News Flash: the Small Business Administration has adjusted its CAPLines lending program to address the critical issue of the availability of loans to fund working capital. This is incredibly good news, and addresses a need that I and others have complained about since working capital loans dried up a few years ago.

Some Background: A major challenge for growing businesses is cash flow, especially when a company closes a large order but doesn’t have the resources to fill it. There are plenty of examples – manufacturing companies need raw materials or a service company might need to hire additional workers – but the company simply can’t float the growth itself. Despite a perfectly willing buyer, a company might lose business, which prevents growth (revenue and jobs) and, in some cases, puts the company at risk.

In prior years, before the credit crunch began in 2008, companies could access additional lines of credit with the purchase order or contract as collateral from a bank. However, lenders began to pull back significantly after the housing market bubble burst, forcing even the most credit-worthy companies to look elsewhere for financing. I wrote (complained) about this in a previous blog post that highlighted the abysmal lending record of big banks to small business. To quote myself at the time:

“My hope is that, whatever the SBA does, it happens soon — there are far too many good, successful companies that are being hampered by their inability to find the resources needed to create the jobs that will help jump-start our economy.”

Fortunately, the SBA had already been developing a solution. Announced on Nov. 4, the SBA has re-envisioned the CAPLines lending program, offering high lender guarantees (up to 85 percent), reduced red tape, an increased maximum loan amount ($5 million), a maturity of up to 10 years, and a willingness to allow the borrower to use a contract as collateral. Working through local lenders (for Pittsburgh, a list can be obtained by contacting the local SBA office), the SBA is addressing a major small business need with minimal interference between the bank and the lender.

While there are still many challenges small businesses face, this is a tremendous win for growth companies across the country. The next step is for the private lenders to follow suit.

Amanda Sennert
Participants in Allegheny County's Refugee Career Mentoring Program, Fall 2011

Imagine having to flee your home and your country due to war or ethnic persecution, taking little more than the things you can carry. Yet that is the case for nearly 11 million people around the globe, according to the United Nations. Tens of thousands are permitted to settle in the United States each year, and over the past two decades, the Pittsburgh area has welcomed several hundred refugees from places as varied as the former Yugoslavia, Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Many refugees are educated professionals who held high-skilled jobs in their home countries. But while legally permitted to work in the United States, finding appropriate employment here is often a challenge that is less about qualification than figuring out how to seek and secure employment and build professional networks in a foreign culture.

The Refugee Career Mentoring Program is working to bridge that gap. Launched in September by Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services’ Immigrants and Internationals Advisory Council, the program is a collaborative effort of various organizations in the region, including the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, Jewish Family & Children’s Services, Catholic Charities and Vibrant Pittsburgh.

Despite being an unfunded, largely volunteer effort, the program has successfully matched 10 refugees, mostly in the engineering fields, with 10 high-quality mentors, and holds monthly training sessions catered with donations from area establishments. Mentors provide training in such basic job-seeking skills as resume writing and interviewing skills, and introduce mentees to professionals and resources in the Pittsburgh region. At a recent session I had an opportunity to walk participants through, the Allegheny Conference’s one-stop job and career awareness portal featuring nearly 20,000 open positions across the region.

The Refugee Career Mentoring Program needs engineers and human resources professionals who work in engineering firms to participate in panel discussions, sharing their insights about networking and the skills and traits that employers seek. As the program’s chair, Yvette Yescas, recently noted, “For professionals in the engineering field — particularly environmental, agricultural or chemical engineering — this is an excellent opportunity to build professional networks and share expertise.”

To volunteer or learn more about the program, send an email to yvetteyescas AT gmail DOT com, or visit the DHS website. You can also check out Yescas’ blog on Career Mentoring here.

Phil Cynar

There was so much activity underway during the second half of this year to build the workforce of tomorrow that we couldn’t spare a moment to produce a fall edition of the Pittsburgh Regional Compact Quarterly e-newsletter.  But no worries: we culled the array of activities and undertaking spanning September through December, and have highlighted a number of note in the newly released Fall/Winter 2011 edition.

Learn about how 100-plus young people from nine school districts had the opportunity to “get real” about the jobs and careers that pique their interest when they connected with real-world professionals at career symposia that have been called trailblazing.  Get the scoop on how Energy to the Power of Pittsburgh, a public awareness campaign launched in September, is getting the word out about jobs and careers in an ever-burgeoning and in-demand industry. Find out what regional educators are thinking about how energy will impact the direction of career awareness and education in the region.  And, in just about a minute, learn about how you can become a volunteer for Be 1 in a Million, the United Way’s newest mentoring program.  It’s the largest of its kind in the nation, and it’s here in Pittsburgh – connecting adults with young people who need some extra attention to make it to high school graduation (or beyond).

All this, and more, is available right here.  Enjoy your read of the latest Pittsburgh Regional Compact Quarterly.

Ben Kamber

There’s a profusion of commercial, retail and residential development underway in downtown Pittsburgh, so don’t feel bad if you need to do a double-take when walking by a ”coming soon” or recently opened restaurant, retail storefront or condo/apartment complex.

Yet, as I strolled through downtown’s Cultural District recently, I did a lot more than your standard, quick double-take. It was more of a stop-dead-in-my-tracks take.

So, what blew me away?

At 210 Sixth Ave., there’s a store named Fraley’s Robot Repair.  If this name alone doesn’t pique your interest, then what you’ll see in the large display window probably will:  a robust collection of robots in varying states of…umm…repair?  (Or is that disrepair?)

How did a full-service, “robot repair shop” literally pop-up overnight in one of the most heavily trafficked districts in downtown Pittsburgh?  Someone was probably trying to have a little fun by making curious pedestrians stop to gawk at these sorry-looking androids.  Unless Pittsburgh had magically morphed into some sort of science fiction futuristic world, this “robot repair shop” was more likely a “robot ruse.” Right?

Well, sort of.  The truth, as I discovered, is that robots are not actually being meticulously restored to mint condition in the heart of downtown. But this is no stale hoax either.

Part of Project Pop-Up: Pittsburgh, “Fraley’s Robot Repair,” is in reality a public art installation created by Toby Atticus Fraley, an artist from Washington, Pa. The installation, which was launched publicly during November’s 51st Annual Light Up Night, gives downtown passers-by a chance to glimpse into a future wherein robot ownership – and  the bothersome repairs that accompany it – may be quite commonplace.

Project Pop-Up: Pittsburgh is a program initiated by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl in partnership with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), Department of City Planning and Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership (PDP).  The project aims to inject new life into abandoned downtown Pittsburgh storefronts, playing off of the many other positive downtown developments already underway. More than 90 entrepreneurs from throughout the nation submitted grant proposals in hopes of making their “pop-up” dreams a reality in Pittsburgh. These applicants were whittled down to 12 recipients – seven of which launched their projects in November.

Learn more about Project Pop-Up: Pittsburgh and the other six “pop-ups” by clicking here. And be sure to head into town for First Night on December 31 for the official launch of the program, during which the remaining five pop-up projects will be unveiled.

But, if you’re curious and don’t want to wait for First Night, “robot repair” is open for business right now.  Before you bring your own Rosie all the way into town for a tune-up, you might want to call ahead and schedule an appointment.  It is, after all, the busy holiday season.

Bonnie Pfister
Father Daniele Vallecorsa

Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Latino community may be small and dispersed, but hundreds will gather Monday in celebration of a brown-skinned image of the virgin mother that helped knit together Europe and the Americas beginning 500 years ago.

Dec. 12 is the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who is said to have appeared to indigenous Juan Diego in the hills outside of Mexico City in 1531. Depending on who’s telling the story, her appearance to a Mexican peasant either underscored the worthiness of New World Christian converts, or was a brilliant stroke of marketing on the part of Spanish missionaries. In any event – and for better or worse — La Virgen helped bridge the gap between continents, cultures and people.

People of Mexican descent are only a fraction of the Latino community in Pittsburgh – Peruvians, Venezuelans, Colombians, Chileans, Argentineans and Spaniards are also well represented, as are Brazilans. But participants bearing the flags of many Spanish-speaking nations – as well as the American flag – are typically part of the procession of faithful at the annual mass honoring the icon the Vatican eventually dubbed the “Empress of the Americas.” Bishop David Zubik will officiate.

“This celebration of the Blessed Mother demonstrates the continued support of the diocese to the Latino community in Pittsburgh and surrounding areas,” said Father Daniele Vallecorsa, the diocese’s pastor of the Latino Catholic community. Weekly Spanish-language masses are offered at St. Regis Parish in south Oakland.

Pittsburgh has long been a melting pot. The region’s many churches displaying stained-glass windows and etchings in German, Greek and dozens of Slavic languages speak to the comfort and pride immigrants have always taken in their traditions, even as they make their way in a new land. The cycle continues as, for example, St. Paul’s Church in Butler, founded in 1867 by Irish immigrants, today offers a spiritual home to many Latino families.

Festival events begin Dec. 12 at 6:30 p.m., with arrival of the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe from Saint Regis Church to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Mass will begin at 7 p.m., followed by a reception in the cathedral social hall.

See the images below from the 2010 celebration.


Amanda Sennert

When I attended the One Young World Summit in Zurich earlier this year, I had the opportunity to hear Jamie Oliver speak on healthy eating and nutrition, and his efforts through “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution” to change the way Americans and the world think about food. At one point he polled the audience on how many in the room could cook a meal from scratch, and by this he meant, not using a microwave, or heating prepared foods. About 50 percent raised their hands. Keep in mind this was a group of well-educated young professionals. He then asked how long we expected to live. Let’s just say the percentage expecting to live to be in their 80’s was VERY high, too high. As Jamie noted, we were dreaming. Diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease would be sure to shorten our lives significantly. I came out of his talk wondering, what is being done to address this issue in Pittsburgh? Where is the movement? The answer became clear at the “Let’s Move Pittsburgh” symposium hosted earlier this fall at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, an event co-sponsor and regional leader in the healthy food movement, and I jumped at the opportunity to hear what was going on.

“Let’s Move Pittsburgh” is an effort to capitalize locally on the momentum coming out of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program that focuses on three pillars of children’s health: healthy food, increased activity, and decreased time in front of screens  –TVs, digital games, computers, cell phones. One expert in childhood obesity prevention, Tufts University Ph.D Christina Economos, discussed her project,  “Shape Up Somerville,” which aimed to transform the behavior of an entire Massachusetts town by focusing on unnecessary weight gain among its children. She took a holistic approach to this diverse and far-reaching epidemic by identifying stakeholders and how they can work together to reduce childhood obesity in their community. She stressed the need for champions of the cause, focusing on professional development for teachers, and noted that education for parents is just as necessary as for the children. Lastly, she encouraged us not to ignore the importance of policy in creating healthy food norms.

I also learned that Pittsburgh-area child-health organizations and individuals are already well aware of – and hard at work on — these issues. Sponsors The Heinz Endowments, UPMC Health Plan and Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens were joined by child-health leaders from Allegheny General Hospital’s Integrated Medicine Unit, Pitt, Carnegie Mellon and Chatham universities, Hill House, Pittsburgh Public Schools, regional food banks and child-care centers, and many more. They shared their efforts, challenges and aspirations in childhood obesity prevention. I was impressed at the number of groups represented, and hopeful that the “Let’s Move” initiative can help buoy the local mission.

More sobering is the challenge ahead for the region, as schools with high prevalence of poverty tend to have high overweight and obesity rates, and are increasingly strapped for funding and other resources. It’s also a painful irony that communities facing high levels of obesity are also facing hunger.

But there are positive developments on the national level that can help. Sam Kass, Assistant White House Chef and Senior Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives, noted that retail giants like Wal-Mart have agreed to reduce the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables, and to reduce the sodium and sugar content in all products sold in their stores. This alone could reach as many as 40 percent of Americans. Also, the shift from educational talking points that highlight the food pyramid to the more intuitive “My Plate” approach – teaching children to visualize the appropriate portions of different types of foods — seems like a welcome, practical change. National and local efforts to increase nutrition awareness are increasing and I’m hopeful that national policy shifts, coupled with the continued efforts of local child health leaders, will create healthier communities in Pittsburgh and beyond.