Features | May 1, 2019

A prototype for diversity in Pittsburgh’s tech scene

Jessica Pothering
ImpactAlpha Editor

Jessica Pothering

ImpactAlpha, May 1 – Erin Gatz has a novel idea for promoting equity in tech: Priming female ‘makers’ for entrepreneurship in Pittsburgh’s buzzing startup sector.

Gatz grew up in the ‘Steel City’, a product of the city’s public school system, before attending college and graduate school in Canada. She arrived back in Pittsburgh during a tech boom that was helping the former industrial city reinvent itself. But she saw little diversity of race, gender or class in the new cohort of founders.

And in a manufacturing hub, Gatz noted that coding and software got all the love, leaving people interested in physical products and hardware with fewer opportunities.“There is a lack of women-run hardware companies generally,” Gatz says in a Q&A that is part of ImpactAlpha’s New Revivalist series.

Gatz’s women-centered “makerspace,” Prototype PGH is the latest chapter in her six-year effort to broaden access to tech skills and opportunities in Pittsburgh. Prototype strives to be an on-ramp for women makers, offering training and access to 3D printers and heavy woodworking and metal machinery. She’s seeking to correct the impression that the underrepresentation of women and people of color in tech is because they aren’t interested in the sector.

“What’s not talked about enough is the bias that exists,” Gatz says. “Women are expected to do less. They’re taken less seriously. They’re given less funding. Yet, they’re doing more with what they’re given.”

ImpactAlpha: How does someone with no tech background end up with such a tech-centered career?

Gatz: I grew up in Pittsburgh and then I spent a good chunk of my 20s in Toronto. When I moved back, I saw a huge emerging tech scene. My background is in race, gender, and class [studies], and that is the lens through which I see everything. I wondered how equitable Pittsburgh’s tech scene was.

I worked in the Mayor’s office during [Mayor Luke] Ravenstahl’s term for an adult mentoring and training program, and then for [non-profit] Remake Learning’s Sprout Fund, which focused on teaching children in low-income areas robotics, coding and engineering basics. Then I got a job at TechShop—one of the first maker spaces in the country—in Pittsburgh. I became the senior account manager, where my job was to increase membership and member diversity. We offered scholarships, largely to African American teenagers who lived close by but couldn’t afford the membership fees.

Unfortunately, TechShop went bankrupt and all of the local branches closed on the same day. Since TechShop closed, there has been a vacuum for people who want to learn tech skills. Other makerspaces have stepped in to try to fill that gap.

ImpactAlpha: In that time, you built up your own tech skills too, right? You learned how to use all of that heavy machinery that shops like TechShop provided for its members?

Gatz: Right. I was hired at TechShop Pittsburgh in 2016 and as part of my onboarding process I received free classes on all of their tools, software, and equipment. I didn’t have a tech background, but they showed they had confidence that I could learn. And that was one of the most empowering things I have ever done. This was not part of my knowledge base, but because I had free access and a community of people who were there to support me, it changed the entire course of my adult life. I don’t think I’m unique in that way. When I have experiences that are transformative, I believe others could as well.

ImpactAlpha: When you started Prototype, the company’s mission was to “build gender and racial equity in tech and entrepreneurship by providing affordable access to high tech tools and equipment, offering workshops that prioritize the experiences of women, and cultivating a gender-inclusive professional support network.” Tell us how Prototype does this.

Gatz: Since we opened just over two years ago, in January 2017, we have grown to just over 150 paid members. We offer memberships on a sliding scale—anywhere from $15 to $50, which gives people daily access to our space and equipment.

We’ve also engaged just under 1,500 people through all of our workshops. We got funding for our workshops from Sprout Fund and from Google. That has really helped us take off.

ImpactAlpha: You cover a pretty wide range! Everything from metal and wood working to changing a car tire to searching for patents.

Gatz: People can just sign up for our workshops on Eventbrite. We are doing outreach in communities where people may not know they could be interested in hardware. It’s about confidence building and helping people acquire the skills.

We also just launched an incubator for women-owned companies. Our first class serves five women-owned companies.

ImpactAlpha: All of the women in your first cohort are creatives and makers, but none run high-tech hardware companies.

Gatz: There is a lack of women-run hardware companies generally. We need more conversations and training to diversify that space. Ilana Diamond [at Pittsburgh-based hardware accelerator AlphaLab Gear] is on our advisory board. She’s a huge proponent of our space, and we have been talking with her about having Prototype serve as an on-ramp to AlphaLab Gear.

Prototype is also launching a partnership with a local institution to diversify their makerspace membership and for a workshop series this summer. The series will focus on how 3D modeling can be used to create prototypes for women businesses and how virtual reality can be used for product promotion—offering virtual tours of their businesses or services. I think this is a brand new concept, and the idea of virtual reality being used or relevant to women and low-income business owners is uncharted territory.

ImpactAlpha: An organization like AlphaLab Gear is clearly aligned with Prototype’s mission. But what about the broader tech ecosystem in Pittsburgh? Is there much interest or support for promoting diversity in the sector?

Gatz: There’s a lot of support at all levels of government and among corporations and foundations to solve equity in the tech sector. I think what is sometimes missing is an understanding of the core reason why there is underrepresentation of [women and people of color] in technology. At the heart of that misunderstanding is the impression that women and people of color aren’t interested in it. What’s not talked about enough is the bias that exists.

ImpactAlpha: Have you had any direct experience with those perceptions (and biases) about women?

Gatz: I gave a pitch at a business competition recently about our incubator. It was to a panel of exclusively white male judges. In the pitch, I cited research published in the Harvard Business Review that showed that women entrepreneurs are disproportionately asked questions about their likelihood for failure. And I cited one from Boston Consulting Group [and MassChallenge] that looked at venture capital-backed companies and found that women return 78 cents on the dollar to men’s 31 cents. One of the judges said he doubted the accuracy of the studies, and another suggested that I not use those studies in pitches because they’re alienating to funders.

Women are expected to do less, they’re taken less seriously, they’re given less funding, yet they’re doing more with what they’re given.