They Couldn’t Access Tech Tools But Still Got Support From Incubator During Pandemic

By Joyce Gannon Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) "Prototype" a newly formed female-focused incubator in Pittsburgh was forced to shut down in March because of COVID. However, the 2020 class refused to let the pandemic thwart their dreams of business ownership. These budding entrepreneurs immediately pivoted to virtual workshops on everything from branding to social media marketing to accounting.

Pittsburgh

Dominique Scaife was anxious to get her hands on the 3D printer.

It's among the tools she expected to have access to this year at PrototypePGH, an Oakland coworking space that focuses on female and minority entrepreneurs.

Ms. Scaife, a sculptor who is designing and marketing a line of dolls of color, envisioned making 3D print models a manufacturer could use to make molds for dolls instead of clay parts.

But that experiment came to a halt in March when Prototype was forced to close its doors because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While sheltering at home, Ms. Scaife and nine other makers selected for Prototype's 2020 incubator class turned to virtual meetings for help with branding, social media marketing, accounting, legal issues and other business basics.

Though they couldn't collaborate in person and share equipment, they supported each other online at monthly Saturday workshops and through a Slack communications channel.

"Those workshops kept me going," said Ms. Scaife, 45, who has been working from her home studio to develop Kool Image Dolls, which also feature clothing accessories and video stories about the characters.

"Seeing women lead the workshops and being with a group of females of all ages who were just as vulnerable as myself was very comforting, yet at the same time empowering," she said.

She left her job as a medical insurance coder at UPMC Magee-Women's Hospital to work on her business full time and is using savings to fund it.

The cohort also includes a glass artist who is launching a recycling nonprofit, a small-batch coffee roaster, a teen who makes T-shirts for dogs and kids, a literary journal editor, a software developer, a mixed-media artist, an illustrator-designer and the developer of a machining-manufacturing co-op for women and LGBTQ+ individuals.

All 10 are set to graduate from the program Nov. 5 at a virtual event during which they will each pitch for capital to help sustain their firms through the pandemic and beyond.

This is the second year Prototype incubated a group of startups. The nonprofit launched formally in January 2019 with a class of five firms, but the seed for a women-makers' incubator was planted a couple years earlier when co-founders Erin Gatz and Louise Larson were working at TechShop, an East Liberty maker space that closed in 2017.

They wanted to help women with few resources develop business ventures. "Not many programs support women at the idea stage," said Ms. Gatz, who has been managing Prototype on her own since Ms. Larson relocated to Chicago last year.

They designed Prototype to give members 24\/7 access to space and equipment, along with business education and networking opportunities.

Funding from the Sprout Fund, BNY Mellon Foundation, Google and the Opportunity Fund has been used to pay for operations, supplies and free workshops at Prototype's 550-square-foot incubator space on Melwood Avenue.

Prototype has also conducted programs at the University of Pittsburgh's Manufacturing Assistance Center in Homewood.

Tools at Prototype's Melwood Avenue space include the 3D printer, milling machine, laser engraver, vinyl cutter, soldering irons, screen printing equipment, hat press and T-shirt press.

Members who are not part of the incubator class pay fees on a sliding scale of $5 to $50 per month.

Ms. Gatz, 33, doesn't earn a salary for overseeing the incubator. "I'm a student first and foremost," said the researcher who is earning a doctorate in learning sciences and policy at the University of Pittsburgh.

"This has always been a passion project for me," she said. "I see Prototype as a way adults can engage in lifelong learning."

If Prototype had paused programming when the pandemic struck, "I was feeling some companies would not have stuck with their plans to launch or grow because they didn't have that network of support," said Ms. Gatz. "I heard from them that it was really validating to know in such an uncertain time that there was still a community of women working toward growing or launching a business and that they weren't totally alone."

For Ashley McFarland, a glass artist who founded nonprofit Reimagined Recycling to recycle plastics and other materials, Prototype's workshops during the pandemic "added some sense of normalcy to Saturday mornings," she said.

Ms. McFarland, 36, is leasing warehouse space in Larimer where she collects plastic.

She recently ordered her first shredder that will break down plastic into flakes that can be used in coasters, baking sheets and other products. She also plans to offer workshops to teach people creative recycling projects, such as turning plastic milk jugs into cellphone cases.

Prototype offered "comfortable space and camaraderie," even when its physical shop closed, said Ms. McFarland.

"Sometimes, maker spaces can be a little intimidating."

In January, she left a full-time job as education and accessibility manager at the Pittsburgh Glass Center to pursue her nonprofit.

She now works two part-time jobs and volunteered to make face masks when the pandemic struck.

Even though it pivoted to virtual programs in March, "Prototype gave me space to do a project I'm passionate about and grounded me to focus on that," said Ms. McFarland.

The incubator reopened its Oakland space on Oct. 1 but is limiting access to three people at a time, all wearing masks.

For information on Prototype's pitch night, go to www.eventbrite.com\/e\/final-pitch-event-for-the-prototype-incubator-tickets-121536816891 ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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