Women and POC small business owners find relief in RISE grants

For Jessica Graves, having to shut down her small business for Covid in March 2020 was just the start of the challenges she would face. Like many small businesses, the owner of Una Biologicals in Lawrenceville applied for federal Paycheck Protection Program loans and other grants to try to keep her staff on the payroll.

The beauty and wellness shop survived the height of the pandemic, but a fire at neighboring Pesaro’s Pizza in March 2021 forced Graves to close its Butler Street doors again.

“It happened almost a year to the day after we closed for Covid,” says Graves. “The ides of March were real for Una.”

Graves is just one of 100 recipients of a $10,000 grant from Comcast RISE. The $1 million grants were awarded to businesses in Allegheny County owned by women and people of color. The program aims to ease the burden of the pandemic as well as current economic conditions for business owners who face inequities in obtaining capital and other resources.

“I think it’s really important financially that (Comcast) targets, you know, women and minorities in particular, because they’re just less likely to get funding, in general,” Graves says. “It’s a nice boost to have that positivity and to see a society engaging small businesses and to see the city getting excited about them.”

Inside Una’s new location. Photo courtesy of Una Biologicals.

last fall, Una Biologicals moved to its new location just down the street at 3707 Butler St. In addition to its boutique, Una also operates a manufacturing facility in Homewood. Graves began making products in his kitchen nearly 20 years ago and began selling in the Strip District in 2008. His first store opened in Lawrenceville in 2015.

Una Biologicals is also involved in the community through its Dolly Days campaign. For every sale of Diamond Girls, a Dolly Parton-inspired lotion, Graves donates $5 to an Allegheny County nonprofit serving women, children and welfare.

Another female entrepreneur benefiting from a RISE grant is Jen Saffron, the owner of Sprezzatura Pittsburgha cafe at 112 E. Sherman St in Millvale. Sprezzatura also provides catering and wholesales.

“It’s easy to think Covid is over,” Saffron says. “The high positivity rate in Allegheny County is not helpful for food-related businesses. Supply chain volatility and the disruption of food production on a global scale make the task even more difficult. Inflation and all of these impacts on small independent businesses are real. Small businesses are at the heart of the American mainstream.

Saffron hosted an in-café information session about the Comcast RISE grant and decided to apply after the event.

“To have Comcast rise under those of us who have borne the brunt is so uplifting,” Saffron said.

Sprezzatura will use the $10,000 to improve the cafe, including revamping the menu and preparing for fall and winter. Safran also wants to open the Millvale Market, a small grocery store in a community that lacks it. Millvale Market currently operates from Sprezzatura during normal restaurant hours.

Carlton Falconer Jr. has specific goals for the grant he receives. He is the owner of Carlton speaksa business he started in 2018 after becoming a life coach.

Carlton Falconer Jr.

Carlton Falconer Jr. wearing his Carlton Speaks product. Courtney photo of Carlton Falconer Jr.

Falconer started in 2016 as a Christian blogger and became an associate minister at Mount Ararat Baptist Church in August 2018.

Carlton Speaks focuses on Christian leadership, life coaching and female empowerment, as well as fitness training.

Falconer will use the grant to revitalize its website to reach more people as well as restock its clothing line which aims to inspire women.

“It’s hard to put into words,” Carlton says. “I am honored to have been chosen over all the companies. I know some companies and some people. Being part of this group of people in Pittsburgh means a lot.

Sara Eve Rivera is the owner of Positive mental attitude tattoo at 637 Broadway Avenue in the Township of Stowe. Rivera says the shop focuses on custom tattoos in a calm, predictable, and relaxing environment. She focuses on floral tattoos, camouflages and touch-ups. At any time, Rivera is booked three months.

Rivera stresses the importance of being a community-focused business and volunteers weekly at the Sto-Rox Mural Project and participates in ballot initiatives.

The store also has a free insulated cooler outside the store in partnership with pure food.

For Rivera, the next big mission is accessibility to their space, which currently doesn’t have a ramp to the door.

The exterior of the Positive Mental Attitude Tattoo shop.

Positive mental attitude tattoo on Broadway Avenue in Stowe Township. Photo courtesy of Sara Eve Rivera.

“We have clients who use walkers or chairs,” says Rivera. “They have been so patient with us over the past few years as we have tried to install an accessible bathroom and ramp. This grant has been the most exciting thing this year to be able to fund this.”

Rivera says the grant came at a time when they are struggling to work with banks.

“I have great credit, I have virtually no debt, I’m in my ninth year of tattooing and they still won’t finance me,” Rivera says. “I think part of it is freelancing, but I’m also queer, Puerto Rican and heavily tattooed. It was impossible to get funding for most things. Getting this one is really exciting to have access to funds to improve our space.

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