These companies with local connections, and Jewish ties, foster entrepreneurism
Programs help students get involved in entrepreneurism

These companies with local connections, and Jewish ties, foster entrepreneurism

"You have to create your own opportunities," said Colman Wolfson, the project manager at AlphaLab Gear, a local business incubator that is designed to help people do just that.

Participants in Startable, a local summer program devoted to teaching teenagers business skills, design and market their own products. (Photo courtesy of Coleman Wolfson)
Participants in Startable, a local summer program devoted to teaching teenagers business skills, design and market their own products. (Photo courtesy of Coleman Wolfson)

A 2016 study by the Kauffman Foundation threw into sharp relief the dynamic nature of the modern economy.

“New and young businesses create nearly all net new jobs in the U.S. economy,” the study declared, noting that “older, established companies” tend to be “net destroyers of jobs.”

Which is why entrepreneurship, experts say, serves a vital role in growing the economy.

“You can’t anticipate going to work out of high school and college and being in a job for 30 or 40 years,” said Colman Wolfson, the project manager at AlphaLab Gear, a local business incubator. “It seems like much more often, you have to create your own opportunities. Regardless of what your work is, you have to be entrepreneurial in the way that you approach it.”

This is partly why summer programs training aspiring entrepreneurs have become increasingly popular.

Both Wolfson and David Levine, a Pittsburgh native who now lives in Boulder, Colorado, oversee entrepreneurship programs that seek to inspire the next generation to start their own businesses or at least become productive members of the so-called new economy, in which technological ingenuity is in high demand.

‘Important Skills’

In 2015, Wolfson developed a summer program called 412Build — now known as Startable — that teaches high school students the skills required to launch and grow a business. During the eight-week program, participants — many of whom come from underserved communities in Pittsburgh — gain exposure to 3-D printing, laser cutting and woodworking equipment, in addition to learning basic business skills.

Participants try to find a gap in the market before crafting a proposal in the form of a pitch deck, a brief presentation for potential investors. If program leaders give an idea the green light, the students receive an investment to purchase raw materials and launch the business.

“Students have the opportunity to really learn the hard and soft skills they know that they’re going to need to be successful in a career, whether it’s a business that they start themselves or if they go to work for someone else,” Wolfson said.

Camp Inc. was established in Boulder in 2014 as an overnight camp teaching skills such as graphic design, coding and public speaking. The model was popular. An 11-year-old from Pacifica, California, garnered national media attention when he crowdfunded more than $2,500 in order to pay his way through the camp.

Levine, who previously served as the counselor-in-training director and programming coordinator at Emma Kaufmann Camp, joined Camp Inc. in 2016 as assistant director, before taking over as director a year later. He attributes the interest in entrepreneurship camps to an insufficient focus in many school curricula on promoting creativity and innovation.

“School systems have stopped teaching these important skills,” Levine wrote via email. “They have focused so much on preparing for standardization that they have forgotten how to teach kids to be adaptive.”

He also attributed high demand for Camp Inc. and similar programs to popular television shows such as “Shark Tank” and “Dragons’ Den,” which feature entrepreneurs attempting to convince a group of venture capitalists to invest in their startups.

Building a Foundation

Innovation Works, the parent company of AlphaLab Gear, looks for local companies in which to invest, especially those led by individuals from low-income and minority backgrounds.

“With the growing tech scene here in Pittsburgh, we wanted to create opportunities to kind of expand our pipeline of potential entrepreneurs who could get involved in our space and with our programs,” Wolfson said.

For upper middle-class high schoolers, unpaid internships provide an opportunity to gain hands-on experience in the business world. But many lower-income students can’t afford to do unpaid work during the summer, and they often lack the connections to secure such positions in the first place.

That is why Startable participants are given a stipend, in addition to keeping any profits accrued from their startups.

“We feel the students shouldn’t have to decide between a paying job and career-building skills,” Terri Glueck, director of communications for Innovation Works, wrote in an email. “The reality is that many teens need to earn money in the summer to save for school, help their family and/or cover their living expenses.”

Although some participants continue to grow their businesses after the program ends, Wolfson said the durability of the students’ companies is secondary to the foundation they establish for future endeavors.

“The idea is to give them exposure to the opportunities and resources that are available to them through places like AlphaLab Gear and Innovation Works with the hopes that in the future, some of them will start their own businesses and come back to us for assistance in doing so,” Wolfson said. “And we hope that others pursue education or employment that would make them good early employees of some of these tech startups.

“So really it’s about kind of introducing young people to the … entrepreneurship and tech scene here in Pittsburgh, specifically students who might otherwise not be exposed to this stuff.”

Expanding the Options

Camp Inc. comprised one of four overnight camps established under the second iteration of the Specialty Camps Incubator, an initiative of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, a national umbrella organization for Jewish summer camps. The Incubator, funded by grants from the Jim Joseph Foundation and the AVI CHAI Foundation, provides training and other resources to specialty camps, or those with niche focuses, as well as money to offset any losses incurred over the first three years of operation.

Given the high initial expenses of purchasing materials, specialty camps — particularly technology-style camps — face hurdles in getting off the ground and making ends meet, without continual infusions of money from a large foundation such as FJC.

“For a brand new camp that’s never existed before, you don’t have alumni, you don’t have a base of funding aside from the grant,” said Michele Friedman, who runs the Incubator Program.

Ultimately, the overnight model was unsustainable for Camp Inc. In 2017, the Boulder JCC began offering Camp Inc. as a day camp, while also adding after-school sessions.

Still, the demand for entrepreneurship camps remains high.

Recently, Levine and other camp leaders have turned their focus towards bringing Camp Inc.’s model to other cities. So far, the camp has licensed its curriculum to camps in Atlanta and Denver. PJC

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Colman Wolfson. The Chronicle regrets this error.

Jonah Berger can be reached at Follow the Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter for the latest stories.

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