Prototype, a feminist maker space in Pittsburgh, just launched an incubator for women-owned businesses

The five companies do everything from designing swimsuits to making film more inclusive.

The Prototype incubator cohort meets for a goal mapping session

The Prototype incubator cohort meets for a goal mapping session

Courtesy of Erin Gatz
MJ Slaby

For a year, Kelly Hiser searched for a place to create a professional community in Pittsburgh. She tried coffee shops and co-working. But none were a good fit.

“When you work in tech and you’re a woman, a lot of people you interact with are white men,” said Hiser, co-founder of MUSICat, an online platform for local music. She added that while she’s had great male mentors, she was craving a space where she could interact with other women entrepreneurs.

So when Hiser heard about Prototype PGH’s new incubator focused on increasing racial and gender equity in tech and business, she eagerly applied. “This is something I’ve never heard of before.”

The feminist maker space in Oakland opened in 2016 and now has 150 members. It offers workshops that range from 3D modeling to salary negotiation. The goal was always to be more than a maker space and to help entrepreneurs as they start and grow their companies, said founders Erin Gatz and E. Louise Larson, who are also Who’s Next honorees.

To help businesses take their next steps, Prototype launched its first incubator last month with a cohort of five women-owned businesses.

The year-long program offers a mix of workshops, co-working space and mentorship, Gatz and Larson said. The first of four quarterly workshops was in January and focused on goal mapping. Future sessions will cover how to set up a business entity, marketing and branding, and how to overcome imposter syndrome. The entrepreneurs will also meet regularly with mentors and other members of the cohort.

The program will wrap up with a “hatch event” in November, when cohort members will present their companies and network to find the next steps and additional resources in the community. They’ll also become mentors for the 2020 cohort, Gatz said.

These five entrepreneurs were selected for this year’s cohort.

  • Writer and storyteller Hannah Eko, 32, of Friendship, blogs at She wants to launch her business to provide writing workshops to the public, as well as continue to teach and produce creative writing.
  • The chief visionary officer of Virginia Dere, LLC, Gabrielle Haywood, 55, of Wilkinsburg, created the KneeKini, a capri-length swimsuit in bold and bright colors that’s comfortable for water aerobics. Haywood is currently in the soft launch of her company and is taking pre-orders as she works to expand production.
  • Kelly Hiser, 35 of Brookline, is co-founder and CEO of MUSICat, a platform that allows libraries to build local music collections. Pittsburgh’s version is slated to launch Feb. 15, and Hiser wants to work with more libraries and create a mobile app.
  • Meagan Koleck, 27 of the East End, founded Dump Star Media, LLC, an independent media company. She aims to work with artists and filmmakers on projects that focus on marginalized groups. She also plans to teach, build community and later launch a film festival.
  • Natasha Williams, 39, of Penn Hills, is the co-founder of Stairways to Success, which helps middle and high school students prepare for post-secondary success. Williams wants to raise awareness of the program, as well as increase accessibility for students.

To assemble the cohort, Larson said she and Gatz and focused on candidates within Prototype’s membership, but accepted external applications, too. The cohort was selected from roughly a dozen applicants.

For each member of the cohort, the incubator is helping them meet different goals.

Both Eko and Koleck were members of Prototype before joining the incubator and liked the organization’s feminist and intersectional approach.

“It’s such a relief that Prototype exists,” Koleck said, adding that she sees a gender and racial imbalance in film, too. Prototype “has a really supportive dynamic, it’s a really special place.”

For Haywood, the incubator provides the camaraderie of working with other entrepreneurs, as well as a space dedicated to her business that isn’t at home, where it can be difficult to focus. At Prototype, she said, she has the space to layout patterns and work.

Hiser said she wanted to learn more about the business side, including fundraising and venture capitalists. “I’m interested in having access to a group of people who are used to thinking outside the box,” she said.

When Gatz and Larson started Prototype, they had a lot of the same questions that the companies in the incubator do, from branding to deciding what type of business entity to create. Now, they can share what they learned through the incubator, Larson said.

Gatz pointed to two statistics as she stressed the need for the incubator, which has been in the works since 2017.

First, when women entrepreneurs pitch to venture capitalists for seed funding, they are more likely than men to get questions about the possibility of their company failing, per a Harvard Business Review study.

Second, according to the Boston Consulting Group, when venture capitalists invest in women-owned companies, the revenue is 78 cents on the dollar, compared to men-owned companies where the return is 31 centers per dollar

“It’s easy to frame [creating the incubator] as a charitable act,” Gatz said, “but it’s actually a smart business investment to invest in women.”

Want to apply for the 2020 Prototype incubator or volunteer your expertise to this year’s cohort? Learn more here.