“It turns out that ice cream is pretty important to people during a crisis,” says Leona’s Ice Cream co-founder Katie Heldstab. “There’s a lot of ‘eating of feelings’ going on. The hard part for us was to figure out how to keep producing it while still being safe.”
For advice, the Wilkinsburg-based entrepreneur turned to her Entrepreneurs Forever (eforever) group, a program founded by Pittsburgh’s Mansmann Foundation that connects small businesses in underserved communities with other entrepreneurs for support.
We went to our group to figure out our options, says Heldstab. “Where do we look for funding, how do we protect our cash, how do we navigate some of the financial stuff that’s coming at us, that’s changing every 36 hours?”
Leona’s has 10 employees and sells its ice cream sandwiches at more than 80 locations. “We have a lot of people’s livelihoods at stake,” says Heldstab. She finds the support from the peer-to-peer group to be invaluable. With eight different businesses in the group, she says she gets eight different perspectives and can figure out a plan that works best for her.
“We’ve served 325 different entrepreneurs in 15 different communities, all around Pittsburgh in southwestern Pennsylvania,” explains A.J. Drexler, who started as CEO of the Mansmann Foundation in May.
Their focus is on businesses in neighborhoods and towns that haven’t benefited from the post-industrial rebound in Pittsburgh.
“Rather than being a sort of short-term and educational program, we bring together small groups of six to 10 entrepreneurs who are non-competitive with one another, along with a trained facilitator, and they form an eforever group, and usually in their own community,” says Drexler.
In addition to rebranding as eforever, the program is now launching outside of Western Pennsylvania for the first time, expanding to several cities in Massachusetts. They’re partnering with the Boston’s EforAll, which has a similar mission and track record of supporting under-resourced entrepreneurs with mentorship and training.
“These groups themselves are intended to persist over time. But, more importantly, the peer-to-peer groups provide the critical long-term support that participating entrepreneurs need as they try to stabilize and grow their businesses.”
The program works best for entrepreneurs who have been in business for at least a year. The only similar programs available nationally are for businesses that have a lot more revenue — typically $1 to 10 million — to join, notes Drexler.
“What we’ve learned over the last five years, is that there’s a critically sensitive time period in the evolution of these left-behind communities — when despair starts to decline and hope starts to plant that seed,” says Drexler. “Once this happens, the door is open for the introduction of new, and the evolution of existing, main street businesses. And as that happens, new entrepreneurs of all stripes start to see the opportunity and (begin) to achieve a foothold in that community.”
The Mansmann Foundation was founded in 2014 by successful Pittsburgh entrepreneur Joe Calihan, who comes from a family of entrepreneurs. Calihan’s grandfather, Albert J. Mansmann, founded the landmark Mansmann’s Department Store in 1888, which remained open in East Liberty until 1979.