Skip to content

Ep. 14: Kathy Risko, Sister Cities Association of Pittsburgh

Summer of 50 PGH Tech Stories

Kathy Risko talks about relaunching the Sister Cities Association of Pittsburgh to build better international relationship for Pittsburgh's businesses and technology communities. Thanks to Comcast for powering up #50PGHSummerStories.


So glad you're spending some time with us here on our next session, hanging out with Comcast bringing you our summer 50, Pittsburgh tech stories. I'm Jonathan Kersting. I keep saying I feel so fortunate because I can tell all these different stories, all these different angles of things they're making up Pittsburgh's tech ecosystem. And one of the things we don't often think about, but we need to be thinking about more, which is why I'm glad Kathy Risko on today is the fact that we have Sister Cities out there, the idea that there's just there are countries around the world, that we have this connection to that I think are just mean to grow, and just cultivate because we need connections around the world in order for our innovation to just go nuts as it's been doing. But I think even better, we're hanging out with people from all over the world. So Kathy Risko, you are hanging out, of course with the sister cities association of Pittsburgh, and this was a new association to me, I didn't know much about it before I met you And the more I learned about it, the more I was like, Man, this is good stuff. And I can't wait for me to learn more about it. And of course, from our listeners and our viewers to learn more about so Kathy, welcome to the show today. Thank you for taking the time.

Thank you so much for having me. This is this is a great honor. So yeah, I mean Sister Cities association of Pittsburgh is a new organization. The board created the 501 c three late in 2019. But the idea of Sister cities for Pittsburgh and our region is not a new idea at all. We, we So historically, the Sister Cities program has existed in the United States since the 50s. It evolved out of the the Eisenhower administration, and the idea was to create global citizens and global citizenry. And they were doing that by by asking cities to find cities that were like them all across the globe, and and to create these relationships that make sense. And to just have an ongoing continuing relationship.

Definitely. Definitely. It I think I think the concept is great because I feel like we need these connections in the real media mean these anchor points. So it makes it easy for us to go out into the world explore knowing that someone's got our back for hanging out like in Denali in Vietnam, right, which is one of our sister cities. So approximate how many Sister cities do we have? I won't put you on the spot to name all of them because ever changing but I know there's tons of them. And some of the things are very surprising as well tip.

It is and it's so so Pittsburgh has 20 sister cities in 18 different countries. But to be fair, not all of the sister cities at this moment in time are activated. We have strong relationships with four different Sister Cities right now. Those are Bilbao, Spain, and actually the tech council led a trip to Bilbao back in 2017. Satsuma city, Japan, which is is just adjacent to Tokyo, Danang, Vietnam, and China. So one, figure of all places a lot of places Yeah, and you know, the relationship with all of those cities is varied. If you were to Think about the the Sister Cities program is a three prong stool or a three legged stool. Those three pieces are cultural exchanges, educational exchanges and economic exchanges. And that's what makes the sister city relationship work. Yes, also a reciprocal relationship. So what we bring what Pittsburgh and our region can bring to a city across the globe. We also can learn from from a city from that city as to how they do things. So a really great example of that is, you know, Danang Vietnam has an amazing waterfront and and they've spent much of their time and effort revitalizing the waterfront. And what can Pittsburgh learn from that so many different things and look in organizations like river life, learn from organizations in Danang that are doing the same thing and facilitating those conversations is my job and it's really exciting to be able to have the opportunity to bring people together to share innovative things. interesting ideas that will further our society in many different ways.

Absolutely. I have actually some specific examples as to how this has worked. I've actually witnessed it firsthand. First and foremost was of course, as you mentioned, we did that nice trip to a bow, which we did some benchmarking. They're learning how they brought their city back through arts and culture. So no good. Many takeaways there. We had many city leaders and cultural leaders that went on that trip with us. And I think the exchange that happened there could have only happened because there are people in Bilbao that welcomed us and showed us around and made connections and very long lasting and most recently with sadness in Japan. They had a group of folks in Pittsburgh touring different Pittsburgh tech companies. We showed them around and then they invited us back there to talk about robotics. I've actually brought Gecko robotics with us back to Santa. So it was really fun to see this back and forth, they want us to go back again. Then the whole COVID thing kind of, we kind of had to put that on ice for just a little bit. But we know eventually we will all get back to international travel hopefully, you know in the near future and we can begin visiting these other countries in Built in more of these relationships, hopefully soon, I mean, I come from a family that spent a lot of time traveling internationally. I've done it since I was young. So I've been very fortunate. And the idea that I can't go where I want to go, yeah, it's very, you know it. I feel like you're a little bit in a box, right. But, you know, it's also been a very interesting time. So it hasn't stopped the momentum of Sister cities. It's just created us a different opportunity. It's allowed us to think in a very different way and to pivot to what makes sense now during COVID. So, you know, a really good example of that is I was actually on the I was on a zoom call last night, it started at 930 at night with our friends in Danang Vietnam, right. And, and we were talking about their recent trip, that we were supposed to go to Danang this year for a mayor's conference, and there's also a tech conference that they were going to put on that you Your esteemed colleague, Audrey Russo was hopefully going to be a speaker. Yeah, it's now been moved to 2021. And we were talking about having Audrey speak at that conference. But, um, so we've put off the plans a little bit, but they also said to us, you know, it would be really interesting when they were here. Last year. We, Pittsburgh City Council and the mayor's office declared dinning, Pittsburgh sister city day, and that was on August 21. And so they want us to help them put together a zoom call with elected officials here and elected officials there to celebrate dinning sister city day on on August 21. And, you know, so that's just another way that we can continue to have a relationship and strengthen our relationship in this, this time when we're all looking at each other on on screen. So, so that's exciting. And one of the other things that we're doing is so Doha, Qatar is not a sister city. It's work however, we have been talking to representatives at the embassy multiple times this spring. And we are anticipating hopefully being able to bring the ambassador and a small delegation to Pittsburgh this fall, assuming everything is okay with travel. And, and and to set up that meeting, we are proposing a series of zoom calls around those three pillars that I talked about, you know, culture arts and economics. And so those will happen in July August, September leading up to this visit so that we, you know, again, can strengthen the relationship so that when they do get here, it's not, we don't have to spend a whole lot of time Hello, I am that sort of thing, but rather dig into to how we can work together. So we'll have someone looking for different ways to be able to facilitate these these relationships during this interesting time.

I love the fact that you're not letting the lack of travel keep you from building relationships. So what's your background what obviously you mentioned before that you want to traveling National traveling in your days, what's your background and what got you so interested in leading this pretty cool.

So, um, so I am the first executive director of the inaugural executive director of the sister cities Association in Pittsburgh. Just so you know, in the past, the Sister Cities program for Pittsburgh has has been housed in the mayor's office or at one point in time, it was actually housed at the Ura. And so, this when when Mayor peduto, two years ago asked my board chair Jim Wolf, if he would help to reinvigorate the Sister Cities program for Pittsburgh, he said yes, and he brought together a group of volunteers, and they have spent a lot of time getting this organization to a place where they could hire an inaugural executive director, I started on May 1, so I started in the middle of COVID and this international job and, and, and you know, as I've been saying, like the pivot has been interesting, but my background is I'm a I've been in the nonprofit sector in the Pittsburgh region for 2020 odd years. I'm a native pittsburgher and I have worked in just about every interesting different sector in the in the nonprofit world. I worked for leadership Pittsburgh for a number of years. I was also a startup, Executive Director of an organization called connect the Congress of neighboring communities, which was out of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs pit, which was an effort to get the city of Pittsburgh and the municipalities that share a border with the city to work together to address common public policy issues. So I've worked in public policy. I've worked in women's health care. You know, I recently before this, I've been teaching I taught it W and J. And I also teach it Gatsby at Pitt, and I was working as a consultant. One of my big clients was eco districts, which is a nonprofit that's based in Portland, Oregon, that looks at sustainability metrics for neighborhoods and how to build a neighborhood, bringing everybody with you. So I have kind of this wide range of different experience working with with local governments. Working with nonprofit organizations working with foundations. And, yeah, it's been a it's been an interesting career. When I graduated from Pitt, I also did my graduate at Pitt, and worked there for many years. So I say it's the institution I've spent more time at than anywhere else. And I still teach there. You know, I thought I was gonna go to the CIA, and I was going to be a, you know, go into international studies and do something there. And I had an internship on Capitol Hill with with Congressman Mike Doyle. And all of a sudden, it was like, domestic politics are so interesting. And so that kind of got me into that role. And then, and then, you know, it just expanded from there. I worked for the United States Senate for a while and I did immigration work there. So, you know, I kind of always had that bug. The travel piece has always been personal. You know, my family traveled a lot. My husband and I travel extensively as much as we can and, and this was just, you know, this job just seemed to be the perfect fit. For me. It all brings together all the different kind of tentacles what you're doing before into this new thing. Which I think is get this thing up and rolling and we will start traveling again, I'm looking forward to seeing where people are from around the world coming to Pittsburgh, and us going out and visiting these other places because that's one thing that Adi Russo has taught me is the fact that getting out there is such an important thing. It's so important in our borders here because it just opens your mind and opens their minds not when good things really start to happen.

That's exactly it. I mean, you it's not people aren't, aren't, don't seem as different when you spend time when you go to their house and sit down and have a meal. It's you know, and some of the most interesting people I've met in my life has been people who I bumped into in, you know, in foreign countries where there were no tables, and we had space and they sat down and that's how like some of our best friends who live in Tuscany, who we've spent multiple, you know, visits visiting and and you know, and it was just this random encounter, you know, before we went to Oktoberfest, so it's fun to Stuff like that. And that's, I mean, that's the magic of have the opportunity to immerse yourself in other cultures and, and, and really learn learn from other people. So, in your, in your opinion, how important is it for our tech industry to have these international connections? I mean, I know it's a pretty obvious answer, but I got to hear from the expert here.

I mean, you can't even quantify it, right? I mean, when you talk about, well, let's take the example of Doha, for example. One of the you know, Samuel obviously has a campus in education city. But whenever we were talking to people at the embassy and saying, what makes you interested in exploring Pittsburgh, and maybe, maybe us becoming a sister city of Doha? You know, they said, you know, very simply like, there's there's two or three things one is the technology sector here, they want to learn more about our robotics sector they want, you know, they want to visit Duolingo they want to visit Argo AI. You know, they're they're really interested in the technology that's coming out of the universities here and the research that's coming out of the university. He's here. And then the other thing is, is they're really interested in the sustainability that our city has embraced. Right? So, you know, the UN SDG goals, the hundreds of Resilient Cities, eco districts, all of those, you know, our city saying our region saying that we we believe it's really important for us to look at sustainability for a future strategy or current strategy, but a future strategy for our region is really important. They also are looking at cities that are you know, and this is something that when we look at other sister cities, we take into account Are they a smart city? Or are they are they embracing the ideals of a smart city and and in what way and again, what can we learn from them? These relationships are really important in the sense that they have to be reciprocal. It can't just be Pittsburgh, getting something out of the relations in the back has to be, you know, will hand getting something out of the relationship for demand getting something out of the relationship. And, you know, we were we're also You know, one of the things that we're doing, hopefully next spring, it was supposed to happen in the spring, but we're partnering with UPMC, to do a medical symposium. And so we're going to bring doctors from 10 different countries to Pittsburgh in the spring, to talk about all sorts of different, you know, innovations in, in healthcare. And of course, we would be remiss if we didn't talk about vaccine research, if we didn't talk about, you know, everybody's response to COVID. And what does that mean? And how can we help each other so, so, you know, there's lots of different opportunities, you can you can basically pick up any bucket, it can be the technology bucket, it can be the, you know, the cultural bucket, it can be the healthcare bucket, I you know, it almost doesn't it almost doesn't matter and say, What are you doing that we can learn from and vice versa. So, in that sense, it's really exciting and, and, you know, the tech sector gives Pittsburgh in our region, an edge, it makes people look at us, maybe twice, three times. And, you know, there's still people who think oh, we still think Pittsburgh is this Dirty kind of, you know, industrial city and when you're wrong, are you kidding me? Like, you know, it hasn't been that way since I was this big. So, you know? Yeah, I mean, it's, it's really, it's really an interesting time to be able to promote our region in a way that is that, you know, on a global scale is just, I'm very honored to have the opportunity.

Very cool stuff. I just love to talk about this. It gets me all fired up. So one of the things we like talking about here as part of our summer of 50, Pittsburgh tech stories with Comcast is we're trying to figure out ways to bridge the digital divide. And I think we can go a bit beyond that here. So I think the idea how do we get more kids interested in international opportunities and expose them to the fact that there's cultures around the world and people from around the world that that have great ideas and solutions and that this could be a good back and forth.

So there's, there's, there's actually I feel like you sent me up. There's actually two, two cities that we're currently exploring an educational exchange We'll help to, to, to, to meet that digital divide. One is to name Vietnam and the other is Sachin city, Japan. So in both cases, we have a school with such a city. We're working with Pittsburgh public schools when they were here last fall, they met with Superintendent Hamlet and talked about what an exchange could be between high school age students in Pittsburgh public schools and in a school in in Santa Ana city. And some of that exchange has been interesting. They've been using Marco Polo, which are videos, short videos, because the time difference is really a struggle right for this for these students. So if they can make a short video talk about something they're interested in and watch later, later, vice versa. So you know, technology is really helping us with you know, especially at this point in time, but but even ongoing with the time change, you know, like I said, I was on the phone with with people in Danang last night at 930 our time we got off at 1030. I mean, that was nine o'clock 930 in the morning for them, they're there 1112 hours depending on you know. And, you know, that's, that's pretty significant. So looking for ways that technology can help us facilitate those conversations is really great beyond email. And it's not that we can't do zoom calls, definitely we will but but creating those exchanges are really, really important. And it's especially important to instill that in in young students so that they grow up with a love of, you know, understanding that travel can be really exciting people meeting people who are different, new is really important eating foods that you might go. I'm not so sure about this, but I'm gonna try. Really, really important. And that's just kind of the next step to making our region more global. So, so we're looking for opportunities. So I mean, honestly, if there are if there are other technologies out there that we're not thinking about that are some of your viewers are thinking, yeah, definitely, we would love to hear because we're looking for opportunities. For the students to talk to each other, I love it. And I said, I had such joy telling these stories because this is one of these little things that kind of weaves in and out of everything that we do that goes to show you that we need to have these international connections. Pittsburgh is going to become an even bigger global city, we need that it's not like you've got to be we're going to do it. And you're setting the foundations are so much that work Kathy and I can't thank you enough for taking the time being part of our Comcast summer of 50 Pittsburgh tech stories today. Good stop all the way around.

Happy to be with you. Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk about this amazing organization and and giving me the opportunity to promote you know, Pittsburgh on a on a global level. And you know, these things are, this is really important. And it's really important now more than ever, I think that it's it that in a time when the whole world is facing, you know, one kind of global crisis, that we have the opportunity to talk to each other and that we can talk to each other honestly and we can talk to each other with trust. And we have those relationships because we already set those relationships up. And that's, that's incredibly important and, and will serve us also so well. So organizations like Sister cities across the United States, not just in the Pittsburgh region but across the United States is so important for how we are going to go to the next place to be able to to deal with issues that are that are so big that are that are bigger than any of our cities. Good stuff. I can't thank you enough.

Thank you.

Transcribed by