When the Port Product Lab was founded in January 2020, the group’s goal was to help small business owners in Oakland improve their products, whether it is a technology-driven youth training company or a catering company that sells food and beverages. The pandemic has slowed them down, but now Port Product Lab has launched a 4-week incubator program with funding from the Small Business Development Center and is currently working with its second cohort, who will start on Nov.
“We’re trying to reach people over the past year who may have lost their business or are looking for a new source of income,” said Ari Takata-Vasquez, program director for the Port Product Lab. “We’re trying to help them because it’s so hard to do all of this alone in the middle of a pandemic.”
The four-week program includes 90-minute workshops focusing on physical product manufacturing and changing business models to respond to changing economic times. Participants are paired with a mentor who is also an entrepreneur. The founding cohort attended from April 14th to May 12th.
One of the participants was Jeadi Vilchis, a former teacher and founder of Neologix Engineering Labs, who signed a contract with the Oakland Unified School District to introduce middle and high school students to woodworking, engineering, laser cutting, graphic design and other skills. For the past six years, Vilchis has taught McClymonds High School and Castlemont High School students how to become a “doer,” someone who uses digital manufacturing tools and graphic design for artistic and business purposes.
“I started teaching understanding that there is a lot of trauma in OUSD, so I became a social worker first to be a better teacher,” said Vilchis. “I’ve seen the maker movement happening in companies, universities, and nicer schools, but not in Oakland. I am proud to say that I had a huge impact on this movement in Oakland. “
Jeadi Vilchis teaches a maker course at McClymonds High School in West Oakland. 2019 Photo credit: Jeadie Vilchis
For Vilchis, one of the most rewarding parts of the Port Product Lab program was working with his mentor Viola Sutanto, who runs the sustainable bag company Maika Goods. With Sutanto’s guidance, he was able to plan how to conduct his upcoming Maker Summer Camp program for elementary school children.
“I was able to customize my experience,” said Vilchis.
Vilchis hopes to expand his company’s manufacturing operations while continuing to provide learning opportunities for Oakland youth, especially those from economically disadvantaged parts of the city. “This is my way of fighting gentrification because if these Oakland kids get good jobs and become professionals, they can buy a house in Oakland and they won’t get priced,” he said.
Port Product Lab was founded by Sal Bednarz and a number of Oakland small business owners in collaboration with local coworking company Port Workspaces and Elevator Works, a maker space. Currently, the incubator program is mainly accessible to English speakers, although some of the mentors are bilingual.
Applications for the third and fourth cohorts are currently possible.