Diversifying The Pool Of Entrepreneurs In Pittsburgh

By Joyce Gannon Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The city of Pittsburgh offers a number of support networks and resources for minority led startups including business incubators and university-based entrepreneurship centers.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A year ago, Jasmine Cho launched a website for her business making artistic, custom-order baked goods.

Among Yummyholic's creations inspired by her Asian-American heritage: Korean fried chicken and waffles cupcakes, along with Matcha Velvet cupcakes, which contain matcha, a Japanese green tea powder.

In addition to being online, Ms. Cho is trying to grow Yummyholic by appearing at specialty venues and events. In September, she sold her treats at clothing retailer ModCloth's temporary Downtown pop-up shop. Last year, she peddled products at Downtown's Light-Up Night.

Sales are growing -- slowly, said Ms. Cho, 32. That may be due in part to the fact she works out of her Squirrel Hill home and has limited capacity for production until she secures commercial baking space.

But she believes it's also the result of being an Asian-American who feels largely invisible among the region's business owners.

"It's been kind of lonely," she said. "To be a solopreneur and to be a woman and be an Asian-American in Pittsburgh magnifies the isolation of the entire journey."

Asian-Americans own about 7 percent of all businesses in the U.S., according to a 2012 survey by the U.S. Census Bureau. In Pittsburgh, they own only 3.7 percent.

Minorities own 7.5 percent of all firms in Pittsburgh that have more than one paid employee, the Census Bureau report said. Minority entrepreneurs often cite a lack of capital and a lack of awareness about their businesses outside their own communities as reasons why their firms may struggle to gain traction.

Ms. Cho, for instance, acknowledged the city of Pittsburgh offers a number of support networks and resources for startups such as business incubators and university-based entrepreneurship centers. As a minority, however, "I just feel I have to put forth an extra effort to find them," she said.

In mid-October, she attended Invest in Her, a pitch competition for female entrepreneurs where she was among the finalists vying for cash prizes for her business plan.

Using social media to raise interest Social media is one way some marginalized groups have tried to promote their businesses.

The BMe Community, an initiative which includes black men and others who try to inspire young black males through mentoring and educational opportunities, in August launched the #spendblack campaign to encourage people to purchase goods from black-owned businesses.

Pittsburgh, where blacks own 12.4 percent of all businesses, according to the 2012 census bureau data, was one of six cities where the campaign started. The others were Akron, Baltimore, Detroit, Miami and Philadelphia.

The campaign was largely a response to controversial shootings of blacks that spurred protests in some cities, the organizers said.

BMe estimates that if American consumers spent 2 percent more at black-owned businesses, 1 million more jobs would be created. Those jobs in turn would boost the overall economy and benefit black entrepreneurs.

To participate, consumers can download the #spendblack mobile app and be directed to black-owned retailers and services. They are encouraged to post pictures of themselves shopping at those places.

Grant Oliphant, president of the Downtown-based Heinz Endowments, which has provided $860,000 in grants to the BMe Community, said #spendblack is "part of a broader consciousness to build opportunity for black-owned businesses."

"If we want to be a thriving region," he said, "we've got to be looking to engage black-owned businesses and grow black entrepreneurship."

Hispanic-owned firms, which account for only 1.5 percent of all businesses in Pittsburgh, don't have a strong network of support, said Missy Berumen, who owns along with her husband, Gabriel, and his brothers, four Latino grocery stores in Pittsburgh and Washington, Pa., and the Las Palmas Restaurante in Beechview.

As new entrepreneurs in the city in 2009, obtaining financing was a major issue for the family which relocated here from Indianapolis. While they perceived an opportunity for Latino groceries, the family had no business connections in the city and there was not a strong, established network of other Hispanic business owners to tap for assistance, Ms. Berumen said.

Because they couldn't get a bank loan, they borrowed money from friends to open their first store in Brookline.

While market demand allowed them to expand, in the last couple years, the Berumens have encountered multiple incidents of racial discrimination. Their Beechview restaurant was vandalized in January and the Brookline store was painted with anti-Hispanic graffiti twice in the past year.

The Berumens' personal vehicle was also targeted. A large rock that shattered a front window of the Beechview restaurant sits in a prominent place on the bar.

"But we keep going; we have kids to feed," said the mother of nine children ages 5 to 22, including one set of twins. While she uses Facebook and other social media sites to promote her restaurant and stores, some networking is still done through traditional, in-person meetups. Her husband bonds with other Hispanic entrepreneurs through a soccer team, Liga Latina.

Facebooking live nationwide from Pittsburgh Meanwhile, Ms. Cho, in June, was the featured speaker for the kickoff of the Asian-American Women in Entrepreneurship Series.

The series was launched by the local chapter of the National Association of Asian-American Professionals -- a networking group trying to build connections for Asian-American business owners in the Pittsburgh region.

"The Pittsburgh startup scene is on fire for some people and not so much for others," said Steve LaRosa, board member and programming manager for NAAAP's Pittsburgh chapter.

The Asian-American Women in Entrepreneurship meets at the Allegheny HYP Club, Downtown.

While they sip drinks and nibble on hors d'oeuvres, the attendees listen to Mr. LaRosa conduct an interview with the featured entrepreneur. The interviews are broadcast live via a Facebook stream to NAAAP members nationwide.

The forum has hosted Leah Lizarondo, co-founder of 412 Food Rescue which redistributes unused food to people in need; and Priya Amin, founder of Roki, an online community for mothers.

Ms. Cho, who grew up in Los Angeles and is the daughter of South Korean immigrants, said the majority of Asian-American entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh are in the tech industry and are concentrated around the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie-Mellon University campuses.

But she's hopeful there will be a broader market for her products -- even the more obscure treats like the Tortoro cookie named for a Japanese anime film character -- because the region's Asian population is growing steadily.

"Overall, Pittsburgh's food scene has become a lot more progressive," said Ms. Cho. "It's ready for some new flavors."

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