faced by these entrepreneurs,” says Tanu Kumar, UMA’s director of special projects and a lead on the Pathways cohort.

CBA is now identifying additional funds to raise that will provide grants to allow business owners participating in ORIGINS to step away from their side gigs and focus on full-time entrepreneurship.

The Practitioners

Nisha Blackwell and Katie Johnson

Bridgeway Capital

Nisha Blackwell and Katie Johnson joined Bridgeway Capital’s Creative Business Accelerator program because they saw first-hand how well the program worked. Both had benefited from it in the past, Johnson as a small-batch ceramic tile manufacturer at Braddock Tiles, and Blackwell as the owner of Knotzland Bowtie Co.

During UMA’s 2019 Milwaukee Gathering, Blackwell told the audience that the Creative Business Accelerator “felt like home.” “Nothing really felt quite like it was honing in on the maker side of it, the craft business side of it,” she said, referring to other business support programs she’d participated in in the past.

Today Blackwell and Johnson are leading the launch of a new initiative that applies the successful elements of the Creative Business Accelerator specifically to African American manufacturers and makers.

The program is called ORIGINS. It connects entrepreneurs to grants, loans, and production space so they can realize greater business success, creative fulfillment, and community impact.

Johnson’s interest in this field can be traced to her time at Braddock Tiles, a mission- driven tile manufacturer located outside Pittsburgh, that provided employment and job-readiness skills to disadvantaged young adults.

She says ORIGINS is treading towards a similar kind of community impact. She saw the first glimpses of that when they interviewed their first maker-in-residence, Selima Dawson, proprietor of Blakbird Jewelry.

Johnson asked her if she’d had trouble accessing space for her business in the past. Dawson told her she’d never thought to look. She never imagined her business growing to a point where it would need it.

With help from ORIGINS, Dawson now has her mind set on growing to the point that she can hire another African American woman and give her a good-paying career path in the crafts. Johnson and Blackwell joined UMA’s Pathways to Patient Capital cohort to provide insight on how they plan to help Dawson and others achieve that success, while also learning about the struggles and successes of other mission- driven financial programs across the country.

“I firmly believe that there is a ripple effect with this work, that by creating access to resources in a thoughtful, intentional, and meaningful way, they will in turn open up opportunities for other people in the community,” said Johnson.

UMA has assembled our Pathways to Patient Capital practitioner cohort because each member has found a successful or promising approach to helping entrepreneurs of color — including makers and manufacturers — to get access to the capital and know-how they need to realize their business ideas and plans at scale. We know there is great benefit in lifting up and sharing this information among other practitioners, but also with other audiences, such as policymakers, lenders, and other funders. We compiled the brief profiles you are about to read to give these audiences a sense of both the personal and the practical: one section describes the people and organizations doing this work and the inspiration that guides them (“The Practitioner”); the other describes the innovations in capital access or readiness that each is pioneering or bringing to scale (“The Practice”). You can read the full report here.

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