What is Work Hard Pittsburgh? | Guest Blog #1 | Josh Lucas

Sep 11, 2017

Meet Josh. He’s one of over 50 owners of Work Hard Pittsburgh, a local business incubator and co-op in Allentown that is leading local entrepreneurs down the path to start, scale, and sustain their business ventures. Neighborhood Allies and Work Hard have partnered on dozens of projects that are pushing the boundaries of traditional investments in the start-up/entrepreneur community — finding direct connections between supporting local entrepreneurs and improving neighborhood health and creating opportunities for residents.

We’ve partnered on projects ranging from developing the legal framework for their innovative Entrepreneur Incubator, to supporting a cohort of diverse Academy Pittsburgh students to learn how code while designing and creating a new community development tool for the philanthropy community.  We’re also working together on a new event, hilltopolis, which is an outdoor festival highlighting social innovation through music and activism happening on September, 22nd at Grandview Park in Allentown.

All of these initiatives are in support of creating and testing how we, with partners like Work Hard Pittsburgh, can create a more robust and supportive ecosystem for entrepreneurs here in Pittsburgh. Over the next few weeks, Josh will be telling the Work Hard Pittsburgh Story through a series of blogs that will help us all understand this somewhat complicated, but certainly innovative and creative approach to developing, supporting and sustaining a strong entrepreneur and start-up ecosystem through out Pittsburgh. 

Post #1 | What is Work Hard Pittsburgh? And, what are they doing to contribute to building Healthy Neighborhoods?

By: Josh Lucas | Work Hard Pittsburgh | September 11th, 2017

I’ve tried to write this series of blogs at least a dozen times over the past few years. Each time, I’ve either chickened out or failed. Now, with all that’s going on for the Work Hard Pittsburgh community, it’s getting harder and harder to duck one of my essential responsibilities.

My procrastination isn’t hard to understand. I’m just like you – susceptible to criticism, self-doubt, and willful self-delusion. Forcing myself to document the details increases the likelihood of all three. But, any attempts to put this off any longer smacks of real and deep hypocrisy.

Over the next week or so, we’re going to release a series of documents and posts that coincide with structural changes to our organization. In doing so, we hope to increase transparency, clarify our mission to the community at large, inspire your participation, and encourage an open discussion around entrepreneurship, opportunity, and equity in our great city and surrounding region.

In an effort to make these posts more friendly, I’m going to use a sophisticated and ancient organizing structure: What, Why, How, Who, & Where.

Let’s begin.

What is Work Hard Pittsburgh?

If you asked 100 people what Work Hard Pittsburgh does, you’d get 100 different answers. We’re not proud of that brand confusion, and it exists because of the things that we’ve needed to do to generate revenue and build capacity for our programs. To survive and grow, we’ve rarely turned down a paying gig, creating many fruitful relationships, but also adding lots of distractions.

Let’s settle this once and for all:

Work Hard Pittsburgh is a cooperatively owned and operated business incubator that provides training, resources, sales support, and access to capital to its Members. Our mission is to make it easier for any entrepreneur to start, scale, and sustain a business venture, while adhering to the standard cooperative values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. We are mindful of our position within the community and our responsibility to promote sustainable development while working broadly to create a more just and equitable society.

That’s easy enough to understand, but frankly, it’s even easier to get lost in the details of how we seek to accomplish our mission. If ever you’re asked to explain Work Hard Pittsburgh try something like this:

Work Hard Pittsburgh is a community of digital workers filled with capacity, capital, and talent, whose mission is to launch products in a fair and economically sustainable way.

Cooperatively Structure Business Incubator

We chose to make Work Hard Pittsburgh a worker cooperative, and that’s an important distinction worth discussing here.

The cooperative structure of Work Hard Pittsburgh allows you or anyone to participate in the ownership of a system that provides scaffolding and organization for entrepreneurs to find success. You and your peers, as the owners/operators, are invested participant in Work Hard Pittsburgh’s growth and the growth of the businesses that we support. This includes commercial real estate acquisitions, holdings in our invested startups, and the opportunity to tap into unique investment funds.

The cooperative structure also surrounds and energizes you with the work of your peers. It levels the economic playing field and protects you from the excesses of organizational hierarchy. It allows for lateral movement between companies, and encourages the sharing of sales and business development networks. It maximizes the community’s ability to communicate, raise money, and share resources.

Perhaps most importantly, cooperatives like Work Hard are the answer to some of the ethical issues that plague corporations. They help to divest us from the idea that it is ethical to only make money while disregarding the worker, the environment, the community, and the nation. Cooperatives leverage democratic decision making and transparency to compel fair practice. We believe that  a healthy cooperative is a healthy community full of personal and professional safety nets as well as accountability.

Our Challenges

Of course there are downsides, and by acknowledging them here, we seek to avoid common pitfalls. Coops can fall victim to groupthink and bureaucratic inaction, two things that nimble startups must avoid. Like many coops, we address this by empowering a strong executive team to make crucial and timely decisions. We also practice consent round with rigorous process for issues that go to member vote.

Coops are often misunderstood by our culture. They are sometimes associated with the counterculture movement or the far left. A quick jaunt through history, however, reveals that coops were created to empower the blue collar worker and the middle class. Today, there’s no one better to represent that historical archetype than the entrepreneur and digital freelance workers that the Work Hard Pittsburgh cooperative supports.

Honest Upward Mobility

We have seen a dramatic shift in the conversation around entrepreneurship in our region since we started participating in 2011. The most important change has been the conversation around equity. While we value people’s efforts to elevate the conversation over the years, little has been done to bring about change. Our cooperative structure is an equalizer that meets people where they are along their entrepreneurial journey regardless of race, class, network, or personal wealth. We’ll be presenting evidence to support that claim in great detail in the posts that follow, but here are some highlights to get you thinking:

  • We’ve placed over 40 Academy Pittsburgh graduates into high-paying web developer jobs. Half of all participants of Academy Pittsburgh represent groups of people underrepresented in tech jobs. This includes Latinos, African Americans, women, refugees, and veterans.

  • Tens of thousands of dollars of pro bono work completed for small business in Allentown and the Hill District, which almost exclusively benefited African American entrepreneurs.

  • Work Hard Pittsburgh facilities have hosted events organized by the region’s Latino, African American, punk, hiphop, technology, arts, entrepreneurial, religious, and political communities at no cost to those organizations. We’ve provided live streaming and media support, again at no cost, to dozens of the region’s nonprofit and capacity-building organizations.

Post #2 | Why Work Hard Pittsburgh Exists

Post #3 | How Does A Cooperatively-Organized Business Incubator Work?

Top Header Image Photo Credit: Prototyping Larimer Stories by artist John Peña, photo by OPA