RECAP: So you want to start your own business?

March 2, 2022

Three self-starter GSPIA alums recently returned to campus to talk with current students in a panel event called “So you want to start your own business” to answer questions and inspire current students with entrepreneurial ambitions.

Sloane Davidson (Hello Neighbor), Brittany Cheeks (Peaceful Periods), and Justin Forzano (Open Field), three successful founders of their own nonprofits, shared their unique perspectives, journeys, and reflections on how their time at GSPIA helped them shape their visions and achieve their goals.

Before she became the Founder and CEO of Hello Neighbor, Davidson (MPPM ‘17) enrolled GSPIA’s mid-career master’s program because she felt the academic environment would engender space for longer thought. She knew she was meant to do something bigger with her life, she just wasn’t sure what.

Having worked in 8 different countries around the globe, Davidson found various ways to apply her knowledge of refugees and immigrants to her studies. “The best thing I did for myself at GSPIA that I constantly tell people,” she said, “is to carve out what you want for you.” By presenting her own ideas to her professors, she was able to cater her assignments toward her specific interests—one of which ended up being the proposal for Hello Neighbor.

Incubated at GSPIA and founded in 2017, Hello Neighbor is a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit committed to supporting refugees and immigrant families. Now with a federal contract, Hello Neighbor can resettle refugees in Pittsburgh from day one, the moment they step off the plane and into the city.

Brittany Cheeks (MPIA/MSW '17) founded Peaceful Periods during the pandemic, borne out of her personal struggle with debilitating menstrual pain. When she sought help from her doctor, he recommended a hysterectomy—but she was convinced that there had to be a less drastic solution.

Cheeks dedicated herself to self-studying reproductive health. By navigating various wellness decisions and techniques, and learning what worked for her body, she found natural solutions to end her pain, no surgery required.

However, Cheeks wanted her newfound knowledge to be more accessible; how many like her struggled to understand their bodies, and were misled by those they thought they could trust? Thus, she started Peaceful Periods, a period lifestyle brand. Currently running a virtual, month-long wellness course for people who want take control of their cycles, and with plans to expand in the near future, Cheeks is finding innovative ways to advocate for menstrual health and end the stigma.

Justin Forzano (MPPM '16) started Open Field in Cameroon in 2010 with co-founder Peter Ngwane shortly after completing his undergraduate degree in engineering. Committed to teaching health, leadership, and life skills through sport to youth in need, Open Field was a promising initiative, but Forzano had difficulty raising money. He eked out a few hundred dollars a month for his team abroad, but he wanted a more sustainable plan for the future of Open Field.

Forzano found a solution in the mid-career master’s program at GSPIA, where he gained the hard skills he needed to give his nonprofit more direction. He submitted work from his Project Design and Evaluation course to the FIFA Foundation and received his first grant. FIFA has since been a continuous supporter of Open Field, which led to many more grants to keep his international nonprofit alive and well.

Since graduating from the program, Forzano opened a Pittsburgh branch of Open Field, partnering with youth-serving organizations to create positive experiences for children on and off the field.