Dressed for Success

How a Libraries Workshop Helped Launch a Costumer’s Creative Business

Jimmy McKee and Ashley Werlinich

Derek St. Pierre entered the final year of their MFA in Costume Production with an ambitious plan for their thesis project: to combine their interest in unique swimwear and their passion for the queer community into a gender-inclusive small business. The challenge? Their background was in the arts, not business, and finding widely-available introductory resources to explore entrepreneurship was proving to be difficult.

Then they learned about the Arts x Entrepreneurship workshop series presented by the University Libraries — and it looked like just the solution they needed to jumpstart their process.

English and Drama Liaison Librarian Ashley Werlinich and Entrepreneurship Librarian Jimmy McKee, who led the workshop series, had prepared a multi-part crash course on a variety of topics: copyright, promotion, funding, grant-writing, and more. Over the course of four sessions — one in fall 2022 and three in spring 2023 — they introduced artists and dreamers from across Carnegie Mellon to some of the most important basics that come into play when bridging the gap between hobby and business.

“Ashley and I both have artistic and creative passions, but neither of us has a business-related background. So, we thought this could be a great way to engage with community members that might identify in a similar fashion!” McKee said. “Fortunately, many of our community members view the library as a neutral, disciplinary-agnostic space. We’re able to leverage this to facilitate an additional onboarding ramp for people to develop entrepreneurial skills and foster their spirits.”

The series was tailored to entrepreneurs working in the arts, exploring ideas like how to curate your social media presence to fit your brand and how to anticipate how many products are needed for a convention. Another topic covered was the SWOT analysis — a method for exploring the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of an aspiring company. It even highlighted other robust support structures on campus — such as the Swartz Center and Project Olympus — as excellent next steps for aspiring business owners.

“For me, the main takeaway was that there are codified ways to establish a business, proven road maps and guides,” St. Pierre said. “There’s not one right way — you have to make choices about the best tools and resources for your specific needs — but it’s also not a total mystery that you have to navigate on your own.”

Another lesson St. Pierre explored through the workshop was the importance of understanding your audience.

“I’ve always felt so indebted to the queer community, especially in Pittsburgh, for creating so much space for me to peel back parts of my identity and explore feelings of euphoria and safety. But I’ve felt more like a consumer, and have always wanted the chance to give back,” they explained. “Through the Libraries’ workshops, I built a profile of a customer that is very specific not just in demographics, but in what their needs are. I learned to explore what problem in a customer’s life has not been solved yet with a product, and how you can orient your product to better fit that need and serve them.”

Costumes on a rack

In the months since the workshops, St. Pierre has joined a number of other entrepreneur-focused initiatives, including Project Olympus's Customer Discovery Kickstarter program and the Bridgeway Capital First Leap program. These have reinforced the lessons introduced by Werlinich and McKee, diving deeper into critical topics and helping St. Pierre get ready to launch the first line of products from Hon! Swimwear in the coming months.

Derek St. Pierre“I would really recommend Libraries workshops, especially the entrepreneurship series, if you’re looking for a unique, accessible way to explore a new area.” they said. “Ashley and Jimmy’s focus on bringing the arts and entrepreneurship together was really special, because it’s not something I saw anywhere else on campus.”

This semester, members of the CMU community will have another opportunity to participate in the Arts x Entrepreneurship workshops. There are four upcoming sessions: an overview session on September 20, an introduction to product photography and videography on September 27, a workshop on calculating rates on October 4, and a final session on October 25 breaking down an artist’s relationship with money.

“This year, I’m really looking forward to giving participants the chance to learn from our guest speakers, who are experts in the field. It’s incredibly useful to bring in other voices who have different skills to share,” Werlinich said. “I’m also excited that we were able to fit in a more technical skills-based course — we’ve never incorporated photography and videography before. It’s a skill we all might think we have, but there's so much more to good product photography and videography than people ever anticipate!”

Register for this year’s Arts x Entrepreneurship workshop series to take your own business ideas to the next level, or check out additional workshop offerings to explore other topics and skills.

by Sarah Bender, Communications Coordinator