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A Pitt class assignment results in a company that’s attracting attention in Beverly Hills boutiques, trendy SoHo shops, and Hollywood TV studios. It’s not just the class that helped. An enterprising University center nourished the dream—something it does routinely for entrepreneurs.


Good for Business


Leah Samuel


  Robert Brandegee and Ava DeMarco, cofounders of Littlearth. (Tom Altany photo)
 

The noise is deafening—a squealing, chugging riot of machine activity. Ava DeMarco, the company’s CEO, hardly notices as she scans the production area. Sheets of recycled aluminum are cut and stamped, then passed through rollers that bend the pliable metal into partial cylinders. At a bench, a worker hammers away at an unfinished version of one of the firm’s best-selling products. Satisfied, DeMarco moves on, passing through the quality control room into a quieter area where employees hunch like jewelers, fully absorbed in their work, meticulously selecting tiny Swarovski crystals for later use. Coming full circle back to the noisy production room, DeMarco smiles as a worker sets down his hammer and holds up a finished product: a funky handbag, crafted from hubcaps and a license plate.

The Pittsburgh company—Littlearth—transforms recycled metal into hip fashion creations with big-time celebrity appeal. Brooke Shields, Jay Leno, and Van Halen band members are among those who have snatched up Littlearth products. Oprah Winfrey has touted the handbags on her television show. Featured by media outlets like CNN, Inc. magazine, and The Wall Street Journal, Littlearth has made a scene on the small screen, too. Its products have appeared on ER, Melrose Place, Party of Five, and on the bodies of MTV veejays. With trendy merchandise in more than 1,000 stores nationwide and internationally, Littlearth’s sales—estimated at about $4 million in 2005—have grown 60 percent during the past five years.

Not so long ago, Littlearth was merely an idea on paper, a concept produced for an assignment in a Pitt entrepreneurship class. Robert Brandegee, Littlearth’s president and DeMarco’s husband, developed the business plan as a class project. Both contributed their own thoughts about what the company could be. “He wanted to create a cool product, and I wanted to do something good for the environment,” she says.

It turns out that they’ve achieved both goals. Initially, they came up with the idea of recycling license plates into one-of-a-kind fashion statements such as purses and notebook covers. With combined backgrounds in marketing and design, the couple turned the class assignment into a real business in 1993, creating the products in their basement. The number of orders soon outgrew the room in their home, and they realized they needed help.

They turned to Pitt’s Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence (IEE) in the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business. IEE guides entrepreneurs through the daunting work of starting and sustaining their own businesses. The institute offers a range of services. Small business owners can turn to the Small Business Development Center. Family-run operations benefit from the Family Enterprise Center. The Entrepreneurial Fellows Center offers management education programs and a forum for business people to discuss their shared challenges and potential solutions, too. For innovators looking to develop commercial applications for their discoveries, IEE offers the expertise of FirstLink and PantherlabWorks, along with their networks of commercial, industrial, and governmental connections.

“I went through the Entrepreneurial Fellows Center, where we met with others once a month to discuss different topics,” says DeMarco, now an IEE advisory board member. She and her fellow entrepreneurs learned strategies, met with nationally known business development experts, and worked together on the challenges of growing their firms.

“It helped us build a network of peers,” says DeMarco.

Such efforts gave DeMarco the time to envision the company’s future—and what it could add to the community.Seeking the space to grow, Littlearth moved to Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a once thriving area now struggling to emerge from economic depression. Its presence in the neighborhood qualified Littlearth for low-interest loans from Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority. The URA also helped Littlearth move people from the welfare rolls to employment with the company. Littlearth works, too, with Pittsburgh’s Catholic Charities to identify and hire immigrants, many of whom are political refugees from countries like Bosnia, Vietnam, and Somalia. So, while recycling materials into reusable products, the company also aims to improve and sustain its own community, locally and globally.

“One of the great things about Pittsburgh is that the size allows you to feel connected to the community,” says DeMarco. “We’re opposed to suburban sprawl and wanted to reuse an existing building rather than constructing a new one.”

It’s not only emerging businesses that benefit from Pitt’s IEE. Existing firms gain, too. Sima Products Corp. in Oakmont, Pa., is a 30-year-old manufacturer of consumer electronics and other equipment. Despite Sima’s longevity, CEO Ilana Diamond says the company is not too old to learn new ways of doing business.

“The hardest thing is having to decide which products to develop, which marketing paths to follow, because we can’t do everything,” says Diamond. Through FirstLink at Pitt’s IEE, Sima was able to secure an opportunity to go to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate a new product—FAST Radio, which gives emergency alerts and instructions to specific populations. “It helped us to go from just the conception of a product to something you can hold in your hand that works,” explains Tim Means, a product line manager for Sima. The firm is now engaged in a pilot program being conducted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Diamond believes the University’s institute has made a positive difference in Sima’s prospects.“Selling to the federal government wasn’t something we had ever done,” she says. “But the advice, mentoring, and directions we’ve been given have really helped us.”

Pitt’s IEE intends to continue providing entrepreneurs with a bridge between ideas and reality. “The hardest part is that entrepreneurs have a scarce amount of time to move the business forward, and we have to get them away from putting out fires all the time,” says Ann Dugan, executive director of IEE and assistant dean in the Katz Graduate School of Business.

IEE also works toward a larger purpose. “The region’s growth opportunities are going to come from small and family-owned businesses,” explains Dugan. “The more they grow, the more they can attract other businesses to the region and have a positive economic impact. But when you’re so busy with the task of running your business every day, you don’t have time to look around at how your company fits into the economy.”

Littlearth is fitting into the region’s economy just fine. Now in its 13th year, the company has more than 40 employees working to produce handbags, belts, CD wallets, photo albums, and key chains—all out of recycled hubcaps, license plates, and bottle caps. Some of the company’s products also glitter with “Road Flair”—hand-applied accents crafted of Swarovski crystals. Last year, the company recycled more than 30 tons of rubber, 40,000 license plates, and 250,000 bottlecaps. Littlearth is once again outgrowing its space, and DeMarco just moved her sales staff to a new location.

As suggested by the welcoming bouquet of license-plate lilies on the table in the company waiting room, a good idea just needs time—and a healthy dose of nurturing attention—to bloom.

Pitt in the Neighborhood

The University of Pittsburgh connects in hundreds of ways to local communities and the surrounding region, fostering all kinds of positive outcomes, including an estimated economic impact of more than $1.3 billion. Here’s a brief sampling of Pitt’s influence nearby, though the results ripple far beyond the region.

Center on Race and Social Problems

This center, based in the School of Social Work, conducts research on how race influences American life. It also serves as a forum for discussions about race through the lens of interracial group relations, economic and educational disparities, mental health practices, and criminal justice.

Center for Urban Education

In the School of Education, this center works to improve local urban school districts through the expertise and hands-on efforts of Pitt faculty. It also provides workshops for the University’s education students on issues that arise in urban school settings.

College of General Studies

This college offers flexible learning opportunities to nontraditional and adult students through Learning Solutions, the McCarl Center for Nontraditional Student Success, the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and other ventures.

Community Outreach Partnership Center

This multischool effort coordinates housing studies, job training, school tutoring, youth activities, wellness programs, and small-business development activities to aid neighborhood revitalization.

Learning Research and Development Center

Affiliated with the School of Education, this center facilitates multidisciplinary research on teaching and learning and collaborates with educators, businesses, and government and nonprofit organizations.

Pitt Arts

A campuswide venture, this program connects Pitt students, faculty, and staff to Pittsburgh’s thriving cultural scene through discount-ticket offers, with lots of opportunities for undergraduates to experience museums, ballets, symphonies, operas, and theater events.

Pitt Volunteer Pool

This University program organizes volunteer activities for more than 1,500 Pitt staff and faculty interested in aiding local charity efforts and meeting community needs.

Shakespeare-in-the-Schools

The Department of Theatre Arts in the School of Arts and Sciences offers this program that takes the artistry of Shakespeare and other aspects of theater into western Pennsylvania classrooms, reaching students from kindergarten through high school.

Student Volunteer Outreach

Across the University, this program enables Pitt students to supplement classroom studies with local, national, and international community service-learning opportunities.

 

 

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