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  • Writer's pictureBen Franklin 4 PA

A tale of 2 cities' tech jobs: New nonprofit wants to grow San Fran, Silicon Valley pipeline to Pgh

Updated: Nov 6, 2023


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

FEB 24, 2020 | 8:00 AM

Nathan Pitzer likes to keep tabs on which Silicon Valley companies reach 100 employees. That’s usually his cue.

A Lancaster native, Carnegie Mellon University graduate and San Francisco transplant, Mr. Pitzer is hunting down companies that are ready to expand. A good indicator, he said, is when they hit the 100-employee milestone or secure a big round of funding.

Once he identifies those companies, his job is to match them with the right city — encouraging them to look beyond the usual suspects like Seattle, New York City or Boston to emerging tech hubs like Pittsburgh.

“I personally want to see a city thrive. … It’s like an underdog story, you kind of root for the city you really like,” Mr. Pitzer said.

He is one of two Pittsburgh representatives on the ground in California, part of a growing experiment with a new nonprofit trying to connect the country through work, as Mr. Pitzer describes it.

One America Works is hoping to spread the talent, wealth and investment in tech and innovation around the country. There’s certainly a lot to go around — startups created $2.8 trillion in value globally between 2016 and 2018, according to a 2019 report from Startup Genome, a research firm based in San Francisco.

To spread those dollars and future growth, One America Works wants to connect tech companies with other cities that have the qualities most important to them. That could be things like access to college graduates, a low cost of living, or a vibrant arts scene.

“Can we help facilitate companies to find cities that have the talent they’re looking for?” said One America Works founder Patrick McKenna. “We can’t create, but we can elevate the awareness.”

One America Works received a $1 million grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation earlier this month to expand its operations in Pittsburgh, the first official effort by the nonprofit to bring more tech jobs to what they see as under-recognized cities. Long term, it wants to expand to other cities, using Pittsburgh as a model.

The announcement follows a yearlong pilot program, which the RK Mellon Foundation also funded, that resulted in five companies moving toward creating 80 jobs in Pittsburgh, Mr. McKenna said.

Pittsburgh’s tagline

Based in Austin, Texas, Mr. McKenna came across Pittsburgh as he was looking for places to invest as a venture capitalist. The city checks all the boxes that the nonprofit pitches to prospective companies, he said: high talent, low cost, high quality of life and easily accessible.

He’s not the only one to come to such a conclusion. Duolingo, an East Liberty-based startup that helps people learn languages through a mobile app and is valued at more than $1 billion, famously put up a billboard in San Francisco that read, “Own a home. Work in tech. Move to Pittsburgh.”

A December 2019 report from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, a part of the Brookings Institution, ranked Pittsburgh ninth among 35 metro areas nationwide that could become booming innovation centers.

The tech industry in Pittsburgh saw a 20.7% increase in jobs between 2013 and 2018, according to data from the research arm of the real estate firm CBRE.

But it’s not growing fast enough. CBRE listed Pittsburgh as a “brain drain,” a term it uses to compare the number of jobs available to the number of tech graduates in an area. In other words, the 7,800 tech jobs created between 2013 and 2018 did not cover the 20,000 people who graduated with a tech degree in between 2012 and 2017, so a lot of them left.

The problem isn’t new, and many stakeholders in the tech industry grumble about the number of people who come to the city to learn, practice their skills and then take their talents to a larger market.

The solution isn’t just to focus on the low price tag, said Audrey Russo, Pittsburgh Technology Council president and CEO.

Instead, the city should pitch its decades of research in autonomy, its reputation as the “heartbeat” of artificial intelligence, or the support that foundations and incubators have to offer entrepreneurs.

“This is my tagline: If you want to come to a place and build something, there’s no better place to build it,” Ms. Russo said. “I don’t have to say to you, ‘Hey, it’s cheap to live here.’ I can say, ‘There’s a lot of ways that you can build your dreams.’”

‘A true business proposition’

For many outsiders considering a move to Pittsburgh, the city still carries an outdated heavy industry reputation, according to Stefani Pashman, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, an organization that has been pitching the city to all sorts of companies through its economic development affiliate, the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance, for more than 20 years.

To highlight the “Pittsburgh of today,” Ms. Pashman focuses on the scale and depth of tech talent in the city — ranging from students to startups to well-known brands like Google and Facebook — and the building blocks that make up the hard-to-define quality of life metric, like the quality of the schools and the availability of outdoor activities.

She said companies are also looking to see if Pittsburgh can provide a diverse and inclusive workforce — and that isn’t always easy to deliver.

“That’s one of the challenges in our region,” she said. “Companies that are future oriented and want to grow want to see a vibrant city across many fronts. They also want to see people that look like them and lots of different people.”

To pitch the city to prospective companies, Mr. Pitzer said he generally relies on his own experiences, telling people about the Pittsburgh restaurants he likes and showing pictures of his favorite spots.

He likes to think of the whole situation as “democratizing the Amazon HQ2 process,” which had cities rolling out tax breaks and advertising their greatest assets in hopes of attracting the Seattle tech giant’s next headquarters. Pittsburgh — which offered Amazon about $9.7 billion in incentives, free land and even a designated space at the airport — was one of the 20 finalists but didn’t get the project.

Pittsburgh isn’t the only option Mr. Pitzer and his colleagues at One America plan to offer in Silicon Valley. Over time, as the nonprofit starts to work with more cities, the goal is to find a location that matches what the company is looking for, rather than pushing one mid-sized research hub over another.

“No one’s looking for ownership. We all realize this is about addressing the talent issue,” said Bobby Zappala, a Pittsburgh entrepreneur and investor.

As the former city coordinator for One America Works, Mr. Zappala was on the receiving end of interested Silicon Valley companies, responsible for sealing the deal once a company came to visit.

“Pittsburgh isn’t for everybody. There isn’t any place that’s for everybody. There are plenty of people who will like it for what it is,” Mr. Zappala said. “It’s not about convincing some company to do charity. It’s a true business proposition.”

Lauren Rosenblatt:, 412-263-1565.

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