Statistics show that an online presence is critical for small businesses: 97 percent of consumers search online for products and services and 91 percent visited a store because of its online presence.

And yet, according to a 2014 study by SCORE, half of small businesses do not have a website.

It seems like a simple thing but because small business owners play many roles, the reason most often cited by owners is the lack of time to focus on building a site.

Connecting Urban Entrepreneurs (CUE), a program designed to train business owners to build and manage their own website, presented its first cohort of entrepreneurs on Thursday evening at the Carnegie Library in East Liberty.

The project came about after a group met at Google Pittsburgh to discuss ways to improve the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Pittsburgh—specifically focusing on small businesses. According to Mike Capsambelis of Google’s Civic Innovation Team, the consensus was clear. “Many small businesses have no websites. And because of that, people can’t find them. It’s the low hanging fruit. But a very important one.”

CUE is a collaboration among the City’s Department of Innovation & Performance, Google, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Urban Innovation21, The Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship, Davis Consulting Solutions, CEED, Kiva Zip, Bridgeway Capital and The Kingsley Center.

During Thursday’s event, the program’s founders—Bill Generett of Urban Innovation21, Debra Lam, the City’s Chief Innovation & Performance Officer, Mike Capsambelis of Google and Rebecca Harris of Chatham’s Center for Women’s Entrepreneurship—addressed the audience with collective gratitude for the many organizations that contributed to the program’s success.

The pilot program helped 11 entrepreneurs from Larimer, East Liberty, Garfield and Homewood learn how to create and maintain websites as well as how to use and maximize social media to reach potential customers.

Participants had a diverse range of businesses from a barber shop and laundromat, to a video production company and handmade bow ties.

Debra Lam. Photo by Leah Lizarondo.

Baiyanah Brookins, owner of Afrolution comes from a family of entrepreneurs. She sells fair trade clothing and accessories and her new website enables her to sell her products online. “I learned so much the past 12 weeks. I built a website but I also learned how important content is to Search Engine Optimization (SEO),” she says.

Nisha Blackwell, the designer behind Knotzland, makes handcrafted bow ties from upcycled materials and collaborates with artists to offer one-of-a-kind products. Blackwell says the program really helped accelerate her business. “I’m making a big push this year and this program helped me take a leap.”

“It was a wonderful experience. Many of the volunteer instructors and mentors went above and beyond what was asked of them,” says Siena Kane of the Hilltop Alliance, who managed the program. “Small business owners, they have so much to do but this really allowed them to give time to this—and they didn’t have a website built for them, they learned how to do it themselves.”

Wes Roberts, Library Services Manager, was tasked with the program logistics. Perhaps his reflection echoes one of the most important outcomes of the program. “CUE not only demonstrated how the library helps entrepreneurs as they start and build their business, but beyond that, all of us—participants and collaborators—made new contacts, new connections, and built a community.”

Leah Lizarondo

Leah Lizarondo is a food advocate, writer and speaker. She is also the co-founder of 412 Food Rescue, an organization that seeks to eliminate food waste to make an impact on hunger and the environment....