When Port Product Lab launched in January 2020, the group’s goal was to help small Oakland business owners improve their products, whether they are a technology-focused youth training company or a catering firm that sells food and beverages. The pandemic slowed them down, but now, with funding from the Small Business Development Center, Port Product Lab has launched a 4-week incubator program and is currently working with their second cohort, who will finish on June 10.
“We’re trying to reach folks in this last year who have maybe lost their business or need to find a new revenue stream,” Ari Takata-Vasquez, program director for the Port Product Lab, said. “We’re trying to support them in the process because it’s so hard to do all that stuff on your own, in the middle of a pandemic.”
The four week program features 90 minute workshops with a focus on physical product manufacturing and shifting business models to respond to changing economic times. Participants are paired with a mentor who is also a business owner. The inaugural cohort participated from April 14 to May 12.
One of the participants was Jeadi Vilchis, a former teacher and founder of Neologix Engineering Labs, which contracts 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 last six years, Vilchis has taught students at McClymonds High School and Castlemont High School how to be a “maker,” someone who uses digital manufacturing tools and graphic design for artistic and entrepreneurial purposes.
“I went into teaching with the understanding that there’s a lot of trauma in OUSD, so I actually became a social worker at first so I could be a better teacher,” Vilchis said. “I saw that the maker movement was happening in companies, universities, and nicer schools, but that it wasn’t happening in Oakland. I’m proud to say that I’ve been a big influence for that movement in Oakland.”
For Vilchis, one of the most rewarding parts of the Port Product Lab program was working with his mentor Viola Sutanto, who runs sustainable bag company Maika Goods. With Sutanto’s guidance, he was able to plan out how he wanted to run his upcoming Maker Summer Camp Program for elementary school kids.
“I was able to customize my experience,” Vilchis said.
Vilchis hopes to expand the manufacturing portion of his business while continuing to provide learning opportunities for Oakland youth, primarily those who come from economically disadvantaged parts of the city. “This is my way of fighting gentrification, because if these kids from Oakland get good jobs and become professionals, they will be able to buy a house in Oakland and not get priced out,” he said.
Port Product Lab was founded by Sal Bednarz and a slew of Oakland-based small business owners in partnership with the local coworking company Port Workspaces and Elevator Works, a maker space. For now, the incubator program is mainly accessible for English speakers, though some of the mentors are bilingual.
Applications for the third and fourth cohorts are currently open.