June 26, 2019: In March 2015, at the height of East Liberty’s transformation into Pittsburgh’s tech hub, Gordon Manker was noticing a trend.

In his new position as the Business Development Specialist at Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation, Manker was meeting frequently with longtime East Liberty business owners who were looking to relocate. When Google, Uber, and other tech heavyweights moved in, rents soared — squeezing out tenants who couldn’t afford the aftereffects of gentrification. Consequently, they looked to nearby Wilkinsburg as a possible landing ground.

But in talking to them, Manker had a revelation: being in business doesn’t necessarily equate to understanding it.

“I realized that a lot of people, even if they had been in 10 to 20 years, didn’t have a lot of business acumen,” he says. “They had a lifestyle business; if they could put food on the table and keep their lights on, they didn’t look beyond that.”

Manker, a veteran of Pittsburgh Community Services Inc.’s Micro-Business Institute as well as the Army National Guard and U.S. Air Force Reserves, saw an opportunity to do more. He was certified in CORE FOUR, a business planning course that teaches aspiring and existing business owners fundamental skill sets. So he thought he would use that training to help bridge the knowledge gap he was seeing.

Four years later, thanks to funding through the state’s Neighborhood Partnership Program, the program has graduated more than 70 existing and aspiring business owners and supported more than 200 entrepreneurs, giving them a baseline in research, accounting, and marketing.

“Wilkinsburg’s keystone has always been its historic business district,” said Tracey Evans, Wilkinsburg CDC executive director, who has led efforts to reinvigorate the district which runs through the heart of the 2.3 square mile borough. “From classic soul food to gourmet ice cream, turn of the century letterpress to innovative organic garden care, international construction to state-of-the-art medical facilities, over 150 businesses operate in Wilkinsburg’s business district. Many of these businesses, including James Floral, Stanton Electric, Soul Food Connection, Kenyon Jewelers, and Wilkinsburg Beverage have operated for decades, serving multiple generations of Wilkinsburg residents and visitors.” 

Since the WCDC opened their doors in 2010, 74 business district properties have sold to new owners, 27 property owners have renovated their building facades, 25 vacant storefronts have been filled and 63 new businesses have relocated in Wilkinsburg. 

“WCDC is making great progress in positioning Wilkinsburg to become the next great Main Street community regarded as a center for creativity, diversity and entrepreneurship,” continued Evans.

The eight-week course, which is free to participants, is offered in the spring and the fall. It meets once a week, typically on Thursdays from 6-8 p.m. at Hosanna House, 807 Wallace Ave., Wilkinsburg. Topics include:

  • Success Planning
  • Market Planning
  • Cash Flow Planning
  • Operations Planning

 “This gives them a good framework,” says Manker. “We want participants to emerge with two takeaways: the ability to make an informed decision about whether this is the right time and the right business for them, and secondly, a solid foundation in what it really means to be in business: what kind of systems should be in place to position them for success.”

Manker notes that there is a difference between owning a job and owning a business. Owning a job means the proprietor is the only person who has the skill set or the time to run the operation; if they aren’t at work, they don’t earn money. Owning a business means there are systems in place that allow the doors to stay open and money comes in even if the proprietor is on vacation. The principles behind CORE FOUR can help people achieve this status.

Among those who have benefited from the course is Karen Denton, who owns a commercial cleaning business. She was one of the first to take the course when Manker began teaching it, and four years later, she still applies the same principles every day.

A four-time survivor of brain aneurisms, Denton wanted to get away from her stressful job managing fast-food restaurants. She started out as part of a franchise cleaning business, but by the time she enrolled in CORE FOUR, she was ready to learn how to branch out on her own.

“I needed to find something that would train me in how to run my business from the back end,” she explains. “It put me on the path I’m on right now, actually.”

Denton learned everything from how to create a successful elevator pitch to networking, keeping her books, marketing her business, and hiring staff.

“Everything that I learned there, I use,” she says, but she also enjoyed meeting with other business owners to swap ideas and support.

“It was good to hear different people having the same struggles, to let you know you’re not alone,” she says.

By next year, Denton expects to have enough business to give her earlier franchise effort to her granddaughter while also moving forward with her own branded company, which she is calling KSC Commercial Cleaning — the initials stand for “Karen’s Second Chance.” She has also enrolled in another class to further her business education.

“The CORE FOUR course was really the introduction to what I needed to know,” she says. “My goal was to create a business substantial enough that I could pass it down, and I’ve accomplished that.”

Published in the Wilkinsburg Sun