“Once you live in Pittsburgh and start connecting with folks, you feel the steel city mentality, and it’s hard not to embody that mindset."
With his megawatt smile and his warm demeanor, it’s only fitting that Julius Boatwright is the mental health entrepreneur behind Pittsburgh start-up Steel Smiling. Focused on bridging the gap between community members and mental health support through education, advocacy, and awareness, we thought we’d kick off his profile with a Steel Smiling mantra we can all use:
Your mental health is a priority.
Your happiness is a priority.
Your self-care is a priority.
Your existence is a priority.
Why Pittsburgh and why mental health?
I grew up an hour outside of Pittsburgh and after relocating to Vegas for a couple years, I realized that everything I knew and loved about life was in western PA. So, I came back in 2008 to attend grad school for social work. A few years following graduation, I wanted to become more involved with mental health and started working as a community-based therapist with Pressley Ridge. I learned about family dynamics and it felt like a space where I was being called to make a difference.
Why is transparency important when talking about mental health?
One of my best friends from college died by suicide and I’ve dealt with symptoms of anxiety and depression since I was a teenager. From my personal experiences and working in the behavioral health system, I recognized that we must intentionally focus on prevention. Also, there needs to be consistent conversations about mental health in our society at-large. After spending time with families in their most vulnerable moments, I wanted to highlight what type of support could help to prevent crises and connect people with the appropriate resources; that ultimately led to the birth of Steel Smiling.
Entrepreneurship is challenging, how did you get started and how did you focus your scope?
I got in my car after a family session and something told me that I needed to be doing more. I was in the Hill District and decided to approach the first black person I saw to talk with them about mental health. There was no anticipated goal; I just felt like it needed to be done. I nervously approached two women, shared my story and they invited me into their home to talk. From there, it was an organic relationship-building process.
Storytelling is where we began. We decided to focus on our black communities by sharing photographic stories that encouraged human interaction everyone could understand. We want to proactively help people strengthen their comfort level and capacity to create natural supports while connecting them with accessible resources in their community.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs?
I’ve launched entrepreneurial ventures before alone and realized the hard way that “if you build it, they will come” doesn’t always work. My best advice is to genuinely engage with people throughout the entire process and welcome input on what’s valuable for your neighbors in the community. Your foundation, relationships, and outcomes will be stronger as a result of it.
Outside of work, where are you in and around Pittsburgh?
Pitt will always be a nostalgic place. I met my wife in grad school, we got married on campus, and the university introduced me to community organizing and social work. I also recently joined Lead Now Pittsburgh, a cohort of non-profit leaders focused on self-care, personal well-being and organizational sustainability. Our sessions have helped me to be more aware of intentionally practicing mindfulness and meditation. I’m trying to take advantage of our great outdoor spaces – even if it’s chilly – in an effort to close my laptop and stop thinking about work for a moment.
On Steel Smiling and Pittsburgh:
“Our city’s history and strength are important for the community to feel connected. We’re as strong as steel, but sometimes we need support. No matter what we experience, we’re going to keep smiling and persevere together.”