The New Revolutionaries: Hatching ideas with The Bird Haus

Imagine taking an interactive art class in Washington Park, or a class about the history of the Roebling Bridge taught on the bridge itself, or a culinary class in the kitchen of a neighbor’s cool loft apartment.

Those are just a few of the ideas hatched so far by Cat Amaro, 26, a first-time entrepreneur and founder of The Bird Haus, a migrating classroom that pairs passionate teachers who want to share their skills and interests with students in non-traditional classrooms.

Consider the Dec. 4 class offering: a one-and-a-half-hour photography class taught by an Art Academy grad that starts at Neon’s Unplugged and includes window-shopping (and image-gathering) at OTR ALOW storefronts. The cost? $8.

From figure-drawing at Smartfish Studio & Sustainable Supply to Coffee Nerdom at 1215 Wine Bar & Coffee Lab (scheduled for Dec. 9), classes tap into students’ interests and community resources.

“Not having a storefront gives teachers the opportunity to really think outside the box and create a one-of-a-kind learning environment of their own,” says Amaro, who splits her time between running TBH and serving at Enteco Emilia in O’Bryonville.

The benefits of TBH’s mobility aren’t just for the teachers, she adds. “This gives us the room and motivation to collaborate with local businesses to host classes and open up an opportunity for them to reach a broader audience.”

Amaro, who grew up in Hamilton, got the idea for TBH during a trip to New York City, where she happened upon The Brainery, a successful model of accessible, community-driven, crowdsourced education.

“I’m constantly asking myself, ‘What business concepts does Cincinnati NOT have that have been proven successful in other cities like New York, San Francisco, Chicago?’ ” she says.

“The second you walk into the Brooklyn Brainery, you see a wall decked out with ropes, yarns of different colors and textures, art supplies, huge communal tables where prospective teachers worked together to come up with their next class idea, and get this, a collaborative raised garden bed growing string beans showcased in front of their open windows that members tended to,” she says.

Intrigued and always on the lookout for business ideas that have not yet made their way to Cincinnati, Amaro went exploring.

“She was great,” says Brainery co-founder Jen Messier. “We’re always happy to chat with folks who are interested in starting Brainery-like schools, and it’s always even better to see them take shape in real life.”
Messier notes that the Brainery, which started off as a small side project, has evolved into her full-time job, a dedicated space in Brooklyn and an ever-changing menu of classes. And while expertise and interest levels vary between cities offering crowdsourced classes, some underlying commonalities connect them.

“At its most basic level, these sorts of classes are a way to learn something new in a pretty casual environment while meeting new people, and that’s a pretty universally popular thing,” Messier says.

Amaro liked what she saw, and heard, so much that when she returned to Cincinnati, she started researching. She found The Skillery in Nashville, Skillshare based in San Francisco and Leisure Learning Unlimited based out of Houston.

She connected the dots between the new breed of educational ventures and local efforts like SomoLend and Socstock. “Everyone wants to feel involved, everyone wants to make a positive impact on the community, and that’s exactly why crowd-sourced businesses work,” she says.

Next, she consulted with her entrepreneurial mentor, Bob Bonder, 31, founder of Tazza Mia and 1215 Wine Bar & Coffee Lab. He had watched her work her way up from quiet barista to manager at the downtown coffee shop and been a sounding board for some of her earlier business ideas.

He was impressed with her research and her plan to make TBH fit as a logical part of Cincinnati’s burgeoning “craft culture.”

“It’s a smart concept,” says Bonder, a former business strategist who chose to launch Tazza Mia in Cincinnati in large part because of that same untapped creative market. “You’ve got a lot of fun, smart, creative and interesting people here.”

Amaro’s work at Tazza Mia, and her move to Over-the-Rhine more than a year ago, connected her to many of those fun, smart, creative people, including Smartfish Studio & Sustainable Supply’s founder Alisha Budke.

Early on, Budke hosted a TBH figure-drawing class at Smartfish, in part because she knew Amaro from the neighborhood and wanted to be supportive of the effort.

“People are always interested in learning new skills,” Budke says. “And there is so much talent here in Cincinnati, people who are ready to share and teach.”

The class impressed Budke, who agrees that the migratory nature of the classroom not only builds community, it raises awareness of other small, local businesses. She credits Amaro for setting the tone.

“Cat is incredibly energetic, thoughtful, and kind,” she says. “Naturally this has built a strong network of support around her, and word about TBH is spreading. Also, she's done her research and knows how much work it is to run a small business.”

Amaro’s years at Tazza Mia definitely exposed her to the unpredictability and excitement of the start-up world, where Bonder saw her not only survive, but thrive. “She can work well in that entrepreneurial culture,” he says.

As he helped her work through a business plan, financials and price points, he saw how TBH capitalizes on Amaro’s skills and existing networks of creatives interested in both learning and teaching.

“I’ve been lucky to have local, positive, support from friends and others willing to share their expertise,” says Amaro, who never graduated from college. “I learn through the people, places, and experiences I encounter over time and appreciate every bit of wisdom I gain from them.”

She called on graphic designer friend, Alex Dellis-Harcha of Sugarbot Design, for logo help. Dellis-Harcha delivered a quirky winner, along with “awesome empanadas.”

Friends connected her to Ryan Meo of Sitetology, who developed TBH’s website. “I told him I wanted a website I would never get tired of looking at and most importantly, it had to incorporate two of my favorite colors—blue and orange,” Amaro says.

So far, she’s already had to cut back on shifts at the restaurant to accommodate the increasing demands of TBH. Still, Amaro wants to grow her business carefully.

“I want to start small, three to four classes a month, to get an idea of what people are more interested in signing up for,” she says. “Without a storefront, The Bird Haus has a lot of room for experimentation at a low financial risk.”

Tazza Mia’s Bonder thinks that the time is right for a venture like TBH to take off in Cincinnati, as more representatives of what he calls the “craft culture” look for reasons to invest in the city, both professionally and personally.

Amaro characterizes it as a “win, win, WIN,” for teachers, students and small businesses. “I really believe Cincinnati can benefit from The Bird Haus in creating a stronger community by learning from each other,” she says.

Elissa Yancey is an educator associate professor of Journalism at the University of Cincinnati and managing editor of
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