Last summer, 18-year-old Aidan Honnold was nearly finished with a pet project he’d spent weeks building: three dog feeders that are set at different heights. He had the wood and the food bowls, and after cold-calling independent steel suppliers—something he found daunting—he found a small amount of steel that fit his $100 budget.
Then he caught a hitch. The supplier bumped up the price of the steel. His hopes for completing his dog-bowl contraption before summer’s end were looking slim.
Then, he thought, “How would a business solve this problem?”
That question was exactly what 412Build, an eight-week entrepreneurship and making program, had been teaching him to ask. The program is a collaboration featuring a nonprofit economic development organization called Innovation Works, tech-incubator AlphaLab Gear, and TechShop, and is accepting applications for summer 2016 through February. The program has changed from year to year, and this summer it will combine a two-week maker and entrepreneurship “boot camp” with a six-week “business accelerator” where participants design, prototype, build, and market their products in conjunction with local bike shops, pet stores, clothing retailers, and the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh.
Jackie Shimshoni, program coordinator for 412Build, said the program was born in 2014 out of a desire to give back to East Liberty, the neighborhood that is home to both of 412Build’s headquarters, AlphaLab Gear and TechShop. East Liberty is a historically African-American neighborhood at the center of a debate on gentrification and displacement in Pittsburgh. Shimshoni said the program’s founders, as main tech players in the area, wanted to expand summer opportunities to young people in East Liberty. (The program also pays a stipend.) Though the program is open to all 16- to 18-year-olds, she said, acceptance focuses on kids from East Liberty and surrounding neighborhoods.
Last year, 412Build taught making and entrepreneurship through two community projects: one at Kite Hill Park and the other at a playground next to Homewood Bible Center Church. In both cases, groups of teens interviewed community members about what they would like to see on the playground or in the park. It was up to them to design, build, and problem-solve every hurdle that comes with group-construction projects.
Wells Taylor, a senior at Winchester Thurston High School in Pittsburgh, said hearing from community members who had been working on renovating Kite Park Hill for a long time motivated him and the other young people to build a deck, mosaic art, new signs, and benches to improve the park for its neighbors.
“Something I really learned was not just how to make things for myself,” he said. “But how it feels to really be able to build something for other people.”
This year, the program is introducing a new element: retail partners. Young people will conduct interviews with small business owners to learn about what products might sell or are needed for everyday problems. In the “business accelerator” part of the program, they’ll use a curriculum similar to what AlphaLab Gear gives the tech startups it works with.
The idea for expanding the retail component of the program came from a side-project the program managers assigned the 412 participants early on: build a better pet feeder. In addition to working on a project for the Homewood Bible Center Church, Honnold latched onto the dog-feeder idea and wanted to see it through.
When he ran into his snag over the steel, he recalled what he had learned in the entrepreneurship workshops: the price of materials goes down if you order in bulk. He remembered another group was working on a musical wall that made different sounds for kids to play with in the Homewood playground, and asked if they needed any steel. Sure enough, they did, and it brought his price down to where he could afford it.
“The program made me realize how close you can always be to starting a company,” he said. “It used to just be a pie-in-the-sky thing like, ‘Ooh look, they’re an entrepreneur.’ I didn’t realize how far you can go from just an idea.”