Shoppers move from table to table. One vendor sells handcrafted wood cutting boards. At the next table are candles made with essential oils. Across the gymnasium, here in the Ace Hotel in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood, custom jewelry, welded-metal sculptures, and screenprinted t-shirts all are for sale.
The scene could be from any craft fair, except that the vendors are all high school students, and just eight weeks ago none of these products was more than an idea.
Tonight’s marketplace celebrates the students in Startable Pittsburgh, a free eight-week summer program that teaches students ages 16–18 skills in making and entrepreneurship. Partnering with local entrepreneurs and makers, students develop, design, prototype, build, brand, market—and, tonight, sell—products of their own.
Startable gives each student a program stipend as well as access to makerspaces and tools. Now in its fifth year, the program’s partners include AlphaLab Gear, Innovation Works, TechShop, and City of Play.
A hand-stitched and embroidered blanket depicting a black power fist hangs on display beside Dominique Mittermeier, 17, who sells throw pillows decorated with the word “Melanin.” Inspired by her own experiences growing up in an all-white family, Mittermeier, who is African American, created the brand to promote positive self-image among African Americans.
In addition to sharpening her sewing skills, Startable helped Mittermeier improve her time management.
“And working hard,” she adds. “I learned how to really push myself.”
The program is rigorous, requiring a commitment of 40 hours per week. Student time is divided between nearby makerspace TechShop, where students concentrate on developing their products, and local start-up accelerator AlphaLab Gear, where the focus is on the basics of founding a business.
“What we’ve found is that taking students to the point of pitching their ideas, that’s not the hard part,” said Startable program coordinator Jackie Shimshoni. “The hard part is taking that idea and getting it to market.”
Around 7 p.m., the student vendors pack up their wares. They will keep all the profits from tonight’s marketplace—more than $5,000, an increase of over $2,000 from last year’s event.
Seats fill up for the pitch competition. Six students will take turns pitching their products to a panel of judges for the top prize of $1,000 in investment money.
The judges, local entrepreneurs, hear pitches for t-shirts that empower girls, candles that increase wakefulness, and bamboo jewelry representing Chinese culture, among others. Mittermeier and her peers describe target audiences, marketing plans, and give detailed cost and revenue projections.
After deliberating, the judges come back and announce the winners of $250 and $500 in investment money.
Then the winner of the $1,000 investment is announced. Family and friends surround Mittermeier after her name has been called.
While she will certainly benefit from the $1,000 investment, says Shimshoni, Mittermeier and all Startable participants will enjoy continuing support from Startable: the program allots $500 for each student to join a makerspace or to submit a bill of materials to build a home studio.
The program’s reach continues to grow as word spreads about the talented students who continue to emerge from it. This year brings a new partnership with Handmade Arcade, the region’s largest craft- and maker-focused marketplace, and an opportunity for some of tonight’s participants to share their products with an even larger audience.
“We connect students with people and resources,” said Shimsoni. “And people in the community use us as a channel to find great students to intern or work with them.”
She added, “I already had two people e-mailing me saying, ‘Dominique can come in and use our space.’”