A New Way of Doing Business

June 28, 2016
Hal Schwimmer

I had never been to Buffalo before, and had no idea what to expect. In my head, I romanticized the idea of a former industrial jewel, now turned industrial wasteland. Vacant lots, abandoned factories, and grey skies as the backdrop for the depressed locals as they try to trudge on.

Well I have been here for almost a month now, and I am pleased to report that the perception in my head of Buffalo was completely inaccurate.

As we have just seen with Cleveland (#BelieveLand!), a city can completely change its narrative in the blink of an eye. And while Buffalo has no basketball team, they are changing their narrative in many other ways. Through this fellowship, I am seeing the new Buffalo, and its new ways of doing business.

My partner company is Bak USA, a tech startup that manufactures and distributes tablets. Out of all the High Road fellows, I am the only one working with a for-profit company (the other fellows constantly remind me of this). However, in many ways Bak acts just like a non-profit. They have a different way of doing business. They have a triple bottom line- people, planet, profit. This company tries to make money, but not at the expense of helping their employees and the community at large. In fact, that is the reason this company began.

Bak is partnered with STARTUP NY, a state-run initiative aimed at bringing businesses back to New York. While most tech devices (such as the one you are reading this blog post on) are manufactured in nations with lower wages and fewer labor laws, Bak USA is trying to bring manufacturing jobs back to America. This is quintessential Buffalo, a city who saw a rise to prominence in the 20th century on the back of a strong manufacturing sector. However, the old manufacturing jobs are gone, and will never come back. That doesn’t mean Buffalo’s manufacturing days are behind it, though. While Americans can no longer build as many car parts as they were in the past, they certainly can build more tech devices than ever before.

Not only is Bak trying to create jobs, they are currently focusing on hiring from a very important group of people. To make the tablets, Bak hires refugees. These are not just the Syrian refugees you read about in the news, but rather from all over the world. I thought Cornell was diverse, but I think Bak has them beat. I have met people from Central and South America, the Middle East, Africa, and countless other regions on the globe. I have gotten to know them, and heard their stories. Today the Buffalo News came to get interviews for a long-form piece on the economic challenges refugees in Buffalo are facing. I heard two Bak employees, a woman from Cuba and man from Ethiopia, speak about their hardships.

A million thoughts rushed through my head as I sat and listened. There were five of us just sitting in the room, speechless. We were too overwhelmed by the raw emotions in these stories.  All I can tell you is that I will never complain about anything ever again. I really appreciate what this organization is doing, because it is a task that most companies too often neglect. I urge you all to read the article in the paper when it comes out.

There are so many people in Buffalo that need help, and as ambitious as we are, we can’t help them all. There are economically depressed areas across the city, full of people whose time in Buffalo goes back generations. And now there is a constantly growing population of refugees who also need to share this city’s resources. How can the new Buffalo be prosperous for everyone?

Personally, I am optimistic. If there’s one unifying trait I have seen in all the people I have met here, it is determination. Be it the grass-roots organizations trying to strengthen their communities, or the politicians working on groundbreaking legislature, or the good folks at Bak, all the Buffalonians here are on a mission to save their city. We cannot fix everything tomorrow, but we sure can try. And one thing that will help expedite this process is an influx of new perspectives. The new Buffalo is importing in minds from across the globe. Immigrants are bringing in new cultures and customs. Danish families are starting tech companies. Research fellows from Cornell are providing cheap labor (I kid, I kid).

I am so proud and humbled to work for such an inspiring company that is Bak USA. As this organization grows, more jobs will be created and more money will be pumped into the local economy. More families will be able to live fulfilling lives. More people will want to stay in Buffalo, and others will want to move here and make this place their home. This is what is possible when corporations operate with a social justice motive.

I am cherishing my opportunity to spend the summer in such a unique city to both learn and work. There is so much we are doing here to help revitalize a city. The projects I am working on will soon impact many families from very diverse backgrounds. I can easily envision a not-so-distant future where every citizen of Buffalo has a seat at the table. I am excited, because Buffalo is Bak! Sorry, I had to.