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4 Pennsylvania Entrepreneurs Share Why They Chose to Do Business in the Keystone State

We asked four Pennsylvania entrepreneurs why they chose the Keystone State to base and grow their business.

By Jessica Wakeman on October 28, 2021

Start My Own Business written on a sticky note.
iStock.com

When you mention places that are hospitable to startups and new businesses, a few major cities come to mind: New York City, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston. Yes, historically, those cities have been hubs for new companies (and sent housing pricing skyrocketing). 

However, jobs, talent and innovation can be found in so many other places, including the growing cities and towns throughout Pennsylvania. We spoke with four company founders about why they started their businesses in PA, what the opportunities are like for entrepreneurs and why they love living where they do. 

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Photo Courtesy of VisitPITTSBURGH

Brittany Mitlo, Senior Technical Recruiter at Duolingo in Pittsburgh

How would you describe the entrepreneurial culture in PA? 

The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well! Pittsburgh is known as a very neighborly city with hardworking people. In addition to small businesses, over the last several years, we’ve seen Pittsburgh grow into a hub for tech companies like Google, Uber, Zoom and, of course, Duolingo. 

What is possible in PA that isn’t possible anywhere else?  

We had a really popular billboard in San Francisco and New York City a few years ago: “Work in tech. Own a Home. Move to Pittsburgh.” The job opportunities here combined with the cost of living in Pittsburgh have really helped our city attract and retain talent. 

What would you advise someone else who is thinking of starting a small business here? 

A great place to start is to reach out to people here who are doing what you want to be doing! I’ve heard of so many people who’ve learned from others here just by reaching out and asking questions. There’s definitely a “pay it forward” mentality here. If one Pittsburgher wins, we all win!

What is the talent pool like in your area? 

We have a growing talent pool in Pittsburgh, especially being an education hub and a city where so many students are choosing to plant roots due to the great cost of living. It’s been really exciting seeing how many people have stayed in Pittsburgh after college and how many people are moving to Pittsburgh from bigger cities because of the burgeoning tech industry.

What’s your favorite local spot for a meeting?

Driftwood Oven! Best pizza and nicest staff in Pittsburgh. I can’t wait to take my team here once it’s safe for everyone!

What is your commute like?

In normal times, my typical day involves a 20-minute door-to-door commute by public transportation. If I’m in a rush, I’ll use a ridesharing service (~8 minutes), or if it’s a beautiful Pittsburgh day and I have some time to spare, I’ll walk (~45 minutes). Average commute time for most Duolingo employees is around 20 minutes — whether that’s walking, biking, public transportation or driving.  

What do your employees like to do around town/around the area when they’re not working? 

What’s amazing about our employees is that we’re such a diverse group of humans with such diverse interests. We’re encouraged to share our interests with others and even facilitate events such as museum tours, ax throwing, language immersion dinners, urban hiking excursions, crafting clubs, scavenger hunts in our city parks, volunteering with local organizations like Hello Neighbor and Literacy Pittsburgh, camping, jazz band practice, brewery openings — you name it!

But I’d say our favorite thing to do together is eat! There are so many amazing restaurants in Pittsburgh — from established institutions like Pamela’s for pancakes and Point Brugge for mussels, to brand-new offerings, like 2 Sisters 2 Sons for jerk chicken and Cafe 33 for soup dumplings — that we’ve yet to run out of options.  

How does the work-life balance where you live in PA compare to other places? 

I think the answer to this question lies in geography — is Pittsburgh a Midwest or East coast city? Midwest hearkens ideas of prioritizing evenings, weekends and time off, and the East Coast hearkens ideas of working long hours. Having both mentalities influence Pittsburgh’s psyche is what I think has helped shape this city as a place where you can accomplish big dreams while still having the opportunity for a healthy work-life balance. 

What is one of PA’s “best-kept secrets” that you’re willing to share? 

There’s an awesome beer festival at Ohiopyle State Park called Beer and Gear. It’s held every year on Father’s Day and includes local breweries, outdoor gear vendors and live bluegrass.  What more could one want? I consider it a “best-kept secret” because it’s still a relatively small festival (maybe 200 people max including vendors) and always a great time! Plus, you can stay at a cabin within walking distance and turn it into a weekend filled with whitewater rafting, hiking, biking and barbecue. 

What’s next for your business?  

We have beautiful office space in East Liberty, Pittsburgh, and we’re excited to reopen and return to in-person work this fall. Many of us miss being able to work together, eat lunch together and enjoy our brand-new roof deck. We’re growing and continuing to hire across a wide variety of positions! All of our open roles can be found at careers.duolingo.com

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Delaware River, Easton, PA / iStock

Laura Stedenfeld, principal at Omnes in Easton, Pennsylvania (Lehigh Valley)

How would you describe the entrepreneurial culture in PA? 

Where we are, in Easton, there’s a tremendously supportive community of entrepreneurs working across so many different fields, from restaurants and retail to technology, development and design. The culture of the town is steeped in art and design, and we’re hoping to elevate the design discourse around public space in the Lehigh Valley. It’s a region with rich historical roots, but wide-open possibilities for new businesses like ours. 

How has being in PA helped your company? 

I chose to start my business in Pennsylvania, and specifically in the Lehigh Valley, both because I wanted to bring great public design to the area where I’m from, and because it’s a place that offers amazing opportunities for terrific quality of life, with strong culture, community and affordability. Being based in Pennsylvania has helped attract great staff who equally value connections to nature and access to cities. And reasonable taxes and great business opportunities mean being able to prioritize fair wages, health care and an ethically inclusive work culture for our staff. 

What would you advise someone else who is thinking of starting a small business here? 

Consider smaller, growing cities! We love Pittsburgh and Philly but great things are happening across the state! Our location in the Lehigh Valley has incredible access to nature and culture and we’re just a 60-mile distance from either NYC or Philadelphia. We are based in Easton, but this location allows us to work with leading design firms and clients at a national scale. 

What is the talent pool like in your area? 

Our studio is a job creator in the Lehigh Valley and attracts the employees of the same level of practice and skill that you could expect to find at a renowned design studio in New York or Philadelphia. We have employees who relocated to the Lehigh Valley to join us from larger cities. But we also have several staff who live and work primarily from Philadelphia, where our firm is working on a number of active public space design projects. 

What’s your favorite local spot for a meeting?

Here in Easton, Tucker at the Simon Silk Mill (where our studio is also located) is an Australian cafe and a great meeting spot.  

What is your commute like? 

My partner Sheila — who is also a researcher at Omnes — and I walk to the studio at the Simon Silk Mill from our apartment in downtown Easton along the Karl Stirner Arts Trail. It’s a two-mile walk along the Bushkill Creek with an amazing series of sculptures and public art installations along the way. It’s a dream commute. 

What do your employees like to do around town/around the area when they’re not working? 

My colleague Emily and her husband love exploring the historic Easton Cemetery with their dog Winnie. It’s vast and peaceful, with great winding paths. As people who design public parks and plazas, our team spends a ton of time outdoors hiking, biking, camping and exploring. Pennsylvania’s outdoor recreation spaces help to feed our curiosity, and we love exploring the many different kinds of landscapes across the state.  

How does the work-life balance where you live in PA compare to other places? 

For us, the Lehigh Valley offers a pretty great work-life balance. Because the costs of doing business is a bit lower than in a larger metropolis, we can not only offer excellent design service within reach for smaller communities but also ensure fair wages and benefits for our own studio members so they can bring their best selves to work. It allows us to focus on our creativity and client’s needs. Having an inspiring environment in which to work has made a massive difference in our design quality, creativity and studio culture. 

What is one of PA’s “best-kept secrets” that you’re willing to share? 

So many of our wildlands in Pennsylvania are hidden gems, and I’m thankful that we all had access to these great places during the pandemic. I adore the Endless Mountains region, and I spend a lot of creative time there at our family’s cabin. My father built it decades ago with his own two hands, and it has become such a meaningful place for me. That landscape formed so much of my identity as a landscape architect and artist. 

What’s next for your business?  

Omnes has some really exciting projects on the docket! Right now, we’re actively working on the design of more than a dozen landscapes in Pennsylvania, including the redesign of Center Square and Hamilton Street in Allentown, and some significant civic landscapes in the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia. We are also working nationally, with planning projects ranging from Vermont to Kentucky.

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Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA / iStock.com

Jeff Gapinski, co-founder and president, Huemor in Pittsburgh

How would you describe the entrepreneurial culture in PA? 

There are so many thriving small businesses here and generally, everyone I’ve spoken to seems supportive of one another. There’s a lot of technology startups because of the proximity of Carnegie Mellon (University) and all the talent that comes out of there. There’s a lot of local, really great culturally-based businesses. The Pittsburgh Technology Council is a great one for me because we do have a business that is technology and technology-adjacent, so we get to mix with all of these entrepreneurs who offer a wide variety of businesses. 

What is possible in PA that isn’t possible anywhere else?  

Western PA offers a really good amount of opportunities for employees from a cultural perspective. It’s a really nice balance of being able to do outdoor activities and things that are more active. Pittsburgh, for a smaller city, has an impressive amount of cultural things that you can do. There are multiple concert venues throughout the city. Tons of different restaurants. And it’s a true sport city, if you’re a sports fan.  

What would you advise someone else who is thinking of starting a small business here? 

If you’re starting a business that’s related to technology at all, the Pittsburgh Technology Council is great (with their) willingness to connect you with other individuals. Pittsburgh is very much a face-to-face-driven city when it comes to making connections. Here, there’s definitely an advantage to getting out there and going to events, meeting people and building that personal connection.

What is the talent pool like in your area? 

The talent pool is great. Obviously, Carnegie Mellon is a huge talent when it comes to engineering. Their digital design program has provided us with a lot of great candidates. Pitt (University of Pittsburgh) is great — they’re putting out high-quality candidates. And there’s also five or six other sizable universities in the area as well. If you’re looking for young, well-trained talent, there is a plethora here between design, development, marketing. We’ve never had an issue there. And there’s a ton of more experienced individuals (already employed) with tech companies here. 

What’s your favorite local spot for a meeting?

I like taking meetings out on the Point (Point State Park) in Pittsburgh and getting outside and going for a walk. There’s another place called Industrious, which is a coworking space in downtown Pittsburgh. They’re on the 31st floor of the PPG building — they have amazing views. 

What is your commute like? 

Public transit in Pittsburgh is OK. It’s primarily bus transit. When our office was in downtown Pittsburgh, it was a little bit more difficult finding parking and getting down there if you’re driving in. Taking a bus over there is easy, but can sometimes take a long time depending on where you are in the city. We’ve since moved to the east side of Pittsburgh. That’s been a little bit easier on people because you have easy access parking and there are still quite a few buses that run over here.

What do your employees like to do around town/around the area when they’re not working? 

There’s a ton of really great bars and restaurants in the area. There’s a place in Millvale, which is probably 10 minutes away from our office, that does axe throwing (LumberJaxes). There’s a Topgolf located 20-25 minutes south that you can go to. There’s a retro bowling alley 10 minutes from the office. There’s at least 2 different breweries adjacent to the office.  

How does the work-life balance where you live in PA compare to other places you have lived? 

Definitely better, without a doubt. That was probably one of the biggest things I noticed right away: People shut down at 5 or 6 o’clock. There are definitely individuals who are hustlers, but things shut down and I like that. 

What is one of PA’s “best-kept secrets” that you’re willing to share? 

The Grand Canyon of PA is probably one of the cooler places I’ve been, if you’re into hiking or nature. Everyone I’ve told about it hasn’t seemed to be aware of it. In terms of cool towns, there’s always Jim Thorpe out by the Poconos (Mountains) — it’s this little hippie town. 

What’s next for your business?  

It’s going to be our 10-year anniversary this year. Ten years overall and four years with our Pittsburgh location. 

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Pine Creek Gorge, PA / iStock.com

Paige Hughes, co-founder and co-owner of Forgiven Wine Company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with Aliesha Clark

How would you describe the entrepreneurial culture in PA? 

Entrepreneurship has definitely skyrocketed (during the pandemic). Many businesses closed and people lost jobs so they had to find a way. Also, with so much downtime, it seems like many people are tapping into their passions and making a business from it. What I love about PA is everyone is so supportive of these small businesses and owners.  

What is possible in PA that isn’t possible anywhere else? 

Growing up in PA has shown that this is a hub for opportunity. It is very easy to make connections and grow personally and professionally.  

What would you advise someone else who is thinking of starting a small business here? 

I would always tell someone to go for it. Don’t let anyone set you back. Don’t listen to the doubters. You’ve already failed if you’ve never even tried!  

What is the talent pool like in your area? 

In the Philadelphia and Lancaster areas, the talent pool is amazingly diverse.   

What’s your favorite local spot for a meeting?

We love to find local restaurants that have good food! We love brunches and especially desserts. There are so many options, not sure which would be an absolute favorite above others.  

What is your commute like? 

Well at this time we are a mobile business. We do deliver our wine and products to local customers.  

What do your employees like to do around town/around the area when they’re not working? 

At Forgiven Wine, we do not have employees at this time. It is just us! Aliesha is working on her doctor of social work degree and Paige owns a cupcake business and has also founded a nonprofit organization geared toward empowering women and children in the community.  

How does the work-life balance where you live in PA compare to other places? 

Between myself and Aliesha, we work 9-5 jobs, attend school and own other businesses. Routine and discipline is key.  

What is one of PA’s “best-kept secrets” that you’re willing to share? 

I am not sure how the culture is in other places but PA is very supportive of small business and Black-owned businesses. There seems to be a focus on empowerment and support here that helps us thrive and grow.  

What’s next for your business? 

Our next goal is to open a wine garden where our consumers can hang out and enjoy wine and great small plate dishes. 

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