The Artful Entrepreneurs of Hartford’s Pratt Street, by Elinor Slomba

Elinor Slomba is the founder of E. Slomba Arts Interstices and a Whiteboard Community Startup Journalist. In addition to covering the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Connecticut, she has written for The Whiteboard on the Scrum and Agile approaches to collaboration and project management. In March, she’ll present her project management framework for busy creators, “Scrum of One,” at Agile India. Tweet to her @artsint.

Last week I had the great fortune to meet up with four dedicated business owners in Hartford who are contributing to a lively atmosphere downtown on Pratt Street, the neighborhood surrounding reSET. I spoke to several of these local leaders about how they integrate their business and creative goals and the interplay of place and purpose that animates their work. They also told me what they’ve learned about collaboration and entrepreneurial community along the way. The following are their first-person accounts of what it’s like to advance a social enterprise while seeking a bright future for Hartford.

Julia Pistell, founder of Sea Team Improv: The business and creative goals for Sea Tea Improv overlap quite a bit. We want to draw and keep creative talent in the state while we are increasing our own audience and the customer base for our classes. It’s something I think about all the time.

Sea Tea ImprovWe have seven equal co-owners of the company, and as we grow, the push-and-pull between leadership and experience versus newer members wanting to learn becomes evident. Coming into a consensus is not easy. We live and breathe collaboration.

Your team is actually best if you have many different strengths and senses of humor. We have another rule: always make your partner look good. That’s the basis for excelling. With that much trust, we can approach a kind of group mind.

Hartford is an amazing place to be an entrepreneur right now. It’s small, and there are a lot of empty storefronts that need to be filled. The populace is asking for a city that’s cooler, cheaper, busier. That is great! I came from New York City, where it’s a very different environment. I was shocked at how easy it was to find resources, to find help. We are primed right now for supporting a lot of entrepreneurs and especially in the artistic arenas.

When the market crashed, people were forced to collaborate. It’s how we learned to survive, and this spirit breeds a great new source of opportunity for the young entrepreneurs. Sea Tea has worked with every other person you’re interviewing.

Amy Merli, creator of Trashion FashionI have operated the Trashion Show underneath different nonprofits for the last 2 years. I did a lot of investigation work early in 2013 about different business models and realized I didn’t want to be a nonprofit. I am currently transitioning into a social enterprise as I continue to learn more about these other business models and familiarize myself with the community.

Trashion Fashion Show

I’ve been finding that more artists are taking the social entrepreneur route. It’s a different playing field. Blending art with business and sustainability moves the focus from just profit. Social enterprises offer a double bottom line (or even triple).

I like to be constantly on fire. I want to wake up inspired and excited every single day. The difficult task has been figuring out where the money to keep the fire burning comes from.  These communities to support this social movement help this transition. It is exciting to have a creative project that can become something bigger, more tangible, if you delegate your time and efforts properly.

I spend part of the week in New York City and part in Connecticut. Hartford has a lot of dynamics; it has a huge corporate presence during the day and an underground arts scene. This city has been so supportive for my Trashion shows and other arts endeavors. It has allowed my Trashion Fashion Show to flourish as it expands into other cities such as Brooklyn and Washington, DC.

Today I run a sustainable event planning company, Sweet Collaborations. It blends sustainability with the arts and wellness. This umbrella company will become a Benefit Corporation in this upcoming year. One of its divisions is a green wedding planning company called Green Love. The Trashion Fashion Show will transfer under the umbrella in late 2014.

Rory Gale, Creative Director of Hartford Prints: My background is in project management. I run Hartford Prints with my two sisters. I came in to run the business end of things, and I do graphic design work as well, overseeing the whole creative side. Balancing creative process and managing it is difficult, but I always go back to having systems in place: a schedule, protocol. I love file-naming conventions, paperwork, the whole system that says, “When a job comes in, this is how we process it.”

The creative world can always be in flux. Protocol can keep you on track.

We’ve opened a retail store, and we also do client-driven work: custom printing invitations, holiday cards, weddings. Our speciality is extremely special occasions. We are now managing two full time employees. It’s scary and good. But it’s a small business, and if you’re not careful, responding to emails can eat up your whole day.

We do our printing on Arbor Street near Real Art Ways, but we wanted the retail store on Pratt Street specifically because this one block of Hartford has a lot of character. There’s a feeling of shared vision. Obviously Hartford has a long way to go, but improving one block feels manageable, attainable – together we can move the needle. The best places are works-in-progress.

Nina Salazar, owner of Studio N111The heart of my business is being able to achieve my creative goals. They’re one and the same.

We are very much looking forward to the passing of the B-corp legislation. I am conscientious of mission as I hire and reach out to the communities. I’m providing classrooms space and artistic services, but I don’t want to be solely reliant on grants, tied down to the grant process. I want sustainability, structure. I want it to be profitable.

I put a lot of thought into selecting a location for the enterprise. I have a lot of connections in the suburbs, but the heart of my goals was to be downtown specifically so I could develop and grow community. My space is in the heart of the city. It is a centerpoint drawing marketshare from outside its borders. I have wonderful relationships for instance with West Hartford where I teach. Because the location is central, it belongs to all of Hartford’s neighborhoods, not just one.

N111

Pratt Street is attracting a renaissance of small businesses. We are constantly collaborating, building off of one another’s energy, creating synergy. Just yesterday I welcomed two new students who were referrals from Rory [Gale; see above].

It’s a growing business, and there are lots of little jobs to maintain so we can push through into the next level of growth. I want to move to street level someday.

You know you’re on the right path when people are always pushing you and keeping you on it.

I’ve been kicked in the gut, missed opportunities with funding. But when I’m at my lowest and want to say, “I’m done,” someone says, “Try this,” and I’m invited to keep going. At this point, it’s gotten a little bigger than me. I have to honor it and see it through, let this creation become what it needs to become.

About Elinor Slomba

2 comments

  1. What a great article! Thank you so much! It was nice to see the names and thoughts of people I know and care about.

    Hoping to do more at Pratt Street, too!

    elle fagan

  2. How nice to hear, Elle. You are most welcome and encouraged to send me your stories and ideas for covering Artful Entrepreneurs on The Whiteboard!

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