We’ve been proud supporters and partners of the Catapult: Startup to Storefront entrepreneurship program ever since its founding back in April of 2018. The 12-month business incubation program helps budding minority entrepreneurs launch a business or established entrepreneurs grow their existing business through one-on-one mentoring sessions, educational seminars, and strategic partnerships.

Catapult is led by our long-time partner, Circles Greater Pittsburgh. Together, we are committed to increasing minority entrepreneurship across East Liberty and Pittsburgh, and Catapult has been a key vehicle to achieving this.

Since the program is preparing to kick off its third cohort in 2021, we thought it would be a great time to catch up with Catapult Program Manager, Lachelle Binion, to see how everything is going.

Find out how the Catapult program has evolved over the last two years, what’s in store for the third cohort, and more below.

Lachelle Binion_Circles Greater Pittsburgh_Catapult Program Manager
Lachelle Binion, Catapult’s program manager

You’re about to kick off the third Catapult cohort. What’s changed since the program first launched in 2018?

Since 2018, we have graduated two cohorts from the Catapult: Startup to Storefront program and have two more that will start in early 2021. In addition, we successfully ran our first retail incubator space, Gallery on Penn, and in partnership with the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh, we are opening Gallery on Centre which will be located in the Hill District.

We also hired our first entrepreneurship program manager and launched a monthly virtual speaker series aimed at helping small businesses and entrepreneurs in the city grow in different areas, including finance, social media awareness, retail sales, and more. Over the Black Friday weekend, we hosted our first Small Business Weekend Virtual Event in which we brought in local small businesses to sell items “home shopping network style” via Facebook Live. Last but certainly not least, we will also launch the Catapult Kidpreneur Training Program next year, which is a youth-based program developed to help guide, nurture, and grow youth-based business in the city.

The program continues to grow, and we are very excited to see what the future holds.

How did you select the 15 businesses for your upcoming cohort?

For the third cohort, we had over 60 applicants and went through an application review process and interviews to narrow it down to 15. We have since opened up a new application/cohort designated for those who live in the Hill District and/or would like to have a retail business in that community.

As far as the selection process, the businesses that were chosen met the requirements of having or wanting to start a retail-based business and displayed a strong passion and commitment to complete the program. Those that weren’t selected were sent resources for programs that better matched the needs of their business.

How long will the third cohort(s) run?

Catapult Startup to Storefront_Entrepreneurship Programs Pittsburgh
The second Catapult cohort at a session in the Gallery on Penn before the pandemic this year.

The cohorts will run from January 2021 to December 2021 (twelve months).

How has COVID-19 affected Catapult?

As far as the current cohort, like most programs and organizations, in-person events and meetings were canceled, and we had to move to a virtual platform.

In terms of the retail businesses in Gallery on Penn, before the pandemic took hold, most of their income was earned through the Penn Avenue storefront or through personal and professional contacts, with less than two percent of their income derived from web-based sales. Once the Gallery on Penn had to close as a result of the pandemic, these businesses had to pivot to online sales and promotions and learn how to run digital-based retail businesses. We are happy to say that they have done an amazing job at being resilient and innovative during a very trying time, and you can now shop the virtual Gallery on Penn.

Now that you’ve gone through two cohorts, what would you say are generally the most valuable aspects of the program for participating entrepreneurs?

There are two things that we find are very valuable to our program participants. One is the one-on-one mentoring they get through Paramount Pursuits, the company we work with to administer the program. Having a mentor to help guide your business is extremely important and Paramount Pursuits does an amazing job at providing that and more.

The second is the added pipeline we bring of having retail incubator space through the Gallery on Penn (and soon, Gallery on Centre).  The fact that businesses can gain the first-hand experience of running a storefront in the business district of East Liberty on Penn Avenue is immeasurable.

Catapult Virtual Shop_East Liberty
Catapult hosted a virtual Small Business Weekend shopping experience via Facebook Live for participants of the program to promote and sell their products.

What are the main challenges most entrepreneurs face when it comes to growing their businesses?

We can’t speak for all entrepreneurs as each entrepreneurship journey is different, but with our program participants, many are challenged by having to manage the day-to-day aspects of their personal life while building and scaling a successful business, especially now that we are living through a pandemic.

Most of us are already trying to figure out how to manage life in this new environment. Now imagine trying to do that with a full-time job (as most of our program participants are still working a full and/or part-time job) while building (or maintaining) a business. Entrepreneurs are challenged in a lot of areas, and we applaud them for developing a strong sense of perseverance, innovation, and commitment to seeing things through.

Can you say anything about the success of Catapult so far?

The Catapult: Startup to Storefront program continues to grow and touch the lives of those who participate in it. One of our beliefs at Circles Greater Pittsburgh is that, yes, we want to see our entrepreneurs’ businesses grow and be successful, but even more so, we want to see the people in the program thrive. We are about the people above anything else, and the great thing about our entrepreneurship programs is that we are able to see both thriving people and successful businesses.

We have graduated two cohorts, and as the program enters its third year, we will have two new cohorts, plus the Catapult Kidpreneur cohort. We are extremely excited to see what’s next for the program and the participants that join.

How can people interested in the program get involved?

If anyone would like information on our entrepreneurship programs or any of Circles’ other amazing programs, please visit circlespgh.org or email us at info@circlespgh.org.