Help For Small Firms Trying To Survive The Pandemic In At-Risk Neighborhoods

Joyce Gannon Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A new business program in Pittsburgh called, "Open for Business" aims to help local entrepreneurs recover from the pandemic by providing assistance in a number of areas including marketing and accounting. "Open for Business" will also help small business owners in low- to moderate-income communities re-design spaces to meet new COVID regulations.

Pittsburgh

Trish Digliodo says her years growing up in New Brighton, Beaver County, were tumultuous.

She tried to find her footing at Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh but didn't earn a degree from either.

She left the region in her early 20s, traveled and then eventually landed in South Carolina, where she and her husband, Marcos Digliodo, a native of Argentina, grew a successful wine distribution business. Mr. Digliodo attended University of Colorado Boulder and the College of Charleston but didn't graduate.

When family reasons brought the couple back to Beaver County in 2015, they explored ways to help other entrepreneurs who, like them, lack college degrees or don't have much business training.

Ms. Digliodo designed a one-year curriculum for aspiring business owners. Her first client, she recalled, was a recovering substance abuser with an eighth grade reading level.

"Our goal is: Don't let anyone slip through the cracks," she said.

The Digliodos grew their consulting business into Paramount Pursuits, a coworking space and business incubator located in a former Catholic church property in Ambridge. Their expertise working with entrepreneurs in at-risk neighborhoods is a driving component of Open for Business, launched recently in Allegheny County to help small firms recover from the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The county's Department of Community and Economic Development allocated $1 million for the two-year program. It will provide free assistance to businesses in 32 low- to moderate-income communities, not including the city of Pittsburgh.

Many of the targeted locations have for decades been challenged to rebuild from the loss of heavy manufacturing. They include Braddock, Clairton, McKees Rocks, Stowe, Tarentum and Wilkinsburg.

Paramount is partnering with Downtown-based Bridgeway Capital to deliver Open for Business.

As a nonprofit lender that targets underserved neighborhoods, Bridgeway's role in creating the program "is within our DNA," said Talpha Harris, manager of Bridgeway's Entrepreneurship Hub in the city's Homewood neighborhood.

"We saw a bunch of businesses negatively impacted by COVID-19," she said. "We wanted to find a solution and assistance ... for them to retool, rethink strategies and maybe pivot their sales and pipeline."

She expects the new program could help 200 entrepreneurs.

Open for Business will match participants with consultants who will work with them one-on-one (through virtual formats for now) on specific business challenges including marketing, accounting, legal issues, COVID-19-space redesign, web design and e-commerce.

Paramount's role is to assess applicants to the program and develop a strategy for each entrepreneur before they start working with consultants. Paramount will also offer group cohorts for 30 participants that will include a monthly meeting focused on business education and two individual mentoring sessions per month.

"The cohorts teach entrepreneurs, 'You're not alone in this,'" said Ms. Digliodo.

Connecting to resources Dominique Thornhill last year received a $30,000 loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration to open a child care and education center. When COVID-19 restrictions delayed her plans, Bridgeway helped her get the type of hands-on assistance it plans to provide other entrepreneurs through Open for Business.

Bridgeway's Entrepreneurship Hub matched Ms. Thornhill with an accountant to help with financial issues, and a marketing team helped her design a logo and other materials.

Prior to the pandemic, Ms. Thornhill's business, Each One Teach One, was a mobile nanny and tutoring service.

Since November, it has occupied about 4,000 square feet of leased space on Ardmore Boulevard near the Wilkinsburg-Forest Hills border.

"Bridgeway connected me to resources I didn't know I needed initially," said Ms. Thornhill, who formerly taught in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and at California University of Pennsylvania.

It also helped her secure a $10,000 grant from Pennsylvania's COVID-19 Relief Statewide Business Assistance program.

Each One Teach One now has 19 children ages 6 weeks to preschool enrolled in child care.

Another 24 students in kindergarten through high school participate in the education center where they bring their own electronic devices for virtual learning and receive assistance from college students.

The business employs 10, and Ms. Thornhill plans to add more when she achieves a goal of expanding to multiple locations.

"I was a teacher ... and now I'm an instructor, janitor, administrator, cook, and greeter at the door," she said. "I'm navigating the entrepreneurial world and doing it in the midst of COVID."

'They needed us' Ms. Digliodo calls Paramount's mission to help entrepreneurs in disadvantaged communities, "building social capital."

Since launching Paramount, 76% of its clients have been females and/or minorities, she said.

Its physical space underscores its investment in Ambridge, a once-thriving steel town along the Ohio River, 18 miles from Downtown Pittsburgh. The Digliodos paid $120,000 for the former Divine Redeemer Catholic Church on Merchant Street and spent several hundred thousand dollars to renovate the structure, which was built in 1918.

The former parish school now houses Paramount's coworking and incubator programs and space that's leased to other businesses.

The couple live in the former rectory — with their 12-pound Maltese dog — and rent worship space to Allison Park Church.

During the pandemic, Paramount's programming and consulting shifted online, and it spent much of its time helping clients apply for funding programs such as the federal Paycheck Protection Program.

It also continued working with small business cohorts it manages in East Liberty and the Hill District.

"We did not miss one day," said Ms. Digliodo. "We knew they needed us now more than ever."

For more information on Open for Business or to apply, go to www.bridgewaycapital.org.

___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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