Comcast supports small businesses in Pittsburgh area with RISE grants
Thursday, August 18, 2022 | 11:15 AM
Since 2020, Comcast Corp. has taken the initiative to support representation, investment, strength and empowerment by providing grants and marketing, media and technology services to small businesses.
Comcast’s RISE program — Representation, Investment, Strength and Empowerment — began by providing services to small businesses owned by people of color, including Black, Indigenous, Hispanic and Asian-American, among others. In November, RISE expanded the inclusion to women-owned businesses.
RISE started in 2020 by giving out marketing and technology grants. These opportunities are posted throughout the year with a rolling schedule. The current application window for a tech grant closes on Oct. 18. If selected for this type of grant, businesses will receive access to Comcast Business internet service and computer equipment. Marketing grants are dedicated to advertising.
While these grant opportunities still exist, RISE expanded to a branch initiative called the Comcast RISE Investment Fund. Each May, five cities throughout the country are selected. This year, Pittsburgh was one of the five locations, along with Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia and Minneapolis-St. Paul. One hundred small businesses in each of those cities are chosen to receive $10,000 grants.
“We looked at cities where there is high impact in terms of the number of Black, Indigenous or people of color, or women-owned small businesses, and the impact the pandemic has had on that demographic,” said Josephine Posti, director of public relations of Comcast’s Keystone region. “So this past round, Pittsburgh was one of the cities selected and given $1 million that we have awarded to 100 small businesses in $10,000 grants.”
Along with receiving money, each winning business has been awarded a membership to Ureeka, a company dedicated to teaching businesses to grow and sustain themselves in the future. A variety of businesses in Allegheny County won grants, including 12 restaurants, 15 retail businesses, eight consumer services, six business services, and 20 health care, fitness and wellness businesses.
Each business has its own projects toward which to dedicate the grant money and have shared the knowledge they have gained through Ureeka with other small businesses.
“What I’m really struck by is that a lot of these small businesses are businesses that support other small businesses in their communities,” said Posti. “I feel like there’s such a ripple effect with supporting local businesses.”
‘Making my shop accessible’
One of the businesses that received a grant was PMA Tattoo located in McKees Rocks. Shop owner Sara Eve Rivera intends to put the grant money towards making her shop more accessible.
“For about three years now, I have had this goal of making my tattoo shop be accessible to all types of bodies,” said Rivera.
Her McKees Rocks shop currently has steps leading up to its front door and a small bathroom tucked under a staircase inside the shop. With the grant money from RISE, Rivera plans to build a ramp in front of the shop and renovate the bathroom to be handicap-accessible.
“I want people to be able to use the shop safely and feel welcome when they come in,” said Rivera. “Accessibility for all people is so important, especially in Pittsburgh with all of the hills and older buildings with only steps for entry. I want everyone to be comfortable here.”
When Rivera received the quote for the ramp, she realized that she would need more financial support for her vision to be complete. Business at the shop has been good; however, covid has presented some obstacles for earning the needed funds.
Since tattooing is a close-contact profession, Rivera takes regulations very seriously for the safety of her clients and staff. Clients also understand the risk of being sick while having an appointment and take proper precautions to keep everyone safe. This has led to cancellations and rescheduling that has left an everyday schedule a bit unpredictable.
“My clients have been so patient and understanding with us trying to get this ramp,” said Rivera. “We’ve had a lot of clients who do need these resources to get in and out of our shop. They’ve been coming in and making do with what we have for now, until our plans get approved.”
‘Still overcoming challenges’
Another winning business is Una Biologicals in Homewood. The organic skin care and spiritual shop was founded in 2008 by Jessica Graves. After making it through the pandemic, Graves found that without substantial access to grants because of her business’ for-profit status, she would need to find a specific grant with requirements that her shop met.
“I think a lot of small businesses, mine included, made it through the pandemic, but we’re still overcoming challenges,” said Graves. “Cost of goods has increased. There are labor shortages. Pay wages are increasing, and there’s a lot of pressure that comes with those issues. There’s not a lot of funding that goes to for-profit businesses to combat those challenges.”
Another aspect of the grant that drew Graves to apply was the business coaching offered by Ureeka. She plans to utilize the lessons about digital marketing to draw more attention to her store.
“I think this is a piece that a lot of small businesses in general struggle with, so an opportunity to work with some professionals to increase our skills in that is pretty amazing,” said Graves.
Each winner received a free yearlong membership to Ureeka’s business coaching. A membership includes a website evaluation, how to get more online traffic, identifying which platforms are best for the business’ marketing and how best to approach digital marketing in general.
“If you’re not a marketing person, which most small business owners are not, it can be like a second language,” said Graves. “Having somebody give you some framework and some real input is fabulous.”
Graves is planning to put the grant money towards new machinery for her business, along with improving its digital marketing.
“Our goal is to use this as an opportunity to grow,” she said. “A lot of businesses haven’t been able to grow during the pandemic and have just been stuck in survival mode.”
Una Biologicals will be launching its fall line soon. This will include a harvest themed soap and an autumn-themed essential oil blend, among other seasonal items. They will also be hosting a variety of hosting workshops and classes in the new Una Biologicals storefront located in Lawrenceville.
‘Still feeling the impact’
Jennifer Saffron, the owner of Sprezzatura PGH LLC in Millvale, learned about the grant from informational sessions that were hosted to assist business owners and emails from fellow small-business owners.
“We have certainly applied for as much help as possible during covid,” said Saffron. “I know that people may be relating this time to a post-covid reality because people are not requiring masks all the time and things like that, but in terms of small business, all of us are still feeling the impact, especially in the food industry.”
Sprezzatura is a part of the Millvale Food and Energy Hub. The cafe serves as a community space and is utilized in a variety of ways. Along with serving food, Sprezzatura offers catering, wholesales at the Bloomfield Saturday Market and hosts events. The cafe also has a community food program to give meals to neighbors in need.
“We’re not really a normal restaurant, at all,” said Saffron. “So this grant really helps us take a look at creating a better production for the wholesale in particular. We’re pretty excited about it.”
Saffron hopes to dedicate the grant money to not only improving the wholesale aspect, but to opening the cafe’s downstairs kitchen and expanding the business. She wants to beautify the space and make it a welcoming area for community members.
After working in the arts for 25 years, Saffron made the switch to the food business. She began her heritage kitchen by participating in New Sun Rising’s program dedicated to helping food-related businesses get off the ground.
“I come to food through my own heritage,” said Saffron. “We’re a heritage kitchen, so all of the cooks in our kitchen, we make things according to our backgrounds, preferences and histories.”
Sprezzatura opened its catering in 2016 and cafe in 2019. The cafe hosts wine dinners and jazz programs, and will be kicking off a new season of events in September.
‘It was really accessible’
Each winner spoke to how accessible Comcast made the grant application. Rather than having to muddle through the complicated financial jargon that accompanies similar applications, the verbiage on each page was straightforward, and the application was shorter than most. Applicants found out about a month after the closing date whether or not they won the grant.
“It was a lot shorter of an application than I was used to,” said Rivera. “I know small-business owners appreciate that because some of these other grant applications that I’ve filled out are a lot. This one was also more simple, which was great because I’m not a grant writer by any means. I’m a tattoo artist. It was really accessible to people who maybe aren’t used to financial language.”
In an effort to draw attention to the grant, multiple small-business support groups notified owners about the opportunity. The Neighborhood Allies contacted local shops around the city to host information sessions for owners to learn more about applying. Saffron and Rivera hosted two of these meetings at their shops.
“We provided hospitality to owners interested in the grant,” said Saffron. “At the end of the session, someone turned to me and said, ‘Don’t forget about yourself, Jen.’ I thought, oh wow, I should really apply. Everybody keeps telling me to. So I did.”
Applications are still being accepted for marketing and technology until October. For more information regarding grants offered by Comcast and the Comcast RISE Investment Fund, visit www.comcastrise.com.
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