Ava DeMarco of Little Earth Productions. Photo courtesy of Ava DeMarco.

When Ava DeMarco and Rob Brandegee started Little Earth Productions in 1993, the eco-fashion pioneers cranked out bottlecap belts and license plate purses in their basement. In 1998, DeMarco was accepted into the inaugural Entrepreneurial Fellows Class at the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence (IEE).

Today, Little Earth isn’t so little anymore: The company is a leading manufacturer of licensed accessories and apparel for professional and college sports teams with distributors in seven countries, including Germany and Japan.

DeMarco credits the Entrepreneurial Fellows Class with teaching her the nuts and bolts of business, from strategy to marketing.

“Spending one day per month working ‘on’ the business instead of ‘in’ the business forced me to step back from the day-to-day activities and look at parts of my business more strategically and holistically,” she says. “I learned to pay attention to the balance sheet and cash flow as well as the income statement.”

Small businesses like Little Earth are a cornerstone of Pennsylvania’s economy. In 2014, 98.2 percent of the state’s employers were small firms, and businesses with fewer than 500 employees accounted for 47.3 percent of the private sector labor force, employing 2.4 million workers.

Since 1994, the IEE has offered these businesses — from the family-run Cellone’s Bakery to the commercial real estate firm Colliers International  — a mix of customized consulting services, educational workshops and networking opportunities. For two decades, the Entrepreneurial Fellows Class has been a vital part of that.

The newest Entrepreneurial Fellows Class begins their work next week (a few spots remain for the session that begins on January 24 — reach out here to inquire about enrolling).

The yearlong program, with a fee of $4,300, is open to owners, company founders and senior executives of businesses with at least $1 million in annual revenue. In each session — one class per month except in July and August — the lessons are tailored to real-world examples provided by the students.

Rather than examining abstract case studies, class participants work through their own unique business challenges in a confidential setting with 35 to 40 of their peers. And everyone enrolled in the course is paired with a mentor; past mentors have included Eat’n Park President and CEO Jeff Broadhurst and Susie Baker Shipley, regional president of Huntington Bank. Upon completion, participants in the program will receive a certificate from Pitt.

Consider how many entrepreneurs will leap forward at the end of this intensive year of learning. In 2016 alone, the IEE — part of Pitt’s Innovation Institute — had a hand in creating 88 startups, raising $13.5 million in capital and creating 737 jobs. They also educated more than 2,500 business leaders through 100-plus programs and seminars.

One key is that the IEE’s staff understands the challenges of entrepreneurship firsthand. Before taking the helm as the IEE’s executive director in 2014, Robert Stein worked in his family’s business and founded his own online IT publication.

“I can identify with what a lot of family business clients go through and know what it feels like to start a business, so I realize how important it is to get the help that IEE provides,” he says.

This year, to commemorate the class’s 20th anniversary, more than 600 alumni are invited to reunite at a luncheon this spring. The IEE will offer additional classes in communication, finance and leadership to the program’s alumni, who represent a diverse mix of industries.

Stein says these alumni share an entrepreneurial spirit that is uniquely Pittsburgh.

“One trait that makes Pittsburghers good entrepreneurs and business owners is their resilience,” he says. “Pittsburghers keep trying and keep doing their best and that allows entrepreneurs and small business owners to succeed more often than not.”

Emily fell in love with the written word as a teenager, when she published zines and wrote for her school paper. Today, she is a freelance writer with a decade and a half of experience in non-profit communications. She enjoys cooking, reading, crafting and exploring Pittsburgh with her husband and two sons.