Women sharing their entrepreneurial journeys at roundtable
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How Pitt helps women business owners dream big

  • Community Impact
  • Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence

In recognition of National Women’s Small Business Month, the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence (IEE) hosted a women in business roundtable spotlighting five Western Pennsylvania entrepreneurs. The Canonsburg event, which also featured state representatives, was a forum for panelists to share their entrepreneurial journeys and the key issues they faced building and sustaining their businesses — and the value of the support provided by Pitt’s Small Business Development Center.

Pitt’s IEE has provided established and beginning entrepreneurs with consulting, education and networking opportunities for more than 30 years. The roundtable’s five speakers represent a small fraction of the women served by the IEE. In the last fiscal year, Pitt completed more than 6,036 hours of business counseling services for women business owners and helped launch 30 new women-owned startups.

Moderated by Huntington National Bank’s Senior Vice President and Director of Community Lending Carrie Rosenfelt, the roundtable featured speakers from a variety of sectors who own and operate in Allegheny County.

Jill Smallwood spoke about establishing J KoKo Hauling LLC, a Tri-Axle Dump Truck service company, after she left her job as a bus operator for the Port Authority. Smallwood not only runs her business in a male-dominated field — she also drives the truck.

Jiaman Xu (A&S ’19) spoke about her time in the tech sector starting SuLo by XYZ, a rentable portable charger and application for smartphones and other small electronic devices.

Sabika Jewelry’s CEO and Head Designer Alexandra Mayr-Gracik shared about her career marrying her artistic side with her business acumen.

And Denise DeSimone, who owns C-leveled, a strategic brand marketing agency in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood, spoke about why she partners with the IEE.

“Participation with the IEE always yields results,” she said. “I feel comfortable that I can pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, I need help with this,’ and they will get me to the right spot.” All membership to the IEE includes access to customized consulting and custom-matched Huntington Bank peer forums.

Business owners also access IEE services by working with its Small Business Development Center (SBDC), which was ranked No. 1 in the nation by the U.S. Small Business Administration in 2020. The SBDC offers confidential, no-cost consulting to existing businesses and prospective entrepreneurs.

Paulette Still, who also spoke at the event, credits the consultants at the SBDC for helping her “stop playing small” and to start thinking of herself as a real businessperson. Still runs Posy, a design resource company based in Pittsburgh’s Polish Hill neighborhood.

Still left her corporate job to follow a lifelong dream of working for herself. When she partnered with the SBDC, she wasn’t looking for information about how to start her business but rather how to flourish in her endeavor.

“The staff of the SBDC went in-depth when advising me. They reviewed my profit and loss statement and looked at the returns on my investments,” she said. “With the support of the SBDC, I determined that though my business was located near my home and had a below-market rent rate, I would benefit from moving somewhere else.”

The panelists also praised the IEE’s initiative in helping businesses weather the early days of the pandemic. In addition to helping small businesses apply for loans and grants, including the Paycheck Protection Program as part of the federal CARES Act and the COVID-19 Relief Pennsylvania Statewide Small Business Assistance program, the center responded within days of the shutdown with a “COVID-19 Resources and Relief for Small Businesses” webinar attended by more than 800 small business owners and organizations.

“It was very insightful to hear directly from women business owners so that we could better understand the challenges they face and also develop strategies to support them. This opportunity was made possible by the University of Pittsburgh's Small Business Development Center, which also provides resources to these, and many other, businesses in the region,” said Rep. Meghan Schroeder of Bucks County.

“Bringing legislators face-to-face with local entrepreneurs gives voice to all women business owners, from the obstacles they overcome to the lives they’re impacting. For the legislators to hear individual stories and to know that’s just the tip of the iceberg, it really highlights the initiative women are taking in entrepreneurship and how they can be better supported,” said Bob Stein, associate vice chancellor for innovation and entrepreneurship and executive director of the IEE. “It’s great for the IEE to help share this message with policy makers in order to make entrepreneurship a reality for more women and continue to expand opportunities throughout our regional economy.”

Representatives Lori Mizgorski, Wendi Thomas, Martina White, Abby Major, Natalie Mihalek, Donna Oberlander, Carrie DelRosso and Shelby Labs also attended the event.

“When COVID-19 hit, everybody was shut down, and within a week, the IEE was already engaging on topics that could help people. They genuinely try to support your business regardless of what the need is,” said DeSimone.


— Nichole Faina