Pittsburgh: A City Fueled By a Culture of Innovation and Community

We just finished the first leg of the GAN Momentum Tour in Pittsburgh. It was the first of five trips we’re making around the world where accelerators, corporate partners, and startups come together around one purpose: Helping startups who are operating in unique places around the world (“everywhere else” places—the cities that might not be considered major tech hubs) gain more momentum, wherever they call home. You can see a 90-second video of all that happened here.

Pittsburgh couldn’t have been a better place to kick the tour off because, as we expected, the city is an incredible place to start a company. I’ve heard for years about Pittsburgh being a place where startups can launch their companies pretty easily, but I had no idea why until we made this stop on the Momentum Tour. Here’s what I found out.

Pittsburgh Has a Culture of Innovation

When I arrived in Pittsburgh, one of my first priorities was sitting down with Ilana Diamond, Managing Director of AlphaLab Gear, host of the tour, to ask her about Pittsburgh’s startup ecosystem and why it’s been so helpful to startups.

She pointed to one thing over and over again:
The city’s long-held innovative mindset.

Here’s some proof—

  • Pittsburgh, after all, is the “Steel City.” During the height of the city’s steel production, they led the country in manufacturing.
  • When steel manufacturing died down, Pittsburgh’s next wave of innovation came with the creation of non-profits and city-focused organizations, which established a support system that not only kept Pittsburgh alive but helped it continue to flourish during a time that could have easily been disastrous.
  • Then, throughout the 1900s, Pittsburgh led innovation around education, creating and building upon institutions like Carnegie Melon and the University of Pittsburgh, two top-ranked schools in various industries.
  • Later, Pittsburgh was home to healthcare institutions still currently seen as some of the best in the country. We heard about this first-hand when Kelly Collier, Business Development Manager at UPMC Enterprises, which leverages the expertise of UPMC, Pittsburgh’s largest healthcare provider and one of the largest integrated healthcare systems in the United States, spoke on stage at Momentum Day.
  • And a decade ago, Pittsburgh became home—of course—to one of the first accelerators in the world, AlphaLab.

So that’s the city’s history, but what about where they are today? During our opening night, we heard from the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, Daniel Gilman, who shared how the Mayor has a single focus: “If it’s not for all, it’s not for us.” So the city, today, is leading the way with how it thinks about inclusion.

Perhaps none of these pieces of Pittsburgh’s history are revolutionary in and of themselves. But, as I reflected on everything I’d heard from Ilana, Dan, and the founders and other startup ecosystem leaders during our time there, I found it completely compelling that the city continues to find a need and then builds something to support that need. They fill necessary gaps over and over again and, when you see it as a whole, it becomes evident that Pittsburgh has a historic record of holding innovation of one of its highest values, which is an attitude that makes it a perfect place for founders—and the mindset so necessary for founders—to thrive.

What else does Pittsburgh have that we can all stand to learn from?

A Strong Community
It’s hard doing anything alone—and the people of Pittsburgh embody a collective mindset first-hand.

On stage, we heard over and over again about the city’s culture of innovation. But there was one thing that always seemed to follow it: It’s the people of Pittsburgh that make the city what it is. We heard several variations of these common themes:

  • “People in the city rally around one another, realizing that the city is more important than themselves.”
  • “There isn’t room for ego. There’s too much to do and each of us needs too much support for there to be ego involved.”
  • “There is always time to help out a startup founder.”
  • “It’s important to be here for everyone, not just a select few.”
  • “Without community, this would all be a lonely road.”

People in Pittsburgh seem to truly care about one another. They aren’t going to just let someone fall flat on their face. Instead, there’s a strong belief that everyone is in this together—and that the whole city will be better off that way. Does it likely have a long way to go to truly be inclusive and supportive of all of its residents, just like any other city? Probably so. But, their minds, hearts, and work are focused on getting there.

For instance, just after the Momentum Tour stop ended there on Thursday, the team at AlphaLab and AlphaLab Gear put on a “Corporate Sneak Peek” with the sole purpose of letting startups hear directly from large companies in the Pittsburgh ecosystem.

And you could tell that this wasn’t an event where one side (in this case, the corporates) held all the power and were there to tell startups exactly what to do. It was set up in a way where everyone was there, happily giving insight and advice on how each startup presenting that day could actually get additional traction by changing one or two things. It was a great example of the city’s citizens trying to help out fellow citizens, wherever they were at in their growth.

Takeaways for All of Us

The goal with saying all of this isn’t to get all of us to go to Pittsburgh (although, if you do, you likely won’t regret it).

What I’m trying to do, instead, is highlight how important underlying motivations and culture are to create a thriving startup ecosystem in any given city. Plus, if you’re debating whether to move or start your company in a non-traditional startup location, I want you to know that you have systems of support that date further back than you may know. Not only that, but—whether you’re a founder, a corporate, an accelerator, or any other individual or group that contributes to your local startup ecosystem—you have important things to offer. You can help your city becoming the thriving startup ecosystem you want it to be. And, as we’re all doing this, ask things like “What really drives this particular city?” and “What’s the history around innovation here or common themes the people here rally around and find exciting?”

The answers to these questions may have drastic implications for your work and what you hope to do.

Fortunately for Pittsburgh, it seems like they’re driven by ideals that will continue to impact thousands of more startups and it’s a city that’s fortunately leading the way with how startups can build, grow, and thrive in a place outside of the large tech hubs we typically think about.