Photo courtesy of East Liberty Development Inc.

Designer Aquene Watkins Wise is determined to scale her line of body-positive fitness apparel. Taylor Ford and Ginay Clarke are ready to grow their IT business. And designer Kecia Chantel has big plans for her line of beaded jewelry.

These local entrepreneurs and a dozen more fledgling businesses are now getting the support they need to boost their businesses. They are members of the latest cohort of women and minority entrepreneurs to join the Catapult: Startup to Storefront incubator program. Now in its second year, the program provides free mentoring and support to a select group of small businesses through group classes and one-on-one coaching.

Along with gaining knowledge, participants are considered for a retail space at Gallery on Penn, a showroom located at 5935 Penn Avenue in East Liberty.

The program is a collaboration between East Liberty Development Inc. (ELDI), Circles Greater Pittsburgh, the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh and the Larimer Consensus Group. Paramount Co-Op, an incubator and co-working space based in Ambridge, developed the coursework.

Building on the success of the first year, the project’s leaders have opted to admit a greater number of students this year and have expanded the time frame to add an extra three months of support.

“One of the many lessons we’ve learned after the first cohort is the need to extend the program from nine to 12 months,” said Tammy Thompson, executive director of Circles Greater Pittsburgh and director of the Catapult program. This extra time is especially valuable, she says, in preparing owners to launch retail businesses.

While all startups have challenges in their early years, companies led by women and minorities are often excluded from traditional sources of funding and support. With Catapult, Thompson and her team hope to see the East End’s wider revitalization benefit all members of the community.

“All of our programming was created by entrepreneurs and is taught by entrepreneurs, which makes our program unique,” said Trish Digliodo, president of Paramount Co-Op. “Our goal is to ensure each entrepreneur is surrounded by a team to help them throughout their entrepreneurial journey.”

Watkins Wise’s business, RoyallyFit LLC, includes lifestyle products and personal training along with body-positive fitness apparel. At I.T’s 4 Me, Ford and Clarke provide and manage IT equipment while also teaching clients how to better use their tech. And Chantel, founder of Zuri Beads, designs handmade beaded bracelets.

These entrepreneurs and the rest of their cohort began working with Catapult earlier this month.

“I’m really excited about continuing to increase intentional opportunities for minority businesses to learn, grow and expand in Pittsburgh,” said Thompson. “Being able to have an active part in supporting the hopes and dreams of these entrepreneurs is really an honor, and I’m excited to see how they change Pittsburgh’s business landscape.”

ELDI will hold an event to introduce the new cohort on Oct. 3 at Gallery on Penn. Learn more about that event here.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.