Changes at Ascender go deeper than a new name


Ascender, which began as Thrill Mill in 2012, started as a grassroots campaign to activate young professionals. A series of fundraisers would support what its founders called the best Pittsburgh-based business ideas. The foundation community liked the idea and threw its support behind it.

Thrival Festival added a new element that brought in revenue, and the nonprofit helped create 50-plus businesses, informally advised hundreds more and hosted hundreds of programs for startups.

CEO and co-founder Bobby Zappala says they built a community, but were still paying rent for 5,000 square feet. Overhead of $100,000 a year is not ideal, especially if that space isn’t monetized and you’re trying to become sustainable. So, the East Liberty nonprofit moved just down the street into an 11,000-square-foot space.

“We’ve designed it in an unique way to incorporate programming, incubation and coworking in a way that at a certain occupancy, we’re getting close to being a fully sustained organization that can actually fundraise for the purposes of value-added programming — as opposed to having to continue to chase our foundation friends around for operational support,” Zappala says.

More than a physical expansion

Since its February grand opening, the space has hosted more than 50 programs and over 2,500 attendees. Now able to run programs without disrupting people’s ability to work, Ascender rebuilt its programming into dual tracts, covering a different theme every month. The starters tract is for new entrepreneurs who need basics on putting together a business. The builders series is geared toward growing entrepreneurs who need specific information, like sales tracking dynamics or complex financial forecasting.

There are about 50 companies within its walls — 10 of those incubated companies and the remainder paying coworking members. The Beauty Shoppe partners with Ascender to manage these programs.

“As far as an environment is concerned, we’ve done a nice job of building what we wanted to build, which is a hub where a lot of different collusions can happen and you’re not only here because you’re an incubating company. You’re here because you’re playing in the startup environment in some way, shape or form,” he says. “We tried to stick a flag in the ground and create an accessible space.”

Pittsburgh has a number of accelerators and incubators, which Zappala sees as a benefit.