Above: (Left to right) Zak Thomas, partner at STIKO BRUNO, LLC, Jmar Bey, co-founder of South Hilltop Men’s Group and Hilltop Rising, and Scott Wolovich, executive director at New Sun Rising, after closing on 744 E. Warrington Ave.
Pittsburgh hosts a handful of startup weekends every year, but the September 2015 Startup Weekend Civic in Allentown set in motion a series of events that, eight years later, would come back full circle.
That startup weekend, hosted by Work Hard Pittsburgh cooperative, was focused on entrepreneurs who wanted to build data-driven businesses aiming to improve city government or impact the local community. Jmar Bey, cofounder of South Hilltop Men’s Group, was a member of Work Hard and heard about the event through another member. He said initially, he went for the free beer.
“Josh [Lucas, founder of Work Hard Pittsburgh] ended up getting me on the stage to pitch an idea. I didn’t feel like I had anything to say, but he told me, ‘you’re always saying stuff, get up there,’” Bey said. “So I got up there and I freestyled an idea I’d been thinking about, and it was great enough to get me selected as a finalist for the competition.”
Bey’s idea laid the foundation for the South Hilltop Men’s Group (SHMG), an organization that provides programming that encourages responsible entrepreneurism, workforce development, and case management support with a focus on building community. A year later, with support of the Launch Hilltop incubator, Bey established Hilltop Rising to provide employment opportunities for those who complete training and programs through SHMG.
On October 4, 2023, SHMG and Hilltop Rising received $302,000 from the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to purchase 744 E. Warrington Ave., the former location of Work Hard Pittsburgh, which started to wind down operations in 2021. The funding came through the URA’s Avenues of Hope Commercial Real Estate (ACRE) Program and the Pittsburgh Business Fund. New Sun Rising had been the previous owner of the building since 2017 with a goal of transitioning the property to long-term community ownership and use.
“The relationship with Work Hard and its leader was really catalytic, because if that [startup weekend] hadn’t happened the way that it did, we wouldn’t have developed relationships with some of our biggest supporters,” Bey said.
The space will be used for workforce development training and certification programs like OSHA, deconstruction, demolition, safety, and job readiness. There is also a recording studio in the basement where Christian Nowlin, co-founder of SHMG and Hilltop Rising, will be running Hilltop Media with a focus on working with youth in the neighborhood to create podcasts, videos, and more.
“We were essentially left with a business that just needed a bit of tweaking. Work Hard’s experience, knowledge, and data on what did and didn’t work in terms of the Hilltop gave us solid rock to build upon,” Bey said.
Creating opportunities for employment in the Hilltop neighborhoods, Bey tends to operate on the prevailing wage standard and provides training, certification, and field experience in deconstruction, renovation, and similar pathways. According to the Vibrancy Index, the areas served by SHMG and Hilltop Rising have an average Work & Economic Growth Index of 61% compared to 71% for Allegheny County (Sustainable Development Goal #8).
“Equitable growth means that the people who are from the community get every opportunity to lead and benefit from the future that they envision,” says Scott Wolovich, executive director of New Sun Rising. “Since 2015, we have partnered with South Hilltop Men’s Group and Hilltop Rising through capacity building, bridge loans, and access to grants. Property ownership is the primary way that wealth transfers and communities are shaped in America. We couldn’t be happier for them to acquire this building and continue the entrepreneurial and community-building spirit of Work Hard Pittsburgh.”
Neighborhood Allies, a long time partner of NSR, provided support to SHMG and Hilltop Rising through their Community Leadership Forum, a Small & Simple grant, and making pivotal connections to resources.
Zak Thomas, a partner at STIKO BRUNO, LLC, met Bey through Neighborhood Allies and was the attorney representing SHMG and Hilltop Rising for the acquisition of 744 E. Warrington Ave. He said it was “inspiring” to talk with Bey about the future of the building.
“Jmar doesn’t really talk in terms of, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do in this space.’ He talks about, ‘Here’s how this impacts this part of the neighborhood and creates jobs for residents.’ It’s much more about the impact than simply what’s within the walls of the building,” Thomas said.
Bey grew up in Beltzhoover, and prior to closing on 744 E. Warrington Ave., he and Nowlin were running SHMG and Hilltop Rising out of a rented office space at 831 E. Warrington Ave. for five years. Bey said he never thought they’d have the opportunity to own a building along the business district, given how property values have risen over the last decade.
“When I was a kid, there were very clear racial lines. We couldn’t go into Allentown, that was the white neighborhood,” Bey said. “Years later, a lot has happened culturally, societally, and for me personally. When I reflect on how I got here, I can’t help but to think that it’s providence.”
“It feels amazing, it feels meant, and it feels like it’s time.”
South Hilltop Men’s Group is a fiscally sponsored project of New Sun Rising. NSR was also the fiscal sponsor of charitable activities contracted through Academy PGH and Work Hard Pittsburgh, which included the purchase of 744 E. Warrington Ave. The intent of the acquisition was to provide financial security to Work Hard Pittsburgh. As such, the financial realities of the Work Hard Pittsburgh ecosystem during the pandemic made it necessary to sell the building, a decision that was ultimately made by NSR as the owner. Read more about NSR’s Real Estate Co-development Model here.