Editors Note: Hassan Bazzi is Forward Cities' Director of Community Innovation. This article is part of a broader series designed to highlight the journeys of entrepreneurs and the community-based approach of our Community Entrepreneur Accelerators.
The Pittsburgh Equitable Entrepreneurial Ecosystem (E3) Network is a collective of mission-aligned local entrepreneurial support organizations (ESO’s) tasked with creating a more equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem in the city of Pittsburgh. The member organizations work together to enhance opportunities for coordination and collaboration among local entrepreneurial support organizations (ESO’s) on outreach initiatives, support services, and other key functions in order to achieve shared prosperity and inclusive, equitable economic development through entrepreneurship in communities in Pittsburgh.
The E3 Network was launched in late 2019 through the generous support and funding from Pittsburgh’s Hillman Foundation and Richard King Mellon Foundation with an initial group of ESOs representing a balance of large institutional partners and grassroots organizations. The E3 Network is composed of eight Pittsburgh based organizations who are focused on supporting entrepreneurs and their surrounding communities. The member organizations are a mix of nonprofits, government, and some qualifying for-profits. Their work is guided by the Kauffman Foundation’s Ecosystem Builder’s Declaration of Independence, a set of field level guiding principles for those engaged in the work of ecosystem building.
The E3 Network membership is comprised of Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA), Riverside Center for Innovation (RCI), Omicelo Cares, Circles of Greater Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Innovation Institute, The Minority Networking Exchange/CKV Suites, Bible Center Church, and Community Forge. Membership in the E3 Network is not limited to these founding member organizations and the group continues to be more inclusive and representative of all the communities and populations that make Pittsburgh the diverse and vibrant modern city it is.
Since the onset, Juan Garrett, Executive Director of the Riverside Center for Innovation (RCI), has helped lead the group by serving in a key role as convener and coordinator. The network meets monthly to update each other on their organization's initiatives and to strategize and collaborate on ecosystem building efforts aimed at developing a more cohesive and sustainable support network for Pittsburgh’s entrepreneurs. In addition, the member organizations meet in between meetings on sub-committees and task forces.
Under normal circumstances, keeping up to date with the myriad of organizations and their offerings is a challenge and can be daunting for many entrepreneurs. For entrepreneurs and business owners focused on the day-to-day operation and survival of their business, stepping away for long enough to seek the support and assistance needed to grow and scale is not always an option. Earlier this Spring, the Covid-19 pandemic and its immediate impact on businesses illuminated how crucial it is to have a connected and cohesive ecosystem whose resources can be quickly and easily accessed by entrepreneurs when they are in need. At the start of the pandemic when incentives, stimulus funds, and business relief funds were made available, many entrepreneurs hardest hit by the pandemic and who desperately needed access to these funds, either did not have the existing relationships with the organizations who serve as the intermediaries for the deployment of resources or the know-how to access them.
Working in conjunction with the E3 Network and launched alongside it is a team of local ecosystem Navigators who meet with and follow up with entrepreneurs to assess their needs and help guide and refer them through the vast network of organizations, support services, and resources in the greater Pittsburgh area. These Navigators are entrepreneurship champions and ecosystem builders Vernard Alexander, Tori Snyder, and Khamil Scantling – all entrepreneurs in their own right, and names familiar to many of Pittsburgh’s entrepreneurs and ESOs.
Vernard, Khamil, and Tori assist entrepreneurs to make the connections, identify the intersections, and match and refer these entrepreneurs to ESOs by serving as the onramps and access points to the ecosystem. To assist with the coordination and referral process, the Navigators utilize a shared digital platform (SourceLink) that was adopted by the ecosystem partners earlier this year to help facilitate communication among ESOs. The E3 Network looks to have a robust platform in place early next year one that can be used by ESOs to manage relationships with each other and their entrepreneur clients, as well as used by entrepreneurs to access the resources in the ecosystem.
Looking to the start of 2021, Forward Cities is working closely with the E3 Network, our funding partners Hillman and RK Mellon, the RCI, and the URA to further strengthen the ecosystem through the incubation and launch of a “backbone organization” that can serve as the organizational hub of Pittsburgh’s equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem. The backbone organization will serve as the principal accountability partner responsible for supporting the E3 Network, and ecosystem partners and stakeholders going forward in the implementation of an agreed-upon set of strategies to achieve a more equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem for every entrepreneur. They will work closely with local partners and cross-sector stakeholders in Pittsburgh including ESOs, entrepreneurs, philanthropy and community leaders, local government, and economic and community development organizations.
As 2020 and the turbulence that came with it appear to be drawing closer to a sunset, we are excited about the opportunities in store for Pittsburgh in 2021. We look forward to building on the work to date with our community partners and stakeholders to grow and sustain Pittsburgh’s equitable entrepreneurial ecosystem.