Case Study: How Catapult Greater Pittsburgh’s Storefront Incubation Programs Are Supporting Women Entrepreneurs Of Color


This spotlight on an NCRC member's work is part of the Just Economy Solutions Hub. See more at NCRC.org/solutions!

NCRC seeks to explore the impact of small business and technical assistance education models supporting the growth of businesses owned by people of color. With support from Block, Inc., NCRC identified small business education models in the areas of entrepreneurship incubation among women owners of color; community capital resource navigation for Hispanic immigrants, and market access through procurement for Black-owned businesses. 

The output of this work can be found at the Just Economy Solutions Hub which has been designed to share tools, resources and promising practices that can strengthen entrepreneurial ecosystems.

The Value of Women’s Entrepreneurship

Over the last decade, Black women were the fastest-growing demographic of entrepreneurs in the United States. Accounting for 42% of all women who opened new businesses, the number of black-women-owned firms grew by nearly 50% between 2014-2019. Even so, the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic falling disproportionately on Black business owners did not deter Black women entrepreneurial growth. The National Association of Women Business Owners reported that of the 5% of women who started businesses, about half (47%) were Black women. This is a promising trend for the country’s economic outlook, but it is not without significant challenges to those driving such growth. Black women are more likely to self-fund their businesses and continue to experience barriers, particularly for those who start businesses in low-margin, highly competitive sectors (retail/wholesale, health, education, government or social services) that are difficult to sustain over time. Supporting Black women entrepreneurs to overcome these challenges can lead to closing the Black entrepreneurship gap.

‘This is my love. This is my dream. This is my goal. Everything that I’ve wanted to do has always been around food.  — Cheyanne Bronzell, Owner, Phat Girlz A Cookin’

Creating Trauma-Informed Business Incubation for Women Founders

There are many programs across the country seeking to help aspiring entrepreneurs explore, develop, test and bring new ideas to market. Often in the form of accelerators and incubators, these programs are highly funded and sought after. Retail incubators, more specifically, are a specialized type of business incubator that supports underserved sectors of a local economy, helping to sustain new retail entrepreneurs in early phases of their business. The value of retail incubators promise the creation of jobs, sustained business retention and greater diversity in the local economy. Incubation also has positive impacts on neighborhood development and public health.

There are, however, very few incubation programs across the country that center the needs of Black women and the most underserved entrepreneurs facing barriers due to their low-wealth conditions. Pittsburgh, through the Catapult Greater Pittsburgh’s retail commercial incubation entrepreneurship programming, is reimagining and forging a new path for how cities can better target women entrepreneurs in low-income communities seeking entrepreneurship as a pathway to wealth growth and greater economic mobility.

Catapult of Greater Pittsburgh: Startup to Storefront Incubation 

Catapult of Greater Pittsburgh (CGP) is a social and economic justice nonprofit serving and connecting families and communities to resources to mitigate poverty and accelerate the process of wealth formation. CGP’s “Startup to Storefront” retail incubation and entrepreneurship program is one of a suite of entrepreneurship supports providing opportunities for low-income, Black women entrepreneurs to start and expand their small businesses.

Addressing the Challenge:

Pittsburgh is the second largest City in Pennsylvania and has grown into its reputation as a dynamic hub for small business and startup activity, particularly collecting accolades in recent years related to its burgeoning tech startup economy. Leaders have grappled with the fact that this growth isn’t reaching or benefitting everyone. The city is home to nearly 41,379 businesses with only 1% (428) of them black-owned, despite Black people accounting for 8% of Pittsburgh’s population. The unfavorable environment for black-owned businesses is stark, as the city has ranked historically low compared to places across the country well positioned to address the economic, health and social mobility of Black women. 

“I wouldn’t have been able to afford renting out a space as a startup business. I am just very thankful for Tammy Thompson and Catapult for believing in me when there were times I didn’t believe in myself.”  — Alexis Cathie, Fashion Architect and Owner, IMIHI Designs

Unique to Pittsburgh is its 95+ neighborhoods, made up of main streets and corridors of all shapes, sizes and levels of activity. Like other cities, Pittsburgh has seen considerable growth and revitalization in and adjacent to lower-income communities that has shifted economic and demographic profiles, resulting in displacement. These trends have increased commercial rental prices, making it unaffordable for lower-wealth entrepreneurs to purchase. As neighborhoods continue to develop, an eye toward inclusive growth is imperative and a need to coalesce resources to extend opportunity for businesses to market and serve higher, more affluent commercial districts is warranted.

The city has developed a stronger network of small business resources with the launching of the Pittsburgh Equitable Entrepreneurship Ecosystem (E3). Powered by Forward City, E3 is designed to enhance opportunities and collaboration among support organizations to foster inclusive entrepreneurship. As part of the network, CGP has an opportunity to continue to raise the visibility of Black women founders and create the necessary resources that are needed as they navigate the challenges of childcare needs, hopelessness due to poverty issues, and having to deter time and attention because of other pressing needs.

Program Overview:

“Catapult: Startup to Storefront program” is a 12-month retail business incubation program for minority entrepreneurs who want to start and/or grow an existing retail business. Designed to assist in starting, strengthening, and expanding business operations, program participants participate in monthly cohort learning while receiving mentoring, educational seminars, networking, technical assistance, and opportunities to build strategic partnerships. Today, this program has scaled to several locations throughout the city, with two multi-retail incubator storefront spaces, a commercial kitchen, and two single retail storefront spaces.

Championing Programmatic Innovation:

  • Building a Trauma-Informed Framework for Entrepreneurship Education
    CGP built a team of local entrepreneurs and experts to create a specialized curriculum that centers the lived experience of aspiring entrepreneurs and the barriers they typically face in seeking entrepreneurship (e.g. childcare issues, poverty-mindsets, etc). The framework provides social service and wrap-around support that traditional programming does not often allow and incorporates a “trauma-informed” lens to education content and delivery that leads to creativity and responsiveness in program design.
  • Commercial Incubation in High-Cost Geographic Markets
    CGP is engaging with development partners across the city to tap into underutilized retail space in both underserved and more affluent communities. These retail incubation spaces within high-traffic commercial districts are providing unique opportunities for entrepreneurs to test their ideas and determine their audience for its goods and services. Particularly, in spaces and places that underserved entrepreneurs cannot afford to test and market their goods and services due to high commercial space rents.
  • Service Alignment with Tier 2 and Tier 3 Resource Providers
    CGP continues to be a critical partner with the city’s entrepreneurship ecosystem. The program not only fills a critical gap in resource provision for women entrepreneurs of color but it works as a connector for participants to more traditional and otherwise inaccessible Tier 2 and 3 partners. These partners include capital lenders who can scale ideas that are proven successful in incubation. Catapult provides a social safety net for these entrepreneurs as they navigate “next step” resources available to them.

I started my business during the pandemic, in 2020, and I was trying to find another source of income. Catapult has helped me tremendously with all of the resources and connections. I have a vision for my life and I’m thinking long-term. Whenever it gets rough, I just think of the long-term image of my life and how I want my business to be a multi-million company.”  — Taylor Shealey, CEO, Boss Girl Collection

Achieving Wealth-Building Impact:

CPG  sees its work in strengthening opportunities for underserved entrepreneurs to test and pilot new ideas as a first step to fostering an inclusive entrepreneurial ecosystem and wealth-building opportunities for women of color. Their greatest impact is their ability to provide risk-free avenues to test new ideas. By doing so, entrepreneurs who move on to grow their ventures can staff up, reduce wholesale costs and continue to create systems of long-term support.

To date, the program has been able to achieve the following:

  • Supported nearly 200 minority-owned business owners in launching and growing their businesses
  • Graduated nine cohorts of Black and Brown Entrepreneurs  
  • 80% of its first cohort developed tangible products to sell
  • Half of business owners moved on to the second stage of business development 
  • CPG has opened four commercial retail spaces and one commercial kitchen space across the city

Joshua Devine was NCRC’s Director of Racial Economic Equity.

Photo via joseph_a on Flickr.

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