The Road to Youth Maker Alley

Handmade Arcade’s youth entrepreneurship program readies artists and makers for the big event.

It’s the Saturday before Thanksgiving. In a back room at Construction Junction, a group of young artists and makers participating in Handmade Arcade’s Youth Scholarship Program have gathered.

Young maker entrepreneurs practice their sales pitch / Photo by Jennifer Baron

Young maker entrepreneurs practice their sales pitch / Photo by Jennifer Baron

It’s the last of three workshops offered under the program before Handmade Arcade, the annual independent craft fair, holds its massive December 8 event at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center downtown. Now in its second year, the Youth Scholarship Program offers craft-based artists and entrepreneurs ages 16 to 18 free tables in Handmade Arcade’s “Youth Maker Alley,” just behind the welcome center: “prime real estate,” says Tricia Brancolini, Handmade Arcade’s executive director.

Indeed, the aspiring maker entrepreneurs will be front-and-center among the more than 200 craft-based businesses hawking their wares to the more than 10,000 shoppers expected to attend this year’s Handmade Arcade.

In addition to getting ready for the big show, the Youth Scholarship Program is preparing the students for success by offering a series of workshops, pairing them with experienced vendors as mentors, providing access to a private Facebook group where vendors can share tips and advice and ask questions, and giving a small stipend to support their efforts.

Today, Brancolini runs through logistics like load-in times, credit-card processing, and how to dress for the convention center. (Wear layers, Brancolini advises: it’s cold in the morning and hot in the afternoon. And comfortable shoes are a must for standing on a concrete floor for hours.)

The students, most of whom are in high school, raise their hands. How much cash should they have on hand, and in what denominations? Can they bring extension cords? (No.)

After a pilot run in 2017, the Scholarship Program returned in 2018 with 10 youth vendors selling items ranging from polymer clay charms of cats and macaroons to custom-made pens and pencils, jewelry, clothing, and watercolors of animals. This year’s cohort features vendors from all over the region, from Wilkinsburg to Gibsonia, Squirrel Hill to Mount Lebanon.

Jennifer Baron, Handmade Arcade’s director of marketing and outreach, said she is blown away by the talent of this year’s participants, but noted a considerable range in terms of experience and business know-how. Many of the youth vendors are incredibly savvy at using social media like Instagram, where each of the vendors will have their works featured on Handmade Arcade’s account, but not all have given as much consideration to how to present their items on a table display.

“These are soft skills for the twenty-first century,” Baron said. “They learn logistics like booth set-up, and we stress the importance of good-quality photographs of their merchandise.”

Because of the range of student experience, access to mentoring—at workshops and individually through e-mail, texting, and the private Facebook group—is crucial, Baron said.

“This is an incredibly supportive community of resources,” she said.

Work by Youth Maker Scholarship Program Participants

Products created by Youth Maker Scholarship Program participants / Photos by Lindsay Goranson

From Make to Market

Justine Szurley, the lone returning vendor from last year’s pilot, agrees. Now a Point Park University student, her HMR Apparel line features t-shirts, sweatshirts, tank tops, and tote bags, among other items, all promoting a feminist message. (HMR is short for “Hear Me Roar.”)

“The program is super awesome this year,” Szurley said, noting the thoughtfully structured mentoring component. She was paired with her mentor, Allison Butka of Etna Print Circus, because HMR features screenprinting. Butka has been incredibly helpful and supportive, Szurley said, in giving advice and tips. When a run of Szurley’s printed t-shirts burned in the dryer, Butka was invaluable in identifying the problem.

Szurley came to the Program in 2017 through Startable Pittsburgh, an intensive summer program for youth entrepreneurs. That year’s Startable alumni were invited to apply to the Youth Scholarship Program, undergoing the same rigorous juried process that Handmade Arcade uses to select its regular vendors (who this year number more than 230).

Building on the successful pilot, this year the program is even better, said Brancolini.

“I feel like giving youth stipends and having more money and time to support them made this a better experience,” she said, thanks in large part to a micro-grant from Remake Learning.

Once all questions have been addressed, it’s time to practice elevator pitches. Engaging with potential customers has been a point of emphasis in the workshops, so these young vendors have to be ready to tell their stories to shoppers.

Brancolini goes first, delivering the practiced speech she gives to people at local arts events who have never heard of Handmade Arcade. Her tone is chipper and enthusiastic.

“Do you see how I suddenly got very la la la?” she asks once she’s finished. “Pep it up.”

One by one, youth participants practice their own pitches. “It’s like you’re acting,” says Matt Buchholz, a mentor, of Alternate Histories. “It’s not you, exactly, and that’s okay.”

“Learning to sell yourself is the point of entrepreneurship,” Brancolini adds.

After the last student has delivered an elevator pitch, the group adjourns to the next room for a group photograph. It’s the last time they’ll all be in one room before the big day, when they’ll all set up shop on Youth Maker Alley.

Header photo by Joey Kennedy for Handmade Arcade

Published November 19, 2018

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