Jessica Grave
Jessica Graves, owner of Una Biologicals on Butler Street, outside of her storefront.

For Jessica Graves, having to shut the doors of her small business for Covid in March 2020 was just the beginning of the challenges she would face. Like many small businesses, the owner of Una Biologicals in Lawrenceville applied for federal Paycheck Protection Program loans and other grants to try to keep her staff on the payroll. 

The beauty and wellness boutique survived the brunt of the pandemic, but a fire at neighboring Pesaro’s Pizza in March 2021 forced Graves to shut her Butler Street doors again.

“It happened almost a year to the day after we shut down for Covid,” Graves says. “The Ides of March were real for Una.”

Graves is just one of 100 recipients of a $10,000 grant from Comcast RISE. The $1 million in grants were awarded to businesses in Allegheny County owned by women and people of color. The program aims to ease the burden of the pandemic as well as current economic conditions for business owners who face inequities in securing capital and other resources.

“I think it’s really important just financially that (Comcast) is targeting, you know, women and minorities specifically, because they just are less likely to get funding, generally speaking,” Graves says. ”It’s a nice boost to be to have this positivity coming in and like see a corporation engaging small businesses and see the city get excited about them.”

Inside the new Una location. Photo courtesy Una Biologicals.

Last fall, Una Biologicals moved to its new location just down the street at 3707 Butler St. Along with its boutique, Una also operates a manufacturing facility in Homewood. Graves began making products in her kitchen nearly 20 years ago and started selling in the Strip District in 2008. Her first store opened in Lawrenceville in 2015.

Una Biologicals is also involved in the community through its Dolly Days campaign. From every sale of Diamond Girls, a lotion inspired by Dolly Parton, Graves gives $5 to an Allegheny County nonprofit serving women, children and wellness. 

Another woman entrepreneur benefitting from a RISE grant is Jen Saffron, the owner of Sprezzatura Pittsburgh, a cafe at 112 E. Sherman St in Millvale. Sprezzatura also provides catering and sells wholesale.

“It’s easy to think Covid is over,” Saffron says. “The high positivity rate in Allegheny County is not helpful for food-related businesses. The volatility of the supply chain and the disruption of food production globally makes it all the harder. Inflation and all of these impacts on independently-owned small businesses are real. Small businesses are the heart of the American mainstream.”

Saffron hosted an information session in the cafe about the Comcast RISE grant and decided to apply after the event.

“To have Comcast get up underneath those of us who have been bearing the brunt is so uplifting,” Saffron says. 

Sprezzatura will use the $10,000 to improve the cafe, including re-envisioning the menu and preparing for the fall and winter. Saffron also wants to open the Millvale Market, a small grocery store in a community that lacks one. Millvale Market currently operates out of Sprezzatura during the restaurant’s normal operating hours. 

Carlton Falconer Jr. has specific goals for the grant money he is receiving. He is the owner of Carlton Speaks, a business he began in 2018 after becoming a life coach. 

Carlton Falconer Jr.
Carlton Falconer Jr. wearing his Carlton Speaks merch. Photo courtney of Carlton Falconer Jr.

Falconer started out in 2016 as a Christian blogger and became an associate minister at Mount Ararat Baptist Church in August 2018.

Carlton Speaks is focused on Christian leadership, life coaching and the empowerment of women, as well as fitness training. 

Falconer will use the grant to revitalize his website to reach more people as well as to restock his apparel line which aims to inspire women. 

“It’s hard to put into words,” Carlton says. “I’m humbled that I was chosen to be amongst all of the businesses. I know some of the businesses and the people. To be among of that group of people in Pittsburgh means a lot.” 

Sara Eve Rivera is the owner of Positive Mental Attitude Tattoo at 637 Broadway Ave. in Stowe Township. Rivera says the shop focuses on custom tattoos in a calm, predictable and relaxing environment. She focuses on floral tattoos, cover-ups and reworks. At any given time, Rivera is booked three months out. 

Rivera emphasizes the importance of being a community-centered business and volunteers weekly at the Sto-Rox Mural Project and participates in voting initiatives.

The shop also has a free food insulated cooler outside the shop in partnership with Pure Grub.

For Rivera, the next big mission is accessibility to their space, which currently does not have a ramp up to the door.

The outside of Positive Mental Attitude Tattoo shop.
Positive Mental Attitude Tattoo on Broadway Avenue in Stowe Township. Photo courtesy Sara Eve Rivera.

“We have some clients who use walkers or chairs,” Rivera says. “They have been so patient with us over the last few years as we’ve tried to get an accessible bathroom and ramp put in. This grant has been the most exciting thing this year to be able to fund that.” 

Rivera says that the grant has come at a time where they have been struggling to work with banks.

“I have an excellent credit score, I have hardly any debt, I’m on year nine of tattooing and they still won’t fund me,” Rivera says. “I think it’s partially being self-employed, but I’m also queer, Puerto Rican and heavily tattooed. It’s been impossible to get funded for most things. To get this one is really exciting to have access to funds to improve our space.”

A Pittsburgh native, Ethan is a freelance journalist interested in telling the stories of people doing great things to build community and sustainability. Ethan served as Editor-in-Chief of Allegheny College's newspaper, The Campus.