Pittsburgh, We Landed on The Moon

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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

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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.”

 

Design for the People

Meet Ryan “Simmy” Sims, Vice President of Design at Pittsburgh’s first unicorn startup, the iconic language learning app Duolingo. The startup has become one of the city’s go-to places for professionals in any field. It is fast growing to a global scale, has solid funding, a billionaire valuation and an awesome growing talent pool. Not to mention Duo, the endearing mascot that is all over its app, emails and can even be found near the water cooler at headquarters.

Simmy was born and raised in the Midwest, in Joplin, MO, and moved to Silicon Valley with his wife to get a taste of the planet’s largest tech hub and get some blue chip experience under their belts. The plan, however, was always to eventually return to the Midwest, specifically to his wife’s hometown of Pittsburgh. So the idea of living in Pittsburgh was nothing new to them. Simmy first came to town with an expectation of landing in a land of yesteryear, industrial and past its prime. That is, until he first drove out of the Fort Pitt tunnel. “When I first came out of the tunnel and saw that skyline and went across the river on those bridges” he remembers, “I became immediately enamored with Pittsburgh for its beauty and because it didn’t match my expectation of the city.”

The Sims’s didn’t move to Pittsburgh for a job, they moved here for personal reasons, at which point Simmy started his conversations with Duolingo. He had quite a high bar having worked for Adobe and Stripe, a very hot, up-and-coming startup in the Valley plus other opportunities on the table. But when he met with Duolingo founders Luis von Ahn and Severin Hacker as well as the VP of people he was apparently “blown away” by what he heard. “I didn’t want to work for a ‘Diet Coke’ tech company, and my bar was very high. The quality of talent at Duolingo is just as high as some of the best companies I worked for in San Francisco, and that’s what drew me to it,” he recalls. “If Duolingo was located in San Francisco it would be considered one of the premier destinations, folks would flock to work there.”

For Simmy, like many other professionals, there’s San Francisco and New York and then everything else. The coasts have their advantages, but there are also downsides. “It’s definitely different here in Pittsburgh. There’s a good and a bad about being in San Francisco, where everyone seemingly works in tech, and it was kind of a grind. After some ten years of everyone working in the same industry as you, it just didn’t feel like a good balance,” he comments. “Cities like Pittsburgh are more diverse, it’s not just tech folk working there, and I think that’s wonderful… you have a lot of industries around tech and that creates a bit of balance.”

For a designer ilke Simmy, Duolingo presents various UI/UX challenges to help people through vocabulary, pronunciation and spelling. But Simmy reflects one more psychological aspect of the app’s experience where they put a lot of focus – motivation. “A lot of people underestimate how much motivation and time it requires to learn language – not days, not weeks, not months, but years. As a designer, the challenge is how do you keep people motivated to come back day, after day, after day.” Surely we all have different motivations to learn a new language, like better communicating with a loved one or moving to another country, and the more intense that need or pressure, the higher the motivation. “What we try to seek out is how do we keep people motivated, engaged and excited to do the same thing over and over, and that’s really challenging. We do this by creating moments of celebration, moments where you feel accomplished doing something hard. The moment of celebration after you’ve put in the work to earn something, it’s pretty incredible to tap into that feeling.”

Enter Duo, the brand’s persistent, lovable green owl and motivator master who’s always ensuring you’re sticking with the program and celebrating your progress. “One of the most interesting things about Duo is that he often serves as a mirror for how people think about staying motivated. A lot of people use shame and underachieving as a powerful motivator, and for them Duo serves as a passive-aggressive someone kind of nagging you to get things done. For other people he’s more of a coach or he’s more positive. It’s kind of interesting to see how Duo mirrors what people need him to be to keep them motivated.

The success of Duo is taking the company to the next level of storytelling as a tool to maintain customers engaged and motivated. “I think we’re trying to figure out how to create other characters that Duo can also interact with. One thing we’re learning is that if we can incorporate storytelling into the daily experience of using Duolingo, then it starts to become more engaging.” The team at Duolingo has introduced a number of new characters throughout the customer journey, in podcasts, social media and within the app to increase engagement and keep people motivated. More characters means more content and more content means more people needs, and like many other fast-growing local tech companies, the language app is looking to expand its team fast.

Simmy takes this at heart, not just to satisfy the company’s hiring needs, but to build a long term solution to raise awareness of opportunities in the region, especially among young, up-and-coming talent. “In some ways Pittsburgh is different from most cities because of CMU, which brings in a lot of kids every year who are becoming more and more proficient at UX design. This is a good short term solution, but as someone who’s committed to the future of this community and this city, the challenge is going to be instituting more long term solutions. We’ve gotta teach people before CMU about the opportunities in tech, starting by making kids in high school or middle school aware of the possibilities that exist. In the midst of the climate of the pandemic, as a design team one reason we’re itching to get back to normal life is because we’re pretty excited in trying to get the local community more involved in the opportunities that exist in Duolingo and in tech in general. As a group we’re trying to brainstorm ways to get more involved and make a longer term impact on the community.”

One such initiative is the company’s mural initiative, which started as a major cosmetic remake of their headquarters and is expanding into a wider program inviting local artists to submit proposals to change the face of the city.

“The commitment I think we’re making supporting local art is representative of the kind of long term action we’re trying to take. Investing in our community, finding local artists, we need to create more opportunities and invest more frequently so that there can be actual change, so that local artists and local students can have careers in the near future. The mural got all this attention, but what we’re really trying to do as a company is figure out how we find more of those opportunities to invest multiple times because those are the ones that will change lives and our impact on the community.”

 

See career opportunities at Duolingo >>

Bringing Closings to Closure

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Buying a home is statistically the biggest investment in most people’s lives. Yet, closing on a home is surrounded by anxiety, stress and uncertainty all the way up to the moment the ink is dry. Jen Yosef, co-founder and CEO of Mighty, has made it her mission to remove the pain from one of the most critical moments of the transaction - going through the inspection and finding out with utmost accuracy and unprecedented speed what those fixes will cost to make sure the deal goes through.

We’ve all been there. Buyer finds the home of their dreams. Seller gets a return for their investment. And realtor awaits their hard earned paycheck after countless open houses and even more showings. Everybody’s happy, right? Not so fast. The inspection comes through, reporting broken windows, a leaking roof and an electrical irregularity. An otherwise smooth transaction throws everything back on the negotiating table because of the inability to determine with accuracy and transparency what the associated costs will be.

Enter Mighty. An AI-powered app that gathers big data to deliver buyers, sellers and agents a laser accurate estimate of the repair costs within hours to put every party’s mind at ease and let the transaction proceed as planned. “The real estate transaction is stressful and frustrating for the buyers and for the sellers and our mission was always to empower the real estate agent to be able to help the buyer and seller in the best form possible,” comments Jen. “The glaring problem that we saw was that when it comes to inspections, to home repair, to contracting, it’s a huge pain point. After inspections everybody knows all the things that are wrong but nobody can tell you what they cost. And that’s where Mighty’s intelligent technology comes into play, within 24 hours or less you get these numbers in your hands and now as a buyer and seller you feel so much more confident understanding you know what things are going to cost. Having that data and transparency with you is a huge way to optimize the entire transaction.”

We asked Jen, what’s the secret sauce to deliver such accuracy so fast? “Having a network of contractors helps, but we’re getting more from the vast amounts of publicly available data and becoming more of an AI company. We go deep into understanding a property and say ‘there’s a roof and let’s break it down, it’s an asphalt roof, what needs to be replaced or repaired, etc.’ so we tap into as much information and knowledge as possible. This allows us to deliver extremely high accuracy, we’re talking 99.9 percent,” Jen reassures. But that’s apparently just the beginning “The next couple of years for Mighty is building out our technology to get into virtually instantaneous estimating. Within seconds a real estate agent and consumers are going to know all the data they need in terms of pricing.” 

In a city fighting to dial up its diversity in tech, Jen stands out as a bit of a poster child. Originally from Dubai, she is one of the very few immigrant females of color at the helm of a tech company. While she appreciates numerous benefits from Pittsburgh as a tech hub, she also recognizes the challenges that lie ahead. “The advantages of being in Pittsburgh is that in terms of academia and technology we’ve got excellent talent. The challenge that we have is that investment is tough. Pittsburgh in general is a risk averse city so you don’t have a lot of investors saying ‘hey we really want to grow the startup scene, grow the tech ecosystem. On top of that, when you add female entrepreneurs and women of color such as myself we’re talking about a whole other set of challenges.” But that hasn’t made a dent in her tenacity to move forward. “As immigrants, we have that crazy amount of grit and a crazy amount of perseverance to be able to take a company to the next level and I think a lot of people that know the journey of Mighty have seen where Mighty started and where it is today. And a lot of it has to do with how diverse my team is and the kind of experience we have brought in.” 

These issues have been raised by many a tech entrepreneur in town, but you do tend to hear more about the problems than the solutions. We asked Jen to share some thoughts on overcoming this. “First, every single company has a duty and a responsibility to be very mindful of their diverse hiring, it means expanding where you’re going out and finding your talent. Go a little bit deeper because talent may not be able to find you because they don’t have access to you. Second, is being engaged in mentoring. I make it an effort, even if it is only a few hours a week, to help create a virtuous cycle. And third, having each one of us tapping into different ways to continue to grow the ecosystem is going to be critical. Since I moved here a few years ago I’ve seen a ton of improvement, how we’re looking at diversity, having more diverse founders and how we’re finding ways to support these companies and help them thrive.”

Back in 2008, upon graduating college, Jen had an offer to join a Pittsburgh company. “I came to town and I said ‘no way, I’m never coming to Pittsburgh.’ And then in the 2015 time frame I got another offer with a company that I already knew, and when I came back I said ‘wow, it has really changed, it’s got a great food scene, a lot to do here, it’s got great arts and theatre and culture and stuff like that.” The rest is history. She’s now made it  her home and home to her tech startup and hopes many others will join her. “We need to focus on how do we get more people to think ‘Pittsburgh’s my home, I love it, I never want to move.’” For those taking her on her offer, she’s got a great app for you as soon as you find a new home.

 

See career opportunities at Mighty >>

Building the Trails He Rides On

Jonathan Kersting is well known in town as perhaps the biggest voice in technology. As VP of Communications & Media, Jonathan has been with the Pittsburgh Technology Council for over 20 years and is the host of Techvibe Radio on ESPN and editor of TEQ magazine among other duties. Suffice it to say there’s probably no Pittsburgh tech C-level executive that has escaped his microphone.

But what many people may not know, and far beyond the world of robotics and artificial intelligence, is that Jonathan, like many other Pittsburgh natives, has embraced the numerous bike trails and terrains that make up the geography of this city. In his case, you could go a little further. Or a lot. He claims “cycling is the only thing that lets my mind unwind and get the endorphins flowing; it is intertwined across pretty much everything that I do.” And so it seems, at about 100 to 400 bike miles per week, his love of biking certainly qualifies as what he calls “a lifelong obsession.”

Pittsburgh is best known as the Steel City or the Three Rivers City. But throughout town, you’ll find a multitude of bike trails that cover just about every imaginable terrain. Whether you’re cruising around the Point downtown, going long distance on the South Side or mountain biking on Frick Park, there’s a ride for every flavor. Asked which of these is his favorite, Jonathan can only respond “that’s like picking a favorite child!”

Jonathan started biking at age six, and except for his four years in college has hardly gone a day without riding. We had a chance to connect with Jonathan and change roles, this time putting him for one on the interviewee seat…

Question: What are your favorite bike trails in town?

Jonathan: I’m partial to Frick Park for mountain biking because it’s right in my backyard. Right now my favorite trail there is Refractory; it runs along the base of Summerset at Frick and is just a blast to hoon without sliding off the edge! One of my favorite road bike or gravel bike loops is to take the Great Allegheny Passage to the Montour Trail to South Park. Hit some trails (if you’re on the gravel bike) or ride loops in the countryside (if you’re on a road bike) and loop back to Pittsburgh for 60 miles of smiles.

Q: Do you bike to work? 

J: I’ve been an off-and-on commuter for 20 years. The last few years I’ve been consistent at averaging 2-3 days per week throughout the year. I commuted almost 3,000 miles last year. Since we are working from home now, my commute got a lot shorter!

Q:  How many bikes do you have? 

J: I’ve had as many as 12 bikes hanging in my basement. But I’ve switched to a less-is-more mantra for now. Currently I have four bikes, just one mountain bike, one gravel bike, one touring/commuting bike and a road bike.

Q: We heard you helped restore bike trails on Frick Park or elsewhere in town. Can you tell us more?

J: Over the years I’ve participated in a number organized and unorganized trail building and maintenance sessions mostly in Frick Park. Some unsanctioned work in Frick and its surrounding terrain has resulted in some stunning trails that are world-class. Just google “Crater Trail or Humpular Trail in Frick Park.”

Q: Have you ever done the full bike trip from Pittsburgh to DC?

J: I’ve done that ride about 10 times in both directions. The first time I rode it, it changed my whole philosophy on riding. I was 100 percent Type-A about my riding until doing that ride the first time. Riding the GAP/C&O allows you to slow down and enjoy the ride. Stop for cookies in Rockwood or grab a beer at Lucky Dog. It’s just you and the bike and hopefully a friend or two. 

Q: What is the longest distance you’ve ever biked?

J: I rode the entire C&O Trail from DC to Cumberland in 1 day, approximately 180 miles. It was amazing in so many ways. I’ll be honest, the last 20 miles were not mentally pleasant, but I woke up the next day ready to ride and rode 50 miles to unwind my legs!

Q: Do you find Pittsburgh a bike-friendly town? What else would you recommend doing?

J: It’s definitely improving. Twenty years ago commuting to work was almost a monkey knife fight. People are more accepting of cyclists and the infrastructure is so much better. Thanks Bike PGH! We still have a way to go, but so much progress has been made.

Q: What impact can more people biking have in Pittsburgh? 

J: I love seeing more people on bikes as it’s just a better way to live. You don’t have to take your car everywhere. Just go for a ride to unwind, burn some calories and get the juices flowing. You rarely see anyone angry while riding a bike. 

The Transformational Coach

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In the world of sports, from baseball to football to basketball, commentators often like to describe how coaches strategize or engineer masterful plays. Just a couple of Thesaurus-inspired analogies that range from the pretentious to the inspiring sports announcers use to keep their audiences engaged between plays. In Pittsburgh, analogies aside, we happen to have someone who knows more than a little about coaching, strategy and engineering: Neysha Arcelay.

Neysha is an engineer with a longstanding career in corporate America, where she cut her teeth working for the likes of Johnson & Johnson, Alcoa and PNC. But just over four years ago, she became a coach and a transformation executive at the helm of her business firm – Precixa, an operations boutique consultancy that helps companies maneuver through their transformational strategies with everything from organizational structure, to policies and procedures, processes, systems, reporting or new technologies. 

 

Precixa, she explains, stands for precision. “I was looking back on my background in operations engineering, that’s what we’re trying to do, it’s problem solving to reduce variability in the way you operate your business. The company works mostly with clients between 200 to 1,000 employees from all over the East coast, though 80% of their clients are Pittsburgh based. “Above that size range there are too many decision making layers and bureaucracy and below it the process becomes less cost-effective for a boutique consultancy. Our niche is that middle ground, mostly privately held organizations. I have many startups reach out to me and if your personal mission and your purpose and the ‘why’ behind your business are aligned with my personal values I will work with you just to see you thrive.”

 

The company has established a strong customer base with an impressive near 100% customer retention rate, but getting things off the ground wasn’t easy. “After 20 years in corporate America, I decided to launch my own company. I knew it was going to be challenging, I just didn’t realize it was going to be ‘this’ challenging! Yesterday was our 4th year anniversary. Over the last four years it has not been like a rollercoaster, it’s been more like the image plotted by a seismograph during an earthquake,” she recalls with a chuckle. “The ups and downs are very pronounced. I had to invest myself into the networking scene, meeting new people and raising awareness for my brand. The good news is the Pittsburgh entrepreneurship community is incredibly helpful. There’s no other city I would recommend to start your entrepreneurial journey because there are a lot of resources and within the community everyone is actually willing to help.”

 

Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Neysha eventually moved to New Jersey in the late 90’s to join Johnson & Johnson as a Process Redesign Engineer. After a couple of decades in the corporate grind, the excessive travel started getting to her and she and her husband decided to move to Pittsburgh. “My last year at J&J I was traveling 85% of the time handling five manufacturing plants in the US and Europe and to say that I was burned out is an understatement,” she comments. “When I came to Pittsburgh, my expectation was to breathe and to not live out of a suitcase. I was not necessarily looking to move to a new city, I didn’t have big expectations, I couldn’t even spell Pittsburgh,” she laughs. “I just wanted to build a home. Initially I made it my purpose to immerse myself in discovery mode, so whenever I left work, I’d go to discover a new neighborhood, or a new restaurant, or a new place in the city, and soon enough started finding everything I needed. As a Hispanic, I could find my Hispanic restaurants, my supermarkets, my products. Being from Puerto Rico, for me it’s all about the food. One day walking through the Strip District I came across a very specific ingredient that’s not easy to find, of all places at a Vietnamese supermarket and I was like ‘wow.’ The store owner found a client for life!”

 

But her assimilation into Pittsburgh was not immediate, it took some time set roots, however solid these ended up becoming. “What I found challenging about this city is that most of the people in Pittsburgh are born and raised in Pittsburgh so it can be difficult to get into them. But what I love about it is once you break in those circles, you get absorbed and they won’t let you go. The relationships and the connections that you make in more cosmopolitan cities are broader but more shallow, in Pittsburgh they are narrower but they run deep. When we moved here, the idea was to stay for five years, and now we have tripled that. A few years ago my husband and I were re-evaluating, but I realized there is no better city where we’re going to get the holistic value proposition that we get in Pittsburgh. For raising your family, the community, the access and the opportunities, everyone is two degrees of separation from each other, so the opportunity you get here is unparalleled to any other city. And still, it’s big enough to get everything you need, but small enough that you can feel more in control.”

 

While Neysha has found a better balance in Pittsburgh, she keeps plenty busy with her other passions, which involve giving back to the community – mentoring and coaching. “I have always had a deep passion to see rising talent and professional development is very close to my heart, mostly because I received great support from amazing mentors. I wanted to pay it back because I also experienced the absence of it, which actually made me more keen to deliver it. This also led me to create the book (The Little Blue Book: A Girl’s Guide to Owning Your Professional Development) because I didn’t have the time to mentor everyone that crossed my path, but at least I could leave them with the framework of what I typically teach.” Neysha takes these matters at heart and is involved in a variety of inclusion initiatives and mentorship organizations, like the Robert Morris University Women Leadership Organization and RedChairPGH among others.

 

When not working on a new strategy, Neysha is coaching. When not coaching, she’s volunteering. When not volunteering, perhaps she’ll find a little shut-eye time. And while still awake, you may find her pleasing her food passion at Musa “they have the most outstanding Caribbean food I’ve ever had.”

 

The Ghost in the Machine

Ken Draim's artwork

A rustbelt steampunk artist brings his creation to a city that mirrors just that. Open the door and journey into Ken Draim’s world, where it echoes his childhood impression of Paris come to life, with the layered formation of rusted metal and stone, aged wood, and other textural elements to birth the feel of history. Draim is a distinguished automata and kinetic sculpture artist who moved to Pittsburgh’s South Side three years ago from Taos, New Mexico, which was his home for almost 40 years after earning his BFA in painting at Washington University in St. Louis.

Draim’s world of the mischievous carnival transcends us to the bygone era and his sculptures exude a sense of amazement, sound and movement while capturing the wondrous vision of steam-engine technology, combining 19th-century machine aesthetics with creative expression and engineering. If you throw into the pot Jules Verne’s novels, Wes Anderson films, Andy Warhol’s fashion illustrations, and Alex Calder’s “Circus” sculptures, the result is Ken Draim’s storybook that delights us to glee.

We asked Ken Draim a few questions about his final voyage to Pittsburgh to call it home and how he navigates the city as a mid-career artist.


Question: What brought you to Pittsburgh?

Ken: My wife and I moved to Pittsburgh three years ago from Taos, N.M. We had a small art gallery in Taos, where I sold my automatons. Taos is a well established art community, focusing more on traditional Southwestern art. We were looking for a change and more opportunities. We searched all over the country before settling on Pittsburgh. We were drawn to Pittsburgh, although we had never visited before, because of its affordability, walkability, and character. 

 

Q: What do you think this city has to offer in terms of art?

K: Being an automaton artist, the industrial heritage of Pittsburgh that permeates the city is a great inspiration for my work. The old brick row houses, bridges, and factories are an endless wellspring of inspiration. It is a city of potential – a city re-invented, not yet defined, and not fully realized. I see that as a great strength. 

 

Q: What needs to happen to bring more visibility in the arts and attract artists to Pittsburgh?  

K: I think the city has made strides to encourage the art scene. Pre-Covid, I was involved with many local organizations that unite and promote artists and was scheduled to display my work in a number of exhibitions, markets and galleries. Of course, much more could be done to liven things up. Why not take advantage of all those beautiful old factory buildings, and create a space where many artists can create and exhibit? This could be done along the lines of the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, VA and have sliding scales for rent, to entice the more struggling artists. Art Centers can be popular attractions for visitors to the city.

 

Q: Pittsburgh has a strong industrial, manufacturing and engineering heritage. How does machine technology inspire or affect your work? 

K: Although Pittsburgh is now known for its cutting edge engineering and robotics, I draw my influence from the ghosts of the machine technology of the industrial revolution that is still felt throughout the city. I do feel like modern engineering technology can draw inspiration from the past. I was exhibiting my automatons on Market Square, when a professor from Carnegie Mellon happened to walk by and saw my machines. She asked me to consult with her students who were building automatons. It is so important for the students to see the bridge between art and science. Both disciplines benefit when they work together. 


Q: What do you like about living in Pittsburgh and what would you like to see change?

K: Overall, my wife and I enjoy living here. It’s a mid-sized city with plenty of green spaces and a lot of cultural things to do. It’s a dynamic city on the cusp of becoming something great. In addition to brick and mortar galleries, and art festivals, local businesses could have catered art openings and art talks, and feature exhibits from a local artists “clearinghouse”.  That would get exposure for new artists and integrate the arts into the community.  I have found that many Pittsburghers are interested in the arts, just underexposed.

 

Q: What is one simple advice you would give to young artists thinking about moving to Pittsburgh?

K: The one piece of advice or encouragement I could give a young artist thinking of moving to Pittsburgh is that you have the potential of creating your own art scene here, and don’t have to fit into established rigid molds. This city is in the midst of a new beginning and anything is possible. Use your imagination. 

Visit Ken’s Website >>

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Some time in early 2020, right before the Covid-19 Pandemic hit, I was in need to repair my tube amplifier, a hi-fi device that sounds like heaven and looks like it came out of a Carnegie Mellon lab. This is no job for Geek Squad and something I had only once had serviced in New York by a sound engineer. In my long quest to find the Pittsburgh equivalent, I ended up connecting with Squirrel Hill’s quintessential vinyl shop Jerry’s Records. I spoke to the manager  and explained my issue, and without a moment’s hesitation, he said “you need to talk to Don.” 

 

Don, it turns out, owns a repair shop called Phil’s. So I called Don at Phil’s and told him about my needs. He seemed busy and asked me to call back in two weeks. Two weeks later I called for an appointment and Don said “why don’t you come by now and let me look at your amp?” So I put the 80 lb electronic treasure into my trunk and headed to Phil’s in Bellevue.

 

Upon arriving, I see an old residential home on a residential street with a small sign: “Phil’s Radio and Television Services.” Suffice it to say I did not feel very comfortable leaving my hi-fi gem in this place, but I had little choice. Upon entering the home, I find Don, a man in his early 70’s in a pair of jeans and flannel shirt surrounded by what to the uneducated eye might have looked like a NASA control center.

 

I’ve been an electronics buff since I was a kid, and this was like entering Willy Wonka’s Electronics Factory! Frequency analyzers, oscilloscopes, tube testers, old amps, turntables, capacitors, vacuum tubes and all sorts of paraphernalia. “So this is your amp?” Don asked, “it’s a beauty! Let’s open it up.” At this point I began to realize I wasn’t dropping anything off, but was about to begin an experience. As Don opened the amp, he started pulling cables from his artillery of apparatus and testing the amp left and right, and yes, all apparatus worked and each had a specific purpose. 

 

He spent a good 90 minutes analyzing my amp like a doctor who puts you through a full physical, explaining what he’s checking along the way. And then some time for Don to tell me his story. And this, friendly readers, is what made my Saturday afternoon!

 

Don is the son of Phil, who opened the shop in the 1950’s. He’s both a musician and a technician. He worked at RCA as an electronics engineer for many years and eventually took over his father’s shop upon his “retiring,” a word he uses very loosely. On the side, Don played the organ on his own and with a local band, the Velvetones. He has the photos to prove it up on the walls, standing proudly in his burgundy velvet jacket next to his Hammond. 

 

Organs, it turns out, are Don’s big passion. He’ll repair anything from an old 8-track boombox, to a tube amp, a TV, a guitar amp, a CD player and anything in between. But there’s something Don loves to  fix, and that’s organs. And not just any organ, but Hammonds, the quintessentially popular instrument created in the 1930’s and used in jazz clubs, blues joints, velvet lounges and rock arenas across the globe. And guess how many people can fix a Hammond in Pittsburgh? One, and his name is Don Politto.

 

But with the digitization of music, the Hammond lost popularity and the last one produced in its original analogue form was in 1985. Much to my surprise, I learned from Don there are hundreds of Hammonds in the Pittsburgh area, all of them 35 years and older, many in need of repair. So exactly where are these hundreds of Hammonds hidden in this town? Among Hammond’s most popular clients: churches.

 

Don has been trying to retire for years, but the churches won’t let him. He knows a bit too much about organs and feels a bit of a responsibility to the city churches. He doesn’t want any business, but can’t turn organs down. So if you stop by Phil’s, give Don a break and don’t hand him a CD player or an old TV. And don’t give him any referrals, he does not want the work. Just let him tell you his story and give him time to rest, and help the local churches.