Ten years at the top of Pittsburgh’s tech scene has gifted Audrey Russo a pretty clear picture of the Steel City’s landscape. Literally, there is a giant photograph of downtown Pittsburgh that hangs on the wall adjacent to her Oakland office. But figuratively as well, in directing the Pittsburgh Technology Council for the past decade, Russo has been privy to observing and facilitating a period of significant growth.
“The world has changed and is changing more rapidly than ever” said Russo. “As a result, lots of things have changed with Pittsburgh and the community in terms of innovation and technology, and I’ve had the luxury of being a servant and trying to help move the needle and move the agenda forward so that Pittsburgh is on the world map particularly for innovation and technology.”
Pittsburgh Technology Council is the region’s information technology trade association, representing more than 1,300 members across the local tech sector.
The past decade has brought a change to the regional tech scene. In 2006, Google marked its physical Pittsburgh debut with two employees. By 2016, there were 450 workers in the Pittsburgh office, reported the Tribune-Review.
But Google isn’t the only company to locally flourish, others such as Uber, Duolingo and 4moms have helped reshape the city, Russo explained.
Back then “the workforce in tech was 18 to 20 percent of the region’s payroll; now it’s like 30 or over 30,” she said. “The significance of reaching that number is that it creates the tipping point. When you start to get to 30 percent of the workforce, or 30 percent of anything, that moves the needle, it becomes a turning point, a pivot; it alters what people require of a community and what they require of a city and place they call home.
“So we can say, ‘Oh my gosh, Lawrenceville exploded, and East Liberty is not the same as it ever was, and look what’s happening in Garfield.’ We can look at all the little patterns of what’s transformed, but part of it is that is we have people who require different amenities. If they are going to live in a place, and particularly people who are between the ages of 25 and 34 and are very highly educated, there are requisites on what makes it attractive for them to be here. So the proliferation of restaurants, and paying attention to air quality and what does it mean to need transportation and have direct flights, it doesn’t happen in a community that is not transforming.”
And just as the city has shifted, so too have its employers.
“While tech workers have increased, what’s really changed is this: For the first time, big global multinational companies need those skills,” she said. “Companies like PNC Bank, which five, six years ago used to contract out their engineering and design services, are now hiring specialized workers. They need people inside on their teams who actually know how to continue to iterate against those kinds of designs. These corporations are wrestling with, ‘Oh, we are now competing with the same skills as Google and Apple and Disney,’ so they’ve sort of had to wake up and now say, ‘We require this.’”
I’ve had the luxury of being a servant and trying to help move the needle and move the agenda forward so that Pittsburgh is on the world map particularly for innovation and technology.
As head of the Pittsburgh Technology Council, Russo works closely with companies such as PNC to “map out their people strategies.”
It is a gratifying task, said Russo, who, prior to overseeing Pittsburgh’s tech sphere, held positions at Reynolds Metals Company, Alcoa and MAYA Design, but what she is also proud of is her commitment to bolstering women’s opportunities in tech.
“I work with a lot of startups and people building their ideas into a product or service,” she said. “It remains bad. The women in the world who have had companies with exits is really small.”
“[Such paucity is due to] different challenges that women face. Number one, I think if they haven’t come up through a sort of finance career they might not have some of those natural connections that enhance the likelihood of investment capital necessary to scale their companies.
“There hasn’t been that type of gravitas over the decades for women who are surrounded by other people, who have sort of gone through their own journey, who have been moms, providers, have multiple amounts of responsibility. They sort of have never seen it for themselves as an opportunity to build companies.”
So what Russo does, even within the confines of her own home, is “coalesce those people” and “work together and figure out what people need and connect them.”
“I’m trying not to sound gender specific,” she said, “but I do think that if we miss trying to help the next iteration of 50 percent of our population, then we’re missing out. So I think we need to take a much more upfront view on how to be more inclusive in the startup entrepreneurial world.”
Russo credited Next Act Fund, a Pittsburgh-based angel investment community that focuses on “women-owned/led companies,” as making a positive impact.
Sophia Berman, CEO and founder of Trusst Lingerie who last April shared a panel hosted by Next Act Fund and discussed the challenges of raising capital, described Russo as “an exceptional mentor, leader and friend. Not only is she fun to work with, she is thoughtful, open-minded and engaged. She is incredibly busy yet always manages to make time to help others and lend her guidance and sounding ear. I wouldn’t be where I am without her.”
Brian Schreiber, president and CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, similarly praised Russo. “Audrey is an exceptional regional leader and an outstanding member of our board of directors,” said Schreiber. “She is a great person to vet an idea from conception to execution.”
Erin Oldynski, co-founder of Prototype, a Pittsburgh-based feminist maker space, echoed earlier sentiments: “Audrey has been incredibly supportive and inspiring for us in our effort to build a local technology sector that has gender and racial parity. She pushes us to reach higher and dream bigger, and for that we are grateful.”
Russo explained that in addition to seeing women given more opportunities to “get some traction,” she also wants Pittsburgh “to be known as a place where we were in industry at the turn of the 1900s, and now we’re a place where all people can build what they want in innovation and tech.”
Achieving these goals is exciting, she explained, and even 10 years after arriving at the Pittsburgh Technology Council, it remains an honor to facilitate transformation.
“It’s such a gift, being in this work,” she said. “Having an upfront view of the changes is such a gift.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz