What motivates entrepreneurs? What makes them do what they do and endure the hardships of starting something from nothing? There are about as many answers to that question as flourishing startups, from the eccentric to the passionate to even philanthropic ones. But it’s not often you hear the word “useful” come up. Alison Alvarez, founder and CEO of BlastPoint, would safely qualify as a pretty smart person. With a degree in computer science, studies in Japanese and an MBA under her belt, we’re not willing to bet otherwise. Yet, "smart" doesn’t seem to be high on her agenda. “I don’t want to be the smartest person, I want to be the most useful person,” she claims with a certain air of nonchalance.
Alison grew up in Georgia in a blue collar neighborhood and is the daughter of a Cuban refugee. “My dad worked at the airport picking up bags from the planes and putting them on the conveyor belt. We were from a blue collar background. I’m the first one in my family to go to college. I came from people that left their business, their home and their full life behind. When that happens, ‘what do you have as a person?,’” she asks herself. “The knowledge you develop when you need to start over, when you need to learn as you go. You develop a different kind of smart, not just book smart, but useful smart.”
And useful she has become, building a provider of AI-powered customer intelligence solutions that optimize revenue growth. Since its launch almost five years ago, BlastPoint has been helping companies in retail, energy, enterprise, and nonprofit organizations “discover, target and engage the humans in their data.” In the current environment, this past October they helped Duquesne Light Co. to strategically address unpaid bills due to the pandemic, helping both the utilities provider and homeowners alike. The company has a client concentration in the midwest and the south, but operates nationwide and recently announced that it has reached break even point.
Alison graduated from DC’s George Washington University and moved to Pittsburgh to get her MS in Computer Science from Carnegie Mellon and then returned a few years later to get her MBA at CMU’s Tepper School of Business. Interestingly, BlastPoint started as an MBA project there. “I had previously worked at Rhiza Labs (a Nielsen company) and learned a lot from them on big data. I saw opportunities in the way you analyze data and think about data in a different way.” And Pittsburgh opened its doors to Alison in numerous other ways. “I would summarize Pittsburgh in one word: ‘opportunity.’ I’m nobody,” she claims with a humorous tone. “I don’t come from money. I don’t have connections or that great uncle with a checkbook. I never could have imagined when I moved here I would end up here. I’ve been given a lot of trust. CMU supported us. Friends, family and fools supported us. A lot of people in Pittsburgh provided that support.”
And to support their growth, BlastPoint is often looking for new people. “It’s been really nice here to have the ability to snap up great talent. I have hired before in Silicon Valley, and never want to do that again in my entire life. It is remarkable the quality of people we’ve been able to hire. To that end, I have found the Pittsburgh Technology Council particularly useful in the entire hiring process.”
You don’t find a lot of successful young female CEOs of Latino origin, so we asked Alison how she feels about the diversity of Pittsburgh’s tech ecosystem. “As a female entrepreneur of Latino origin I have felt very welcome in Pittsburgh and have found numerous networking opportunities. That said, I recognize that many Latino students that come to Pittsburgh get their degree and then leave. We need to get people to stay. I wish we had more Latino founders that stayed here.”
The reasons that have kept Alison in town go far beyond the land of opportunity that opened up to her. “Pittsburgh has changed night and day from when I first came here. Having lived in DC I found Pittsburgh really cheap and accessible. I could actually own a house here!” she exclaims in surprise. “As an adult it can be tough to make friends and I don’t feel that way about Pittsburgh; I feel like part of the Pittsburgh community. One of the things I love about it is that every neighborhood has its own personality. Depending on where you live, you’ll have arts festivals, block parties, community events, farmers markets with local fruits and vegetables. Have you tried the elotes at Alquisiras Paletería,” she asks rhetorically with enthusiasm, “they are the best I’ve ever tried.”
For someone who came from “nothing,” it’s refreshing to see her determination has been paved by a seemingly smooth, bump-less road. But surely there must be something in Pittsburgh she’s not a fan of, and we asked her. After a long pause, all she could come up with was “fewer potholes.” We’re pretty sure she wasn’t being metaphoric.