Personalities of Pittsburgh: Wendy Burtner-Owens with Steeltown Entertainment Project

By   – Reporter, Pittsburgh Business Times on 

Photo by The Pittsburgh Business Times

Wendy Burtner-Owens worked for years in the nonprofit world before getting the lead role for one of Pittsburgh’s best-known film production promotion groups, Steeltown Entertainment Project.

For years, she lived in Virginia, working with nonprofit information clearinghouse GuideStar USA Inc., leading the CarMax Foundation and serving as COO for a bereavement camp. Her nonprofit expertise led her to Steeltown and helped land her in the top position about six months ago, taking over the role formerly held by Carl Kurlander.

A Butler native, Burtner-Owens boomeranged back to the region from Virginia to find a changed city from what she remembered. We caught up with her about Steeltown and what her favorite movie is that was made in Pittsburgh.

What prepared you the most to lead Steeltown?
The workforce and economic development. And really getting an understanding of what a region needs and is looking for. That role. But also leading a variety of different kinds of nonprofits. Steeltown isn’t your typical nonprofit, you could say. The fact that I had an opportunity to meet and work with lot of people and actually lead some different types of nonprofits I think was very helpful.

Is there a typical nonprofit?
That’s a good point. I think when people think nonprofit, they think charity, you know. And it’s helping the hungry. And animals with Sarah McLachlan, you know. Feed the Children. Those kinds of things. But obviously there are all different kinds of nonprofits. Sometimes people don’t know Steeltown is a nonprofit.

What is Steeltown today, and how does it differ from what it was in the past?
Steeltown today is really focusing on two things, but they are very related. It’s education and digital media arts, independent filmmakers, specifically. So we’re looking at high school programs, and we have a couple of adult programs under the education title. And then we are really just starting to talk to independent filmmakers again. We had the Film Factory, which was the screenwriting competition several years ago. It was before my time here. … Now we’re taking a look at (independent filmmakers) and saying, “okay what do you guys need here? As a community, what can we do for you?”

What are your biggest goals for Steeltown?
So I think right now I’m really focused on the filmmaker side of it. What can we do that we’re not doing? Is there a gap there now that these filmmakers are feeling? And then looking at the kids. I think that we’ve identified there that it’s serving more kids. And we talked to some people in different neighborhoods around Pittsburgh about coming in and doing (our) program.

Is there a void that you think you need to fill with what’s happened with Pittsburgh Filmmakers, which has cut back and faced challenges?
That’s what we want to find out. I think that’s what we’re hearing. Individuals are kind of saying to me, “hey, can you do this?” … But you have to look at again, and is it doable? If it didn’t work the first time around with another organization, then should we pick up a broken program and try to implement it? I really want to talk to the filmmakers and say what do you really need us to be doing? That we’re not doing already.

Is it common for nonprofits to get themselves in over their heads with whatever they’re trying to do?
That’s the nature of nonprofits. People who start nonprofits have missions. Big dreams. They want to eradicate diseases. They want to help people. They want to help animals. Just by their very nature of how it starts. I think the answer to your question is yes. The biggest limiting factor that you’ll see again and again is funding. I think that’s true on the business side, too, though, when you talk about entrepreneurs who have these wonderful ideas for these great products and services and they can’t convince an investor or a bank to lend them money. It’s a very similar kind of thing. And if you don’t have a good plan and you don’t have good budgeting and you’re not paying attention, then it can get overwhelming. And sometimes something happens that is completely out of your control. Nonprofit founders in particular, but most people attracted to working in the nonprofit sector, tend to dream big and tend to be kind of optimists at heart.

Title: President and CEO, Steeltown Entertainment Project
Education: B.A., human service administration, Chatham University
Residence: South Side
Family: Son, Teddy, 23
Causes: Board, Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse
Interests: Reading; volunteer for the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University