I had never been to Buffalo before, and had no idea what to expect. As a New Yorker, I had only really thought of Buffalo as that other city in New York state with professional sports teams. 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 over 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 rewriting their story in more important ways. Through a multilateral effort led by grassroots organizations, non-profits, the private sector, and the government, we are seeing the economic development of the new Buffalo.
The reason I am spending my summer here is that I am a research fellow for Cornell University. Every student in my fellowship is partnered with a company in Buffalo that is dedicated towards economic revitalization. Luckily for me, I was partnered with Bak USA, a tech startup that manufactures and distributes tablets. 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 START-UP NY, a state-run initiative aimed at bringing businesses back to New York. While most tech devices (perhaps the one you are reading this blog post on) are manufactured in nations with lower wages and more lenient 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. Through the creation of tablets, the perfect intersection of manufacturing and technology, Bak USA is bringing good-paying jobs back to Buffalo.
This is a foreign concept for me, as I’ve worked with companies in the past with entirely different motives. For those companies, profit was everything. It did not matter what impact you were making on the community, as long as you were making money. This is not how things work at Bak USA. Everyone here thinks it is feasible to not only be a business leader but a community leader as well. Doing good and doing well are not mutually exclusive.
Not only is Bak trying to create jobs, they are currently focusing on hiring from a marginalized 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.
I don’t think any of the refugees we hire (we like to think of them as “new Buffalonians”) ever planned on moving to America, let alone Buffalo. However, here they are, making the most of their new situations. Despite being dealt a bad hand in the past, these new Americans are still working to maximize their future. Through the efforts of Bak USA, we are working on helping these new Americans gain a seat at the table for the new Buffalo.
I am so proud and humbled to work for the 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.
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Want to learn to love your job again? Check out career opportunities at bakusa.com/careers.