PITTSBURGH — Rosemary Mendel’s job is getting kids excited about robotics, a technology at the heart of her city’s innovation economy.
Mendel grew up in New Castle, Pa. and attended the University of Pittsburgh. Enamored with the city, she decided to stay after graduation. She spent most of her early career in non-profit development before joining BEST Robotics, a tuition-free program that gets kids interested in science and engineering by teaching them to build their own robots.
As executive director, she leads BEST (Boosting Engineering Science & Technology) Robotics’ Pittsburgh headquarters. Home to Carnegie Mellon’s Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing Institute, Uber’s self-driving car operation, and numerous robotics startups, Pittsburgh is a hotbed of the industry. BEST Robotics extends beyond Pittsburgh though; the program is licensed in over 45 cities around the country.
“BEST’s mission is to inspire, engage and excite students in the pursuit of STEM majors and ultimately, STEM careers,” Mendel said. “BEST’s vision is to have a positive impact on the much-needed future, well-trained technology workforce.”
Mendel answered our questions for this Pittsburgh Profile, a series of Q&As with some of the most influential people and interesting characters we meet during our month-long “HQ2” project. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.
What do you love about Pittsburgh and what would you change?
Mendel: I love the two degrees of separation that enables you to connect with anyone and the collaborative nature of Pittsburgh’s businesses and nonprofit organizations. I also love the blend of traditional values combined with forward-thinking innovation and activity by our start-ups and higher eds. The only thing I would change about Pittsburgh is that I’d add a beach.
Favorite Pittsburgh spot?
Mendel: In the paddock at the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix in Schenley Park with my husband and our friends who compete in vintage race cars in the longest-running vintage road race in the world, next to the Monaco Historics.
Favorite Pittsburgh celebrity?
Mendel: No one will ever replace, in my heart, former Pittsburgh Steeler great, LC Greenwood, a member of the 1970’s Steel Curtain; whom I had the honor of calling a friend. He exemplified how Pittsburgh, as a community, embraces our transplanted professional athletes, who after retirement, call Pittsburgh home and continue to contribute to the vibrancy of the community. Sadly, we lost him in 2013, but number 68’s spirit will forever be a part of the fabric of Pittsburgh.
Best food in Pittsburgh?
Mendel: First — around my dining room table with great friends. Second — Brunch at Meat & Potatoes. And too many others to name — we have great restaurants in Pittsburgh
Best insider tip for transplants?
Mendel: Pittsburgh is an incredibly friendly city — don’t be afraid to ask directions, speak to a stranger in a bar, ask for a restaurant recommendation. You’ll be surprised at how easy it is to make friends. And be sure to buy a Terrible Towel!
Favorite Pittsburgh word or phrase?
Mendel: ‘N’at — can follow any sentence, e.g. “Our band plays rock and blues ‘n’at”
Pittsburgh’s most important innovation or invention?
Mendel: Duolingo, because when we advance the ability to communicate across language barriers, we enable every other possibility
How would you describe the tech, innovation and startup activity taking place in Pittsburgh to an outsider who hasn’t experienced it?
Mendel: I think often outsiders have a perception of Pittsburgh being a blue-collar town and carry this idea that it’s gritty, that people are all toiling away at industrial jobs and that survival here comes at a slow pace. What’s really happening here now with the tech, innovation and startup activity is a matter of modernizing the act of “rolling-up our sleeves and getting it done.” The way in which people and ideas are working together in this city is nothing short of phenomenal. The work ethic (back to those traditional values) hasn’t changed, but the methodology has. The energy that surrounds and comes out of that work has created a great shared sense of ingenuity and accomplishment — and pride — not unlike what we see and feel when one of our sports teams head to the championships.
What do you think are the chances of Amazon HQ2 ending up in Pittsburgh?
Mendel: I’m not going to take a bet on that, but I’d love to see it happen. Certainly, we have many of the assets in place that make it an attractive possibility.
Can you tell us about any memorable experiences you had in Pittsburgh that illustrate the character and nature of the city and its tech/startup/engineering community?
Mendel: When I worked at UPMC in the 80’s, I remember a young surgeon who was being interviewed about one of the first microscopic surgeries performed. He told the reporters that the next generation of surgeons would be more skilled than he, because they play video games. At that moment, it struck me how technology would play such a significant role in every industry in the future, including medicine. Just recently, UPMC’s announcement of new specialty hospitals highlighted the significance of science and technology in the future of healthcare.
If you were parachuting into Pittsburgh as a tech/business reporter, what’s the first story you’d want to cover? Who is the first person you’d want to sit down with?
Mendel: First Story: Out of Silos and Into Our Psyches, Will the Forefront of Technology Push the Human Experience to the Next Level?
First Person I’d want to sit down with: Could this be a panel? I feel there’s a great conversation to be had while exploring cause and effect theories from both the technical and the psychological, or human, side. We’re at a point when we can hypothesize about how AI and humans communicate and interact may change the nature of our relationships and lives. I find conversations with friends over dinner have veered to how does morality get programmed into the algorithms governing the decisions self-driving cars make? With Uber and Argo AI, to name just two —these are relevant conversations in our community. While BEST is not just about robots, robotics companies are a huge part of the tech community in Pittsburgh. Some people express fears about what happens to humans as robots get “smarter.” I would love to be part of the discussion where these ideas come to light, and hear the tech community’s take on those issues which are rising to the forefront of our consciousness of technology advancement.
Any other advice for us as we run GeekWire HQ2 in Pittsburgh?
Mendel: Immerse yourselves in the community and we will embrace you. Oh, and also, try the pazckis at Oakmont Bakery, the cannoli at Moio’s, the coffee at La Prima Espresso and the almond torte at Prantl’s!