Uncomfortable with Comfort

Majestic Lane

In early 2019 there were five Offices of Equity in the entire United States and one of them was right here in Pittsburgh. That was due to the commitment of Mayor Bill Peduto and the man that runs the office, Chief Equity Officer Majestic Lane, to pursue much needed systemic change. Majestic is on a mission of pushing all of us outside our comfort zone to get things done, and you can often find him wearing a baseball cap with the initials GSD, which stands for Get Stuff Done - you are welcome to replace “Stuff” with a more convincing four-letter word, but the meaning doesn’t change. You could say Majestic is uncomfortable with comfort in a way that he’s dismissive of comfort, perhaps largely because it gets in the way of GSD’ing, and he’s all about not just talking, but getting things done.

We spoke to Majestic to learn more about his vision for Pittsburgh equity and how business and tech can help make Pittsburgh a better place – i.e. a more equal place – for everyone in the city.

“You hear a lot about equity but as far as being institutionalized at a municipal level, it’s relatively new. It goes from the government talking about equity to trying to operationalize it. Equity is the issue of our city, the issue of our country, it’s a global issue and the issues of inequality have large and lasting impacts. Equity is not just a moral imperative, it’s an economic imperative, as the conditions of the last four years and last couple of months, in particular, have shown us. It’s really about how a city government leads and has that discussion centering on all of our residents, no matter race, gender, orientation, age, or country of origin to actually make sure that everybody feels healthy, safe and that they belong in the city. That’s not only a good civic and moral duty, it’s an economic imperative as well.”

This is a tall order and quite a challenge, we were intrigued to learn what the major roadblocks of his job are. “Going from individual activity to systemic change. People can identify that lack of equity is wrong, but trying to change the systems can accompany discomfort in some of the changes and lack of understanding of how systems either act in vicious ways or virtuous ways. So the challenge of poverty, the challenge of exclusion, they’re punishing challenges but they’re often subtle. How do you get people to realize it and realize their role in it? But then for them to take a positive stance in being able to change it versus admonishing it. And create the enabling environment to be a part of the growth of all of our citizens.”

The current climate is certainly heated around racial issues in this country, how does this impact what his office is trying to accomplish? “Over the past six months in particular, we had a national conversation on race and dialogue about race and what that means and how that impacts so many other elements of our society. We’re at a place where we’re beginning to have those conversations, but cities, I would argue, as the laboratories of innovation that we speak about so much, have also the ability to be the laboratory to talk about issues of race, poverty and inequity in ways that can set the precedent for the state and national governments and actually internationally to talk about what this means.”

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Majestic moved to town to attend the University of Pittsburgh and ended up falling in love with the city. But he recognizes some weaknesses and is challenging all of us to step up to the plate. “I think Pittsburgh is really segregated. I want to see more places in Pittsburgh where more people can meet people that are different than them. I think that’s a big challenge. Our physical civic commons is not like Bryant Park in New York City, or the Bean, our civic commons is the Steelers, if you will. That’s the place where we all connect and then go home and are separate. So I do think we need some opportunities to break down a bit of the segregation in the city. I would say that’s something that becomes not a force multiplier but sometimes becomes the gift that keeps on giving. When you see these opportunities to have diverse engagements you just see new opportunities emerge. You see new restaurants emerge, you see new business opportunities emerge. But as long as folks stay segregated in what is comfortable we’ll continue to get what we have been having.  The other thing I’ll say is that Pittsburgh has to continue to grow, but also think about who’s being impacted in the growth. We want to continue to see companies come and flourish, but we also want to continue to see if there are folks from the region, folks from the neighborhoods, folks from the suburbs and the exurbs who can also benefit in that growth and where’s that pathway to figure out whether it’s in education, whether it’s in the workforce, whether it’s in investing, whatever it is, that we can really get behind our companies in the same way we get behind our sports teams. 

Majestic often talks about empowering communities to rise to the occasion and to their potential, but this is not a one-way street and requires effort from all sides. “It’s a unique environment we’re faced with that on one level it has to be from the community. Communities have to feel like they’re helping like they feel safe and like they belong and are empowered to be a citizen. And if you don’t have that you have isolation, which gives way to segregation, which gives way to civic breakdown. You have to have a bottom-up sense of empowerment, and equality and engagement and voice. But at the same time, we need leaders to acknowledge that the costs of inequity are too high for our cities and to lead by setting the standards in doing things in policies, procedures and programs that foster equity in their own institutions. As a guiding light for other folks. You need two triangles intersecting, if you will, you need a top-down approach where stuff is coming from the top and you also need the bottom-up approach.”

We were curious to hear if cities across the country are working together or learning anything from each other. “I’m a part of a cohort of ten Chief Equity Officers, the other CEOs as people say now, across the country and what we’re learning is that every city is unique but obviously every city has very similar if not the same challenges, so learning about the unique contours of individual cities and their enabling environments can help you recognize what’s possible in your own space. Cities like Portland, Seattle, Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, Louisville have helped us see the arc of the possible and under the leadership of the Mayor really making this a priority for our administration and making sure we’re taking a collective and equity focus lens on making sure that people are doing better.”

There are a number of successful city initiatives that are paying off, one such example is the local non-profit Black Girls Code, which helps young African American ladies learn how to code. “If you introduce an industry to people and they see success and they see a pathway to success, and you can minimize the roadblocks to that success for them, they’ll become good at it. There was a time that African Americans played baseball and not basketball. What does that tell you, that at some point there’s a basketball court everywhere but you need nine people to play baseball, it’s a little different. As you reduce the roadblocks and you create more spaces showing success, it makes sense that people gravitated to that pathway. So if we know that’s how that happens, how do we start to create examples of people who are succeeding in tech? How do we make coding accessible? How about knowing what’s behind the curtain? When you look at the use of technology, black and brown children over-index on the use of it and purchasing it. And actually being influencers of engaging with it. But not necessarily the creation of it. So it’s really just a shift. In most industries, it kind of takes the time of a lifecycle to shift what you’re doing and how you do it. That’s what we have to be thinking about. It’s about examples and reducing the roadblocks to engagement. On a local level the city has hired someone to deal with digital equity in our department of parks and recreation and what he’s doing is setting up spaces that are rec centers to actually teach coding. So again, breaking down the roadblocks. He also does weekend classes for young people who want to learn. Actually, my son has participated in it and was beginning to learn the basics of coding. So this is someone from the city, from the neighborhood, having the experiences, who then decided to come and actually teach and can communicate the reality of coding in a way that folks can relate to. So we see classes of young African American females who had never been exposed to coding and weren’t particularly good in math or science who now have started to develop this interest. We now have classes in our rec centers that are overpacked, where we have to tell young people to come back next week because so many young people now want to start thinking about what this looks like. We’re going to be modeling this and really think how we can have rec centers be open-door to innovation and technology starting at a very early age. Just as we have-open door to summer camps, open-door to athletics, there should also be an open-door to technology.” 

To Majestic’s point, the impact of such initiatives on innovation go far beyond civic duty and ethics but can have significant economic benefits for all involved. We know innovation benefits largely from diversity, with different approaches, lines of thinking and skills making the end result larger than the sum of its parts. “If you look at the cities who are burgeoning now and their innovation in tech and folks that are globally are leading in innovation, they’re not just monochromatic, and we see it, and we see the benefit of it. If we see places that are monochromatic and folks have the same perspective and the same mindset eventually the same kind of thinking kicks in which is really antithetical with innovation. If you have the same kind of thinking, you’re not going to get outside the box that you have to get out of to actually create a new idea. But often if we’re bringing everyone together that went to the same schools, have the same experience, play the same videogames, eat at the same places, we’re going to get more enhanced cycles of whatever we have. So it’s like innovation or tech has to use the same lens that it talks about in its structure about how we do things differently in its own ecosystem. That’s been the most difficult thing, so tech in that sense, is no different from government, tech is no different than business, tech is no different than all these other institutions that at some point have become victims of the same people doing the same things. So it’s really the mix of folks in tech looking at social innovation also thinking about what this means to take the lens and apply their lens to broader issues and then bring that lens that they kind of touched on and bring it back into their systems. And lead by example not just with hiring, but also with engagement. So you lead and acknowledge that talent is equally distributed but the opportunity is not. So if you operate from that maxim, you know that the next possibility usually isn’t in your space. That the next possibility is in the space that you’re not in. We’ve seen economically so many ways where that is actually the case.”

Majestic is very involved with the Pittsburgh tech community and sees a lot of opportunities of how the community can further help the cause. “We’ve had conversations with the Tech Council, but I think there’s still a process for folks to understand how they can engage and how they engage in ways that are comfortable to them, and part of it is that we have to get out of this space where it’s comfortable and kind of engage in a way that is not comfortable because that’s where the opportunity is. This opportunity is not in what we’ve been doing, the opportunity is how do you build relationships with connectors and influencers in the city that can actually take tech companies to communities to watch young people begin this process. Thinking about sponsoring a rec center where once a week or once a month somebody from the company comes and speaks and works with the young people. The Mayor had an idea that instead of community businesses sponsoring the sports leagues in our communities, what if Microsoft sponsored one of our youth football teams. And then part of the process of sponsoring is also engaging that particular team and that community. Again we want to normalize the idea of tech and not just being only someone buying but also engaging.”

We wanted to know why a Philadelphia native fell in love with Pittsburgh? What are things about this city, physical or cultural, that made him fall for it? “The history of the city, the neighborhoods and how neighborhoods feel distinct, the character of the different neighborhoods but also the close-knit nature of the city and the ability to feel like you’re in a place of community. In the Lincoln Lemington neighborhood, there are three houses that were developed by students of Frank Lloyd Wright that are totally unique to any other houses I’ve seen in Pittsburgh and they built them in the forest so that architecturally they would look different. It’s  hard to find it and it’s harder to still get out of it once you find it, but they’re three houses built by acolytes of Frank Lloyd Wright that are some of the most unique dome-shaped houses that I’ve ever seen. It always goes to show to your point when we stay close and go far, we have a close-knit place here, but the impacts of what happens here have had a global impact and so that’s one thing I tell people you’d be surprised by the architecture you’ll see here if someone tells you about it.” 

We couldn’t agree more and as a closing remark, asked Majestic to share his thoughts on his reference to getPittsburgh’s tagline of ‘Stay close. Go far.’ “It really underlies the ethic of what happens here. It underlies the possibility of a community that can actually develop a business or take an idea not just around Pittsburgh but around the world. That’s an example of that closely curated network of community members that are all here to do something interesting; it is what allows Pittsburgh to punch above its weight, proverbially, and really create things that have a global impact.”

 

(Photo by J.L. Martello /18ricco)

 

Mapping Out Mapping

Emily Mercurio CivicMapper

Countdown on the loudspeaker: ten, nine, eight… and all the way down to one. That was the signal for Emily Constantine Mercurio to put her head down and cover her ears as she felt her school shake and tremble from the nearby explosion. This was no terrorist act, but a routine blast from the coal mine next door. It had become so natural in her upbringing, she was under the impression it happened in every school in America and never thought much of it. Yet, it would be the detonating event that launched her career as a geologist and eventually turn her into the co-founder, CEO and majority owner of CivicMapper, a tech startup offering geospatial technology solutions.

Emily grew up in a farm house near the town of Claridge, PA, where she went to school with all the sons and daughters of the nearby coal mine workers. Growing up there “definitely left an impression on me, but the one interesting thing that came out of that experience was that they would bring in fossils that they found when they were stripping coal and that’s when I decided to become a geologist, I was six years old.” While most of us were occupied thinking about the contents in our lunch box, Emily was looking at scientific career choices. “I didn’t know that you could do that as a job, study rocks. I’ve always been interested in the environment and science and the effects of human activity on the environment, that stuck with me from that experience and here I am.” 

She left Pittsburgh to attend college and spent about 15 years in California and New York working as a geologist and a mapping specialist in geographic information systems. She returned to Pittsburgh in 2007 to get her PhD and after that worked at an oil and gas company as an exploration geologist, but five years into that job she realized she was ready to move on. “That’s when we formed the company with my two co-founders,” her husband Matt Mercurio and Christian Gass who met at a Code for Pittsburgh event. “Matt and Christian started talking about creating a tool and calling it CivicMapper to map civic infrastructure, so six months later we all started this together.”

The company started with a focus on stormwater projects, where there is a greater need for data visualization and a better understanding of environmental and monitoring data. Climate change has brought more frequent and more severe rain events and it’s really taken a toll on our stormwater and sewage infrastructure. “So we started working with Three Rivers Wet Weather and developing the sewer atlas, which is a unified map of all the sewage and stormwater infrastructure in the ALCOSAN service area.  We pull data from 83 municipalities, brought it all together into this one unified connected networked data set that contains attributes of each piece of infrastructure, like the size of the pipe, the material, which direction liquid is flowing in those pipes, all of the pump stations, all of the pieces of the sewer network. And that is used by ALCOSAN to do a whole lot of different kinds of projects, by the municipalities within that service area and by PWSA. 

“We create geospatial software and custom scripting and tools so people can integrate with them and bring their APIs into their platforms. Everything we do has a geospatial component, any kind of data that has a spatial tag we can use to create these things. This is of utmost importance because as we get these rain events that are overwhelming our system they can use the sewer network to model and understand if the region is adequately sized for the amount of rain that is projected to be falling because of climate change in the next five, ten, twenty, fifty years. So it helps them plan. Not getting this right could cost the region some significant damage in flooding or sending sewage into our rivers. Even if it rains an eighth of an inch, that’s all it takes, that can be enough to overwhelm the system and put raw sewage directly into our rivers.”

And from that CivicMapper created a lot of interesting apps; one example is FlushMap, which allows you to type in your address and see the path that your flush takes from your location to the treatment plant. “People loved seeing where their flush goes.” We couldn’t resist and had to try it; within seconds we found out our flush takes about five to ten hours to travel some seven miles to the treatment plant and see all its twists and turns. While this sounds like a playful tool, ALCOSAN Industrial Waste can use this in reverse when they’re on the field,  if they hear complaints of chemical odors coming from the sewer, they can use the tool, click on the manhole where they’re standing and it’s going to show them all the businesses that are connecting to that point and then that reduces the time they’re on the field and the time to understand where the violation is coming from.

But stormwater projects was just the beginning, CivicMapper is making waves in the transportation space and elsewhere. “We’re starting to develop some expertise in transit, there’s a huge amount of data that you can pull in from cell phones, like ‘where are people going?’” which eventually resulted in technology for transportation authorities called SurveyMap. 

So what keeps Civic Mapper in Pittsburgh? “The amount of innovation happening here, we would be stupid not to be here. And to be close to talent is so important. Being in Pittsburgh was smart because of this access to innovation. If there’s a researcher at CMU working on something I’m interested in, I can email them and we can talk about it. It doesn’t feel strange. That level of access to experts and their willingness to engage, because it’s a small town, it’s extremely favorable to businesses.”

And what about on the personal front? “I love it. During the 15 years I was gone, it turned into a different city. There’s so much to do around here… museums, places to hike, parks, lots of outdoor recreation and a lot to do with your family here. We really like the Carrie Furnace site. It’s so cool there, and so representative of Pittsburgh, this kind of abandoned industrial area that they’ve turned into this amazing art space. We’ve gone to several events there, like the Thrival festival and this night time art installation. It’s really special and it’s so Pittsburgh.”

We’ve heard similar stories before… “I left and couldn’t wait to leave and then came back and it was totally different.” Today there are no schooltime blasts, only their echo which prompted a young lady to start a path that has led to another inspiring story of a female entrepreneur that is changing the map of Pittsburgh’s technology. 

Billboard for Tenacity

It’s refreshing to talk to someone with the sheer exuberance and kindred spirit of Ingrid Cook, founder and CEO of SHzoom, a tech startup with a state-of-the-art photo app that allows users to “Snap A Pic” and “Get A Quote” from nearby auto repair shops. No more wasting time driving from shop to shop or waiting hours or days for a single estimate. Her patented technology saves drivers and insurers a lot of headaches and time with electronic repair estimating.

Ingrid spent many decades in the insurance industry, but it was a cocktail napkin moment that inspired her to bring the idea to fruition. “After graduating from college, I went straight to Progressive Insurance, where I worked for nearly two decades. I often traveled up and down the East Coast for work and got used to dining alone. I would often eat at the bar because that is where I tend to meet the most interesting people.  One day, I met one of the co-founders of FedEx, who said, ‘Ingrid, one piece of advice if you start a business, do it in the arena where you are the expert in the field.’ This is when I started to ask myself, what problem can I solve in the insurance industry?”

Ingrid founded SHzoom in 2014 and today it’s recognized among the Top 50 women-led organizations in the USA, Europe the Middle East and Africa. That’s a long way to go for a young lady who grew up in the small steel mill town of Monessen, PA and who sees herself as “the billboard for tenacity.” She left Monessen to attend college at the age of seventeen.  She was convinced she would never return. Fast forward 20 years, and she would come back to Western Pennsylvania because of her ailing mother who was given 6 months to live. When her mother’s health improved, her father got ill and then, here, she met the love of her life. What was supposed to be a temporary stay took a different turn to the billboard of her dream.

While taking care of her ailing parents, she joined the Pittsburgh Technology Council, which contributed to her start-up success when enormous support from the Council, its Chairman Jason Wolfe and CMU’s Craig Markovitz poured in. On top of that, both Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh paid their students to intern at SHzoom. “Nothing compares to Pittsburgh. There’s great support and an overflow of talent here.”

But she concedes that it’s not all rosy and there’s work to be done. “In order for the talent to stay, we need to change. Pittsburgh is certainly not a DC, New York, or Atlanta, it’s hard to attract minorities to Pittsburgh. There are not enough opportunities for minorities here.” She further points out the lack of equity is a big issue. She is a proponent of implementing accountability measures to begin moving the needle in the right direction. “The average income for black people in Pittsburgh is barely above the poverty level. This economic disparity blows me away, and since I’m here, I ask ‘what can be done and what can I do?’ I sat on the PTC’s listening sessions which were led by Audrey Russo and Jason Wolfe, among other CEOs, and I was a big proponent of reaching out while kids are young because exposure to the table is so important. The PTC exposed me to things that I needed to see as a technology business owner. Now I’m giving back and mentoring girls on what we do, day-to-day.”

SHzoom is one of Pittsburgh companies working with The LAUNCH program, started by Fortyx80, the nonprofit arm of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, that transforms high school girls into a voice of leadership in the STEM disciplines through mentorship. “In Pittsburgh, we talk a good game and the initiatives are there but where is the accountability and how can we truly move the needle? If we could implement those ideas and put measures in place to hold people accountable, I think we will slowly go in a better direction.”

As for her own commitment, Ingrid is giving back through her involvement with numerous community outreach programs and non-profit organizations. She claims Pittsburgh needs to increase minority-owned businesses, while also increasing the level, size, revenue, doing business with other businesses, and more contracts to do business with women and people of color. 

So, what is next for SHzoom? “Our latest product, Uptime, was developed using collaborative feedback from our innovative partners in the public sector to create a one-of-a-kind user experience.  Police Departments utilizing Uptime to create crash reports say it now takes them an average of 10 minutes to create and deliver crash reports as opposed to 14-30 days. During this crucial time with COVID-19, we are very focused on touchless accidents from the time of report until the vehicle is repaired or replaced and back in the hands of the driver.”

We asked Ingrid about her interests outside of work, and were surprised to learn she is an accomplished alto saxophonist. She tells us in her perfect FM announcer tone she was a former DJ for “Reflections of Jazz with Ingrid on WUMR on U92 FM.” Her favorite jazz joint? “I used to frequent a jazz club called James Street Café to hear live music and the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival is amazing.” Perhaps when COVID-19 is over, we can convince her to dust off her saxophone and tell us all about her progress with SHzoom backstage after a nice jam.


See career opportunities at SHzoom >>

Young Turks

Locomation

Well beyond its historic and political meanings, the phrase “Young Turks” has been used colloquially to describe people with an itching determination to implement change and reform and a small tolerance for patience. Self-driving vehicles are full of promising changes ranging from increased safety to higher efficiency, but largely bottlenecked in red tape, testing and a still undefined regulatory environment. This brings us to the Turkish brothers, Çetin and Tekin Meriçli, two of the co-founders of Locomation, an autonomous driving truck startup with a robotics rock star team and a game-changing technology that shows little patience for implementing radical change.

There are various companies playing in this space, including some of the Goliaths like Alphabet’s Waymo, Tesla, Volvo and Daimler among others. But putting the first self driving truck on American highways is probably close to ten years away. Locomation is not looking to wait that long, they have developed an autonomous relay convoy platform that allows a driverless truck to closely follow a truck with a driver in front of it. And the rubber will meet the road in some 18 months.

We spoke to Çetin, who is also Locomation’s CEO, to learn more about why and how two robotics engineering brothers from Istanbul ended up producing self driving trucks in Pittsburgh and why and how they’re planning to disrupt the space.

Pittsburgh clearly has become the place to be for self-driving vehicles, but why trucks? “Trucks make a ton of sense as the first target for autonomous driving from many angles: a massive market, a very ineffective and archaic industry ripe for disruption, and a significant qualified labor shortage are a few top business drivers,” he commented. The trucking industry is approaching the $800 billion mark and employs close to a million drivers, so the impact is no pocket change. “Our convoying technology enables delivery of two times the cargo, two times farther and twice as fast, while significantly improving the overall safety via autonomy sensors and algorithms. From a cost perspective, our system reduces the operating costs per mile by about 30%, and even after Locomation gets paid, the customers realize an additional 15% to 20% savings, which is a game changer. Our approach also aims to improve the driving comfort and make the convoy driving a premium job.”

The convoying technology still requires one driver in each truck, but the driver in the back truck can be sleeping allowing both drivers to take turns and reach the destination faster and better rested. Plus reduced aerodynamic drag delivers some fuel efficiency, so the benefits are multiple. Çetin further points out that “ample space and power on the trucks, being able to justify a significant hardware cost in exchange of reduced transportation costs, and inherently more tractable operating environment on the interstates make trucks very attractive platforms for self-driving.”

But there’s a lot at stake in terms of safety and the technology is not simple. However, and perhaps in a counterintuitive way, self driving trucks are poised to deliver higher safety to drivers and pedestrians alike. “Specifically, in the self-driving vehicles case, the main challenge is to identify the other actors and furthermore predict what they will do in the next couple of seconds. However much one can control the amount of uncertainty and unpredictability in the environment, the easier it is to build and validate a self-driving system. In our particular case, Locomation initially focuses on an autonomous convoy setup consisting of a human driven lead truck closely followed by a self-driving truck. The human driven leader acts as a buffer between the open world’s chaos and unpredictability and the self-driving follower truck, effectively reducing the prediction complexity.”

Locomotion already has prototypes piloting around Pennsylvania, Ohio and other parts of the country. The commercial rollout is planned for mid-2022 and the company already has a nine-figure contract with Wilson Logistics, a large fleet operator with 1,120 trucks.

So ‘why Pittsburgh?” we asked, almost rhetorically. “That was a very organic decision for us as we already were in Pittsburgh and deeply connected to the CMU ecosystem here, with team members having families with job and school ties to the city. We are staying in Pittsburgh because it is the best place to build a cutting-edge AI and robotics company. It is also significantly more affordable than most alternatives. To be honest, we haven’t even thought of not staying in Pittsburgh so it was mostly a decision by omission.” He elaborates “it is in Pittsburgh’s DNA to build things with your bare hands. The ecosystem is very conducive to starting something new, and the rather small professional circle enables one to meet with almost anyone relevant in record time. I often think to myself ‘this is how Silicon Valley in the ‘70s must have felt.’”

So what made the two brothers leave their beloved Istanbul, a metropolis of some 20 million people, to the “miniaturized big city” of Pittsburgh, as Çetin calls it? He explains “I did not know much about Pittsburgh other than knowing CMU is in Pittsburgh, it is a smaller city consistently in the ‘most livable cities’ lists, but I did not care all that much because I was laser focused on being at CMU,” he comments. “My first year or two were very joyful as I discovered the American way of living, but was mostly confined to a very limited set of friends and CMU campus. As Pittsburgh transitioned from being ‘home away from home’ to just ‘home,’ it started growing on me and to date, I am perpetually mesmerized by how uniquely beautiful it is both from a physical point of view and also lifestyle-wise. I just love Pittsburgh.”

It’s now been several years since he moved to town, so other than all the cool robotics tech and innovation, what keeps him here? Like many of us in town, Çetin enjoys the parks, bike trails, cool bookstores, and especially the food. He shared a long list of favorites, including Lucy’s Bahn Mi “a must try,” Espresso A Mano “the coolest coffee place I know,” Umami, Morcilla, Driftwood, Noodlehead and Colangelo’s, calling chefs like Justin Severino and Roger Li “national treasures.” He elaborates “having all or most perks of a big city in a smaller footprint with more space, more greens, and an ease of day to day living is just the perfect combination. After a lifetime of planning and struggles of daily minutia like just getting to and from work, it is inexplicably relaxing to live in Pittsburgh, but still breathe that big city air.”

If there is one thing he could change about Pittsburgh, we asked him, what would it be? “The weather!” Well, he’s got his work cut out for his next disruptive startup. Until then, Çetin, keep on truckin’.

 

See career opportunities at Locomation >>

Making Herself Useful

alison-alvarez-blastpoint-ceo

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.  

 

 

See career opportunities at BlastPoint >>

Look Ma, No Pilot

Look Ma, No Pilot

Autonomous vehicles have been the talk of the town for many years now, the “town” being Pittsburgh, given the concentration of autonomous robotics development in this city. Driverless cars, cabs and trucks have been cruising local streets and across highways all over the country in the pursuit of a safer and more efficient future in transportation and delivery. But there is a Pittsburgh native company, Near Earth Autonomy (NEA), that is taking this very concept to the skies.

Robotics is in Pittsburgh’s DNA, and one of the people responsible for this is Near Earth Autonomy co-founder and CEO, Sanjiv Singh. Sanjiv moved to Pittsburgh in the pre-Web era, specifically in 1985, at a time when robotics as we know it today was in its infancy. Back then he was introduced to robotics guru Red Whittaker, who offered him a job at Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute in what became the very first self-driving car project.

Ten years later Sanjiv had obtained his PhD in robotics from CMU and was now part of the faculty at the Robotics Institute. Fast forward to around 2012, and Sanjiv had co-founded Near Earth Autonomy, the company building the present and future of autonomous flying. 

 

Autonomous flying is yet another player in what’s called field robotics, which relates to robotics in largely uncontrolled environments. Unlike a warehouse, a living room or a hospital, field robotics are in uncontrolled habitats, subject to influences outside the robot’s control such as weather, pedestrians, traffic, light conditions, emergency landing surfaces, etc. The challenges in field robotics are much larger because a robot needs to identify objects that may interfere with its course, classify what these objects are – e.g. a person, a cyclist, a mailbox or a drone – whether the object is moving and if so in which direction and at what speed. “The complexity of field robotics scales with how much or little structure there is,” adds Sanjiv. “The environmental conditions also make a big difference. Imagine a self-driving car where one day it sees the lines of the road and the next day it’s all covered by snow and you don’t see any lines or markers. The more environmental change you have the harder the problem becomes.”

 

One would expect the complexity to intensify with flying vehicles. But Sanjiv sees it differently. “The problems in many cases get better. When you’re flying, you have a three-dimensional problem, there’s a lot more room to maneuver. And the sky is sparsely populated. If you get 300 feett above ground level, the amount of stuff that’s up there is 0.01% of the space up there.” Jokingly, he adds “it’s really hard to hit something up there even if you try.” In addition, it turns out most self-flying vehicles land in extremely structured environments, like a heliport or the roof of a warehouse. 

 

However, it’s not all good news. Sanjiv is quick to point out that “gravity is not your friend; it makes the energetics very difficult. Plus smaller self-flying vehicles can be seriously affected by turbulence and winds, effectively reducing its progress; if the vehicle is moving at 50 miles an hour and you have a 50-mile-an-hour wind in the opposite direction the object is going nowhere.”

 

So what are the business motivators to develop such challenging technology? One of the key drivers is transportation – whether it’s cargo or people. Within these, there are two branches, one is the military, with very clear needs and large scale projects; this is clearly an area of focus for NEA. The other is the commercial side, which is surrounded by regulatory and liability issues. “Many things can fail with a self-driving vehicle,” claims Sanjiv. “Not just autonomy, but a motor, a sensor or the power supply can fail. The way a large aircraft works around this is with redundancy, but that gets very expensive for smaller vehicles.”

Sanjiv explains that “the reason why drones are so popular is because they are low cost, but precisely because they are low cost they have a high incidence of single string failures. They cannot be as reliable as commercial aviation is. From a regulatory point of view the FAA is trying to figure out what is acceptable, as they have a responsibility to keep the sky safe and also the people on the ground safe because you can’t have these objects fall into dense urban areas. This is what is limiting the adoption rate on the commercial side.”

As for NEA, Sanjiv points out that “we’re trying to find use cases that meet three requirements: they are feasible, desirable and economically viable. The market for flying taxis and drone deliveries is not a real market today. It’s a conceptual market, but it doesn’t exist today. When I came to Pittsburgh in 1985, the first question people asked me was ‘how soon before these robots are commonplace?’ It’s been 35 years since and we’re starting to see robots like Roombas or security robots proliferate. The question is when is this next generation of use cases going to be developed?”

There’s yet another application for autonomous flying vehicles, which is what is called the inspection area. It’s about getting data you cannot get from the ground, data about tunnels, storage vessels, or about any kind of high-value asset that needs to be inspected regularly. The FAA allows this today and the liability is manageable.

“There’s no end to the kinds of things we can do even beyond line of sight that may not be in the national air space,” continues Sanjiv. “We may be able to fight forest fires with a fleet of helicopters. Manned versions of K-Max helicopters are fighting fires today. We’re looking to use the K-Max for moving cargo. When you want to move a few thousand pounds, how do you move it? K-Max is one part of that answer, especially if you want to think about maritime environments like from islands or from ship to shore.” NEA recently signed a deal with Kaman to develop autonomous systems for their K-Max helicopters, which can lift payloads of up to 6,000 lbs.

Sanjiv continues on a roll… “The other thing we can do is disaster relief. You don’t want people to go to hazardous places, you want to send robots there. When I came to CMU we were building robots to go into Three Mile Island to do the investigations. You can send people in to bring in wall samples with radiation or you can build a robot to do it.”

The sky being in this case literally the limit, we asked Sanjiv about outer space. “There is an intersection between what we do and the space world, called EDL (Entry Descent and Landing) which is the last part of a vehicle that needs to land on some surface. The velocity and approach angles are somewhat different, but it’s the same function. So if you have a vehicle that’s flying autonomously, in an emergency situation it has to be prepared to land somewhere. It has to have a plan for a secondary or tertiary landing site. If that place is not controlled it has to have the intelligence to tell ‘is that a good place to land?’ or move over a bit, or find a better place.”

Near Earth Autonomy is yet another great story of a Pittsburgh company in a transformative industry that is quite literally changing the way we work and live. NEA is a Carnegie Mellon spinoff, so it was founded in Pittsburgh. Surely there’s plenty of opportunity and talent in plenty of other US cities. We asked Sanjiv, beyond the robotics local talent, why stay in Pittsburgh, and this is what he had to say: “If you look at some of the urban centers, it’s easy to find talent but it’s high-cost. If you look at some of the low-cost areas it’s very inexpensive but there’s nobody there. Pittsburgh is a sweet spot between the two extremes. All the basic infrastructure is here – excellent schooling, excellent medical facilities, excellent cultural offering and low cost of housing. There’s a quality of life thing about Pittsburgh that makes it very attractive.”

Sanjiv continues, “there’s another thing about Pittsburgh that is harder to explain. At CMU and Pittsburgh in general, there has been a sense of a culture to help each other. When you want something from the community, when you want to do some testing, generally the answer is “yes.” When I was with a previous startup, Sensible Machines, and we were building autonomous mowers and looking for places to test our mowers, we called Heinz Field and said ‘we have a mower that drives itself, can we bring it to mow your grass?’ and the answer was ‘OK, fine.’ Same thing at Fox Chapell Golf Club. There’s an entrepreneurial, collaborative can-do attitude.”

Pittsburgh can sometimes present a challenge for growing companies looking to hire top talent fast. We asked Sanjiv about his thoughts on this. “Availability of talent, in the early stages it was a big deal for us, now it’s not. Where we have a challenge is in getting senior entrepreneurs; people who have had several exits, there are few of those here. We’re now about 100 people and we need more senior people who can think in a more rigorous way and think about the business end of things, and that is hard. Especially people with startup experience. We’re starting to see a pool of such people growing because of more startups, but in general that has been an issue.”

About his own personal experience living in town, Sanjiv seems quite at home here… “Living in Pittsburgh feels like wearing a really comfortable pair of jeans. It’s a tight knit community, people help each other. It’s a very cosmopolitan, highly educated community. It’s not like you’re living between mansions, there are lots of young people that have moved here.” He goes on to describe some of those funny random acts of kindness that characterizes Pittsburgh. “There’s a street in Shadyside that in Halloween has a bit of a mob scene with kids in costumes trick or treating. If you’re an adult, they’ll hand you a beer, or a hot dog, or say ‘hey here’s a brandy that we made, would you like some brandy?’ I mean who does that?”

To wrap up, we asked Sanjiv to share a secret or favorite spot in town… “My wife used to live in Mt. Washington, to watch July 4th from a living room in Mt. Washington, and see the fireworks at eye level, that was an extraordinary lifetime experience.” Let’s hope he can keep the flying bots far enough from those…

 

See career opportunities at Near Earth Autonomy >>

An Entrepreneur’s Promised Land

Pittsburgh has no shortage of inspiring tech stories to tell, but Jason Wolfe’s has to be somewhere near the top of the list. Jason moved to Pittsburgh under, let’s say less than ideal conditions, and built what is today a tech incubator with a history of serial successful exits creating companies that continue to thrive and generating hundreds of jobs along the way in the city he now calls home.

Much has been written about Jason’s story, so we’ll be brief for the benefit of those familiar with it. Jason grew up on welfare and was abandoned by his father at a young age, which led him to the Milton Hershey School, formerly known as an orphanage now called a boarding school for disadvantaged children founded by the chocolate magnate of the same name – perhaps Jason’s biggest hero. He graduated from this school with $100 and a suitcase of clothes in 1987 and went off on his own. He put himself through college and life thereafter would not be very kind to him. Living in a car, showering at a friend’s office space and barely making ends meet, he suffered an accident that caused him to have 2 spinal surgeries and put him bed-ridden several months. At this point, he decided to make lemonade from lemons.

In 1995, the early days of the dot-com era, Jason used his “downtime” to teach himself to write code. Months later, he had built and launched the first couponing website, CouponsDirect (later renamed MyCoupons), which grew to 5 million members and he sold in 2000 for approximately $23 million. For his next gig, he saw potential in a new business model – affiliate networks – and created a pioneering ad serving and tracking platform company in the space, Direct Response Technologies, which delivered over 16 billion ads per month and he sold for $22 million to Digital River in 2006. Before the sale he had been inventing new models in the gift certificates and gift card space and saw an opportunity to disrupt that industry. This gave birth to GiftCards.com in 2002, which he built into the largest online retailer for gift cards and sold it for $120 million to Blackhawk Network. Currently he is building a next generation e-gift company within the B2C and B2B spaces with PerfectGift.com and GiftYa. One can only speculate what the future holds for this latest initiative.

Throughout this extraordinary journey, Jason and his startups have won numerous awards and accolades, but he’s always been more focused in giving than receiving. Jason has had a number of philanthropic initiatives and is known to volunteer at homeless shelters and food banks. He has also made it a common practice to share the wealth with his employees – upon selling GiftCards.com he distributed some $15 million across the entire team.

Jason remains committed to Pittsburgh, perhaps because it’s been kind to him, but perhaps more so because he believes it’s a bit of a tech entrepreneur’s promised land. We spent a little time with him to have him elaborate on this.

Question: We understand you’re a big fan of Pittsburgh as a place for entrepreneurs, beyond your personal success stories, what do you see as the competitive advantages of Pittsburgh?

Jason: Pittsburgh is a bit unique in that it offers a thriving tech scene at a fraction of the cost. Here you have access to great talent, not just from Carnegie Mellon University and Pitt, but from other startups and a growing tech ecosystem. Unlike other tech hubs, however, your costs are significantly lower than in the coasts. Your rent is lower, your payroll is lower, your overall overhead is lower. This is particularly crucial for entrepreneurs, who by definition lack funds in the early stages. You can build a startup and grow it to break-even faster without the need to raise as much capital. This is not something you can find in Austin, Boston or Nashville, let alone New York or Silicon Valley. Your chances of building a successful startup with great talent and lower costs are uniquely favorable in Pittsburgh.

Q: Speaking of talent, how would you compare the talent pool in Pittsburgh versus other tech hubs?

J: Pittsburgh has very competitive talent, there are great people working in transformative technologies like robotics, AI and other. We are also getting better at attracting talent from other regions, particularly in this new Covid-19 environment. But I don’t think that’s the key. I think the opportunity for Pittsburgh is for more entrepreneurs to come here and start successful companies. Build them, grow them, perhaps sell them or take them public, but build companies that will endure through time and continue to grow the entire tech ecosystem. This will undoubtedly bring more talent and growth to the city.

Q: For a young engineer or project manager, what does Pittsburgh have to offer from a personal and quality of life point of view?

J: The cost of living in Pittsburgh is substantially lower than in the coasts. A young professional or a young family can afford to buy a nice house in Pittsburgh, something completely out of reach for a young engineer in New York or San Francisco. Yet, Pittsburgh has a lot to offer as a city, the symphony, professional sports teams, parks, bike trails, a great restaurant scene, and all the amenities of a big city. It is at a smaller scale, without the traffic, but you have plenty to do and plenty to choose from. The quality of life here is substantially higher than on the coasts.

Q: What are the tech areas you think are thriving in Pittsburgh?

J: There are many. I have been focusing on fintech. We have one of the biggest banks in the country here in PNC, which I recently sold a company to, and it is an area that has plenty of room for growth and disruption. Robotics is clearly huge in Pittsburgh. CMU has a lot to do with that, plus the companies that have set up shop in town in the autonomous vehicles field like Argo, Uber, Google, Near Earth Autonomy, Locomation, or companies in aerospace like Astrobotic. This is where Pittsburgh shines the most, even as there are other thriving areas like life sciences or natural language programming.

Q: You’re not originally from Pittsburgh, from a personal point of view, what keeps you here?

J: I have my family here, my wife, 3 children, and a foster boy. I have many friends that I have made over the years as well as my church and organizations I belong to and lead. I am the current Chairman of the Pittsburgh Technology Council and love to work with Audrey Russo and her team to thrive our technology ecosystem. I’m on the board of the Family Design Resources which handles the Statewide Adoption Network and we help over 11,000 children in foster and adoption care. I am clearly rooted here. I love the people of Pittsburgh, their friendliness and hard work mentality. I would love to see the city continue to make progress along the lines of diversity and inclusion.

Q: You’ve lived here long enough, surely you must have a local hidden gem you can share with us.

J: I think North Park is a gem for sure, as well as South park and others. We have a nice little lake, an ice rink, community pool, and more. I think us Pittsburghers don’t realize how fortunate we are with our local parks. If you like the outdoors, Pittsburgh is a great city for you, this is something I don’t think people outside the area realize.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

J: I’d like to add that I would love to see more entrepreneurs in this city, growing and building businesses here. Then, sell them or go public. Then, stay here, invest into doing the same again and again. The more entrepreneurs we have here with success like this, the more the city will thrive. And being an entrepreneur is color blind and gender blind. So the product speaks for itself – which is a great equalizer.

 

See career opportunities at Wolfe, LLC >>

Keeping it Straight

courtney=williamson-ceo-abililife

Courtney Williamson’s dream has always been academia. After obtaining a BA from Spelman College in Atlanta and a PhD from Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, her straight path to personal achievement seemed clearly paved on its way to research and teaching. But things changed. And today instead she is an accomplished inventor and entrepreneur who is improving the lives of thousands and eventually millions of Parkinson’s Disease patients by simply improving their posture.

Courtney has a fascinating story, surrounded by care, pivoting and a strong mission “why.” Her mother had Parkinson’s disease and Courtney spent years caring for her realizing there had to be a device to help PD patients with their posture, and everything else that involves. “I founded AbiliLife when I was a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon. During that time, I realized the need for a product to help my mother, a 25-year Parkinson’s disease patient, with her posture. Before my mother passed away, I invented the Calibrace+ and founded AbiliLife, which has developed into a full-service medical device company.“

The Calibrace+ is a patented orthotic back brace with a pulley-tension system that mechanically lifts a patient’s shoulders and back for optimal torso alignment, largely improving their posture. This brings huge benefits to patients from reducing pain, to allowing them to swallow better, to enhancing their dignity and quality of life. Some of the customer testimonials are downright comforting as they are heart breaking. And this was the true inspiration for Courtney. She walked away on her lifelong dream of academia. She was not even an engineer, by her own admission, she jokes about having trouble assembling an Ikea bed. She was not a born entrepreneur. But she had learned a lot about care taking. And it was her desire to help her mother and others like her that took her off course and in an entirely new direction.

Courtney is originally from Baltimore and landed in Pittsburgh to get her PhD at Carnegie Mellon, which offered her multiple benefits. “The competitive advantage that I used to leverage AbiliLife’s growth is my connection with Carnegie Mellon University.  I benefited greatly from CMU’s interdisciplinary mindset and was able to glean insights from students and professors across the campus.  In addition, Pittsburgh’s advanced medical practices and services provide an excellent community to help me develop AbiliLife’s medical devices.”

AbiliLife is a leading med-tech firm in town. Its Calibrace+ is 100% reimbursed by Medicare and commercial insurance, it is sold nation-wide, and has been prescribed by physicians in over 50 hospitals such as Johns Hopkins, the Mayo Clinic, and Mount Sinai Beth Israel. Its second product is the GaitTracker, currently in R&D, a telehealth application and wearable device system for continuous, in-home monitoring and tracking of Parkinson’s Disease (PD) motor symptoms. 

Courtney is one of very few successful founders and CEOs that fit the diversity profile the city and its technology community want to see grow, and she is fully aware. “Pittsburgh has a lot of work to do in terms of being inclusive. I’ve lived here for 10 years and have seen several neighborhoods push diverse communities out of their homes in favor of condominiums, upscale apartments, and business buildings. My request is that Pittsburgh stop accepting awards for being the ‘most livable’ city when the racial disparities are so profound and are the cause of deaths, reduced quality of life, and injustice.” 

She’s certainly not alone in her thinking, but probably more frustrated than most that with all of its benefits and advantages, Pittsburgh remains behind. We asked her if she has a favorite Pittsburgh anecdote and she said “No, but I very much want to be invited to a Pittsburgh wedding with a bona fide cookie table!” But all jokes aside, she continues focused on the need for Pittsburgh to get its diversity act straight, “I love the various neighborhoods, I enjoy taking a long walk in Schenley Park in the morning and then grab an amazing Italian lunch in Bloomfield. But we need to look at equity and how so many of our communities are disenfranchised.”

 

Pittsburgh, We Landed on The Moon

astrobotic-peregrine-lunar-lander

In 2007, Carnegie Mellon University professor and robotics guru Red Whitaker and his associates founded the company Astrobotic Technologies to develop space-age robots for lunar expeditions. This was as ambitious as it was challenging, and the road for the past 13 years has not been an easy one. But Astrobotic has come out on top recently landing two large NASA contracts making the company an unquestionable poster child within the robotics scene across the country.

Born out of CMU and bred in Pittsburgh, it only makes sense for the company to be located here, but nonetheless they have had invitations from Houston and Cape Canaveral to set up shop in these cities with a history in lunar expeditions. The company has recently opened its brand new headquarters in the North Shore with big plans and a commitment to stay put.

We asked Astrobotic CEO, John Thornton, a few questions to better understand how this company came to be and what his thoughts are about building one of the hottest startups in Pittsburgh.

 

Question: Astrobotic has come a long way since spinning off CMU and moving into new HQ’s in Manchester. What is keeping you here in Pittsburgh?

John: Pittsburgh is situated in the center of an advanced manufacturing region with tremendous access to robotics talent through its world class universities. Our region boasts a strong work ethic, penchant for innovation, and a low cost of living with access to big-city cultural amenities.   

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the new Control Center? When you hear “Pittsburgh, we just landed on the moon” what will be happening at HQ?

J: When you hear “Pittsburgh, we just landed on the Moon,” you’re going to have to brace yourself for all the celebratory yells coming out of the North Shore! We will have landed the first commercial lunar lander on the Moon…ever. However, this is just the beginning of an eight-day-long mission on the lunar surface. Within a few minutes of landing, a dance of predetermined con-ops will kick in – such as the exact timing of when each scientific instrument will be provided power, provided data services, be deployed to the lunar surface (for those that will deploy), and conduct surface operations, such as scientific measurements. In collaboration with the Astrobotic team, all of our commercial customers who purchased a spot on Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander will be controlling their individual instruments from our Mission Control room. The transmissions that direct rovers and other scientific equipment will be operated from computers on-site. Each will be gathering data about the Moon for their own goals and purposes.

Q: Being based in Pittsburgh, you have privileged access to great talent coming out of CMU and other startups, but there are also challenges recruiting top talent across different disciplines – HR, finance, legal, etc?

J: We have found Pittsburgh to have an impressive and diverse talent pool covering all levels of experience and expertise. Many of our local candidates have been fascinated by space exploration since childhood but hadn’t found an option to pursue it professionally until they became aware of Astrobotic. Regardless of their discipline, our candidates are inspired by our mission to make space accessible to the world, and they want to support us however they can. For our part, we’re excited to give our hometown that opportunity, and we look forward to continuing to build a space community in Pittsburgh.

Q: What competitive advantages does Pittsburgh offer to a company like yours both in its early stages and on your current path to fast growth?

J: Pittsburgh is a city that offers a lot to attract and retain talent. The low cost of living blended with the high quality of life makes it an easy city for workforces to lay down roots. Combine that with an ecosystem of companies, facilities, and universities that have been built to innovate and you really have something nationally unique here in Pittsburgh.

Q: How would you compare Pittsburgh to Silicon Valley, New York or other tech hubs like Boston or Austin?

J: Pittsburgh has a rich history of being a builder of hardware.  When you look at other tech hubs around the country, few of them boast the kind of heritage this city has in developing new materials and new machines.  As a result, the workforce here is prepared to not just code, but to get their hands dirty with hardware.  The challenge is showing the world that this is the next great center of innovation.  We all know it because we see it every day, and now we need top talent from around the country to see it too. 

Q: You moved from New Jersey to Pittsburgh for CMU. What were your expectations when moving to Pittsburgh and how did the city deliver?

J: It was not until grad school at CMU that I started venturing off campus to really explore and understand what Pittsburgh has to offer. It was at that time that Astrobotic was starting up and I liked what I saw in Pittsburgh and I have since made it my home.

Q: You are working with local companies and machine shops in the space area and have expressed an interest in making Pittsburgh a powerhouse for space robotics.

J: Pittsburgh has been involved in space history since the Apollo era, having manufactured much of the steel and glass hardware, as well as communications technology, for the Apollo 11 mission. Today, the region’s advanced manufacturing capabilities and world-class expertise in artificial intelligence, robotics, and space transport and logistics can propel Pittsburgh to an even more dominant seat at the table. In turn, Astrobotic has a strong leadership and representation in the PGH Space Collaborative and touts a commitment to supporting the local supply chain wherever possible. The PGH Space Collaborative’s goal, and our goal, is to become a space economic development organization committed to supporting the emerging global commercial space industry. We’re doing this by attracting and growing the next generation of space industry businesses and workforce talent in Pittsburgh and the region.

Q: Can you share a fun Pittsburgh story or anecdote with us?

J: In 2010, I bought a dilapidated house in Highland Park. It had no working water, electricity, or heat when I got it – but it had massive potential. I could not even live in it for the first year!  It took ten years and lots of DIY work, but now my wife and I are finally putting the finishing touches on it.  

Q: Do you have a special Pittsburgh secret? A hidden gem? Favorite spot, park, dive bar, art gallery, corner in Highland Park, or random place most people would be unaware of?

J: One of my favorite things about Pittsburgh are the rivers and the proximity to the outdoors. My wife and I spend most weekends exploring the Oil City region along the Allegheny river where the natural beauty is reminiscent of a Tolkien fantasy scape – the boating/floating is serene, the hiking and biking opportunities abound, and the wildlife is abundant.  But perhaps most of all, the history of the region is so rich and dynamic it could be made into a Netflix series.

Q: What do you love most about Pittsburgh as a city and a place to live?

J: I really like that Pittsburgh has all the amenities of a big city but still has a small-town feel. I like that you can walk down the street and people will smile and acknowledge you. The people are not trying to be something or someone else. Pittsburgh feels real.

Q: What would you change about Pittsburgh to make it a better place?

J: There are two business worlds here in Pittsburgh. One world is that of the startup, early, and mid-stage tech companies working to innovate and push new technologies to market.

The other is the world of traditional businesses that have become the cornerstones and stewards of the city. Both play a vital role in the fabric of our city, but unfortunately, they rarely interact and work collaboratively together. Pittsburgh is a siloed business community and our experience growing a space company here in Pittsburgh has illuminated this divide. Over the years, we grew accustomed to ‘no’s, quizzical looks, and at times derisive laughs from the established business community. While our experience might be more extreme since we are building a Moon company, we are not alone. Some high-growth companies pick up and leave on account of receiving more support from outside the city. At Astrobotic, we use this outside skepticism to drive us forward in hopes that the future will be brighter. This is not criticism. This is opportunity. We are committed to this community – let’s make it better. Pittsburgh’s business community needs to bridge the divide and bet on our local innovators to deliver the Moonshots that will perpetuate this city’s legendary status into the next century. If Pittsburgh can grow a company that lands on the Moon, Pittsburgh can do anything.

 

See career opportunities at Astrobotic >>

Polishing the Diamond in the Rough

meesha-gerhart-redtree-ceo

Sometimes we come across Pittsburgh stories that shine by their genuineness and sheer honesty, which help make all the other stories all that much more meaningful. This is what we found in Meesha Gerhart’s story. A tech entrepreneur and activist Meesha wasn’t born in Pittsburgh, but you’d never know it. She speaks with a certain conflict between self-criticism, pride and possibilities, all framed in a cadre of care and authenticity. And you could pretty much say the same about the city she now calls home.

Meesha is the Founder and CEO of web development firm RedTree and a board member of the nonprofit RedChair. Born in Las Vegas, she grew up a military brat moving between Germany, Phoenix, Ohio and eventually landed in town to attend the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. Since then, she has made it her mission to polish what she calls the “diamond in the rough.”

“My experience with Pittsburgh is that here the people will give you the shirt off of their back; from the professional community to my personal life the people inside of Pittsburgh have always been very community driven and that’s something that I’ve always admired and wanted to maintain.”

Her entrepreneurial journey started back in college following a passion for creating a digital and visual language for small businesses. In the early days she recalls often bartering and taking payment in the form of meals or stock photography, just to pursue her dream. After working for a few small agencies, she decided to go it alone, though lonely she felt not. “Building RedTree in Pittsburgh was fantastic, between the Tech Council, Chatham Women’s Business Center and other organizations that were vested in the success of my business it’s been phenomenal because they are people who genuinely do want to help you grow.” 

Today she runs a team that builds websites from the ground up and helps small businesses evolve and upgrade them. Oftentimes small businesses lack the vision or know-how to properly leverage what a well built website can do to help their businesses, and that’s one of their goals, to level the playing field for all companies’ websites regardless of size. 

Outside her day job, Meesha is what you could call a devoted activist. She has a very critical eye, but you can sense from her tone it comes from a place of caring and wanting to fix issues where issues need to be fixed. 

She candidly points out that attracting and retaining good talent in town is an issue, largely driven by a lack of diversity, particularly when it comes to African Americans. “How do we keep more people of color inside of tech? We’re trying to, but people just think ‘nah, it’s just not a good fit for me.’ And they leave, and I don’t blame them. There has not been enough movement in this area,” she states as a call to arms. “I see us trying, but for some reason we just can’t actually figure it out. I was at a panel for women in tech not long ago, and it was all white women. Is that because we can’t find a woman of color in tech? I know they exist! We need to educate ourselves a bit more to have a full picture. We’re trying, but we’re not quite there yet.” She’s not alone in this line of thought, and this is a challenge the entire tech community is all too aware of and has been dialed up in everyone’s agenda. As she recognizes, “we do have work to do, but I think the big thing is people want to do the work for the city.”

Meesha is also a board member of RedChair, a non-profit that serves women in tech. “The idea is a lot of women are getting to a certain level in their companies and then they plateau, so we started RedChair to first help with awareness and second create ways to help them make it through the glass ceiling. We create a mentor-mentee relationship to help women get to the  next level.” 

A member of the LGBTQ+ community, she’s also concerned and trying to change things for that group. “The change I’d like to see in Pittsburgh is the diversity as a whole and the diversity of thought. As an LGBTQ+ family in Pittsburgh, there are times where I was scared for our safety, whereas if I was in a city like Philly those kinds of thought processes wouldn’t have popped into my head. We don’t have that many trans people or LGBTQ+ business owners. That’s on me,” she claims taking responsibility. “I have a lot of work to do there, how do we put the spotlight more on them and make this city look more diverse?” 

It’s refreshing to see someone acknowledge the issue not with an air of complaint, but with a can-do attitude, backed by tangible actions. It exemplifies the commitment and determination that many locals share, but some of who also need a bit of an awareness push. “I LOVE the people of Pittsburgh, I do. I’ve found the diamonds in the rough and my wife and I will never leave. But I know that I want to do more to make our city better. I know the gems and I know the true people that you would find, but it’s a lifelong effort. I want to make the change to make it the inclusive city that I know it can be, and I’m ready to make that investment.”