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Where Pittsburgh’s Industrial History Meets a More Equitable Future

TechShop Pittsburgh is making it easier for startups to design, produce and test prototypes of manufactured products. (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

It’s one of the oldest adages in the book: Success is all about who you know. For Tamiah Bridgett, founder and CEO of Curl’s Best Friend, the work started with getting to know herself — or more specifically, her hair.

“I stopped using chemical relaxer back in 2001 while I was in grad school,” says Bridgett, who grew up and lived most of her life on Broad Street in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood.

People started to notice. Some asked how she did her hair and what products she used, and could she do their hair too?

“I’ve always had a knack for providing service to people,” says Bridgett, who studied social work in graduate school. She worked in that field for some time, but also did work as a manicurist. Bridgett meant to stick to doing nails, but once she did one person’s hair, well, you know how it goes.

“One person would tell the next person, would tell the next person, would tell the next person,” she says. Until 2006, Pennsylvania state law didn’t require natural hair braiders to have a license to operate. (Bridgett has since gone to cosmetology school to get the necessary education for licensing and training hair braiders in natural hair care.)

Those discussions and relationships turned into a community group in 2010, called It’s a Natural Thang.

“I started by gathering about a dozen or so fellow social workers,” Bridgett says, “We started meeting in each other’s homes. By the time we met the third time, we were busting at the seams.”

Now they use event space to host about three events a year, with up to 150 people in attendance. (They call each other “naturalistas.”) Their most recent event was November 28th, Small Business Saturday, where they featured a bunch of vendors the group approved.

During one of those events, Courtney Williamson saw Bridgett using a blow dryer she had DIY-customized to do the type of things she needed to do to work with natural hair effectively and efficiently.

“She walked up to me and said, ‘Tamiah, that’s a prototype,’” Bridgett remembers. “I said ‘what do you mean?’ and she explained. That’s when she started telling me about and encouraging me to apply to AlphaLab Gear."

As the founder and CEO of AbiliLife, a company dedicated to designing and developing products to improve the quality of life for patients with Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, Williamson had already graduated from the AlphaLab Gear accelerator. The 40-week program provides seed capital, mentorship, training and office space to cohorts of eight to 10 companies at a time.

Curl’s Best Friend was accepted into AlphaLab Gear’s most recent cohort of companies in October. The program is now in its third cycle. Companies get either $25,000 or $50,000 in exchange for 5 or 9 percent equity, respectively, from InnovationWorks, the program’s parent organization. More than 85 percent of AlphaLab Gear alumni companies so far have raised follow-on capital within eight weeks of demo day, the last official day of each cycle.

InnovationWorks created the model based on its earlier AlphaLab accelerator program for software companies. The Gear version focuses on so-called “hardware” companies by contrast, which means companies that have a tangible, manufactured product that may or may not have a software component.

“About five or 10 years ago, things started to change for hardware,” says Ilana Diamond, who leads the AlphaLab Gear program for InnovationWorks. “Open source software for design, 3D printing, TechShop."

TechShop is a national network of light manufacturing shops that offer memberships to individuals, who, as you do with a gym membership, gain access to hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of design software, 3D printers, and all kinds of light manufacturing machines to help design, build, and test prototypes. TechShop provides training to new members, and only trained members and staff may use the equipment. AlphaLab Gear participants get a membership to TechShop Pittsburgh as part of the program.

Through her TechShop access, Bridgett is working with two engineers. “I’ll … check with my engineers and see what’s going on, understand how things are developing and keeping everyone focused on producing a product that will make people excited,” she says of the relationship.

A review committee of advisers, investors and the AlphaLab Gear team selects companies based on an applicant’s ability to develop and launch a winning product or service, market potential, and the concept’s originality. Companies from all over the U.S. can apply. They have a 5-6 percent acceptance rate.

For Curl’s Best Friend, market potential was easy. The latest estimates on the black hair care market put it at $500 billion.

As for originality, “In a standard beauty industry, women with natural hair aren’t considered curly hair. There’s straight, wavy, curly and ethnic, and under ethnic there’s relaxed or natural,” Bridgett explains. “In reality, natural hair is curly hair, it’s just very tightly curled hair. Right now, people just make do with what’s out there. Coming up with tools for women with this type of hair to more effectively style that hair naturally and do so with confidence is my goal.”

As for ability to launch a winning product, Bridgett has a ready-made word-of-mouth and events machine in the It’s a Natural Thang network. Still, Bridgett’s top priority when it comes to how she’ll be taking advantage of the mentorship in the program is the nuts and bolts of marketing and getting products to market.

AlphaLab Gear has a “Tinder-like” setup for matching mentors with companies. They organize a speed dating session for the cohort and their base of about 100 mentors and counting (almost half are women, 12 are people of color including six African-Americans). Diamond does a little strategic nudging to make sure certain mentors meet with certain companies. Entrepreneurs submit names of mentors they liked and mentors submit names of entrepreneurs they liked to AlphaLab Gear, and wherever there’s a match, the mentorships ensue.

Overall, through its various programs including AlphaLab Gear, InnovationWorks has invested more than $62.1 million in 200 startups, attracting $1.6 billion in follow-on capital to the Pittsburgh region since establishing its seed capital fund in 1999.

AlphaLab Gear does several things with the intention of making that kind of opportunity as accessible as possible.

“One of the main goals I personally have is to increase the diversity of entrepreneurs and increase the number of people who see entrepreneurship as a career,” Diamond says.

Educational background is not part of the AlphaLab Gear application process. Companies don’t even need to be officially incorporated at the start of the program.

AlphaLab Gear also intentionally pursues partnerships like 412Build, a free eight-week summer program in Pittsburgh that teaches students ages 16 to 18 entrepreneurship and maker skills. Students develop, design, prototype, build, brand, market and sell products of their own creation by partnering with local retailers. The program targets a neighborhood with a high academic dropout rate. The idea, Diamond says, is to spark minds and establish early relationships with youth who might eventually apply to AlphaLab Gear.

Diamond has also been doing more outreach to entrepreneurs of color to try and get them to be mentors in the program.

There’s also AlphaLab Gear’s location, in a 58 percent African-American neighborhood where, despite Google moving in, and despite headlines about revival, median household income has barely nudged (while the surrounding neighborhoods have seen much faster rising median incomes). It’s a neighborhood very familiar to Bridgett.

“I grew up on the same street where AlphaLab Gear is located,” Bridgett says. “I can look up the hill and still see my mother’s house.”