LaunchBox Connects Resources to Entrepreneurs

SHARON, Pa. – When Mary Kay Bernat mentioned to Tom Roberts her ideas for starting a video production company, she says Roberts could not wait to tell her what was coming.

Roberts examined the business mission, vision and goals that Bernat and her partner, Gene Blair Jr., had put together, and outlined the available help that could ease their transition from idea to successful business.

“He told me about all the resources and I thought it had to be too good to be true. But it’s the real deal,” said Bernat.

In addition to operating a new business, Bernat is the student and technology support specialist at Butler County Community College@LindenPointe in Hermitage, Pa.

Gene Blair Jr. and Mary Kay Bernat are the co-founders of Other Wind Productions. Their startup is one of the first companies to take advantage of business consulting services provide by the new LaunchBox in Sharon, Pa.

She and her partner recently established Other Wind Productions, which produces storytelling and visual content. Through Roberts, their company became one of the first new businesses to take advantage of Shenango LaunchBox, a collaboration of local public, private and nonprofit entities and Penn State Shenango.

The LaunchBox is designed to assist the early stages of business development. That comprises learning about entrepreneurship, finding an idea that provides a solution, honing the ideas and testing them, and then connecting people to the resources they need.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” Roberts said. “It really lowers the barrier to anyone who has a vision of starting a company and makes it approachable. It’s not some big, massive organization.”

The Hope Center for Arts & Technology in Sharon, Pa., provides the space where anyone can come, talk about his ideas, attend free programs and receive some coaching, Roberts said. And then, there is the LaunchBox connection throughout the commonwealth that can provide additional resources.

“We can connect them to the overarching ecosystem throughout the entire state. It’s not just about what assets we have here. It’s about what assets we have throughout the LaunchBox network and the whole Invent Penn State concept,” Roberts said. “It really is powerful.”

The Shenango LaunchBox provided Other Wind Productions free legal advice through Penn State Law, a program where law students help fledgling businesses with required paperwork, such as contracts or sales agreements.

The LaunchBox further connected the new business with available space in downtown Sharon, which the startup now occupies.

“We’re really excited about that,” Bernat said. “We’re all about Sharon.”

The executive director of the Community Foundation of Western PA and Eastern OH, Kyle English, describes The LaunchBox as as a safe space to share dreams and receive support.

“The LaunchBox network gives would-be entrepreneurs the support they need to take something that is extremely personal and share it in an environment where they know they will not be attacked,” English said. “Instead, they are encouraged. They are given the support and connections to the resources and the reach needed to take that idea and make it a reality. What an amazing gift this is to our community.”

On Oct. 18, officials from the Shenango LaunchBox, the city of Sharon, the Sharon Community Foundation and Penn State cut the ribbon at the new LaunchBox site, bringing the center to fruition on the second floor of HopeCAT. There are now 21 LaunchBox offices across the commonwealth.

“At every Penn State LaunchBox and entrepreneur center they say, ‘Don’t quit your daydream.’ Well, today my daydream became a reality,” said JoAnne Carrick, campus director and chief academic officer of Penn State Shenango.

During her remarks at the ribbon-cutting, Molly Bundrant, president of Sharon City Council, told how council received more than $14 million in American Rescue Plan Act money and decided to look for a way to use some of it to support and promote long-term growth in the community.

The city contributed $2 million from its ARPA funds, placing $1 million apiece in two endowments at the Shenango Valley Foundation, an affiliate of the Community Foundation of Western PA and Eastern OH. Penn State University matched the funds, leading to a $4 million nest egg to drive development and support the dreamers in the Sharon area.

“As a land grant institution, Penn State is uniquely charged with serving Pennsylvania, its people and its communities,” said Margo Dellicarpini, vice president for Commonwealth Campuses and executive chancellor at Penn State. “It’s our mission to help build a stronger Pennsylvania and more robust empowered communities.”

Dellicarpini added that the new Shenango LaunchBox, Hope CAT and other economic development initiatives she sees in Sharon demonstrate Penn State’s land grant mission in action.

“To borrow a tagline of Invent Penn State, which is our program that administers the LaunchBoxes across the commonwealth, ‘That is the ingenious power of partnership,’” Dellicarpini said. “It is a reflection of Penn State’s ‘We are’ spirit and acknowledgement that we can always accomplish more together than we can ever do apart.”

One of the $2 million endowments will support Shenango LaunchBox. The other is intended to support economic development grants for those starting businesses in the city of Sharon.

Bundrant announced at the ribbon cutting that applications are now available for these grants and can be found on the city website.

“Through trusted relationships, creativity, investment and collaboration, we’ve established the Shenango LaunchBox, powered the greater Shenango region and the Sharon economic development grants that will fuel enterprises for generations to come,” Bundrant said. “I’m so excited for the future.”

Added Sherris Moreira, Sharon director of downtown development, “We’re so proud of this collaboration and we’re so excited to see what the future holds.”

Moreira said Roberts is a believer in the city and the region.

“He has a strong vision and he certainly is very supportive of our small-business community,” she said.

The LaunchBox will work with entrepreneurs to help them make strong pitches for grant money and other sources of funding, Roberts said.

The economic development grant money will be for businesses serving Sharon and will work in perpetuity to fuel business growth in the city. Both the city and others involved wanted to make sure the money has a lasting impact, Roberts said.

The LaunchBox office is open to anyone, old or young, student or second-career seeker.

Roberts, the founding executive director of Hope CAT, has stepped into the leadership role at the LaunchBox.

“I’m a builder by nature and I just love that I can connect with students at the Shenango campus and entrepreneurs throughout the region – really throughout the state and the world – and offer them free legal [counsel] and programming that will help foster entrepreneurism,” Roberts said.

From the outset, Bernat said Roberts assured her he had ways he could help her business get started. She was doubtful the program could deliver everything he offered. But it did.

“Their services are amazing,” Bernat said. “The ease of which you get introduced is just amazing. The work is completely professional, very quick turnaround. We couldn’t be more pleased… The resources they can connect you to, it’s vast.”

Other Wind Productions was busy recording the LaunchBox launch ribbon cutting Oct. 18 and has many other projects in the works. Blair has honed his filming skills by freelancing on projects for others; now they are working on projects of their own.

And Bernat and Blair are not finished dreaming.

“The goal is a feature film,” Blair said.

“When we get established, I want to do stories that have an edge.”

Pictured at top: The ribbon was cut Oct.18. From left are Molly Bundrant, president of Sharon City Council; Margo DelliCarpini, Penn State vice president for Commonwealth Campuses; Jo Anne Carrick, Penn State Shenango campus director; Kyle English, executive director of the Community Foundation of Western PA & Eastern OH; Mark Longietti, Hermitage director of community development; Mary Kay Bernat, Butler County Community College @LindenPointe; James Delattre, Invent Penn State; and Tom Roberts, director of Shenango LaunchBox.