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Last week I sat down with Bak USA’s vice president of people, Eva Bak, so we could ask ourselves why our medium-sized company was named Buffalo’s “Best Place to Work” by Buffalo Business First. Here’s what we came up with.

The first half of our conversation wasn’t so much boastful celebration as it was a thoughtful introspection. And this, the second half of our conversation, proved to be no different, though it did take a headier turn towards the existential. Why? To find out what it means to be happy at work and in life. To share these perspectives with our customers, partners, and customers. To inspire a new era of American manufacturing that we hope will change the world.

Eva: People out in the community are wanting to know what we do here that makes it so special. We discussed comfort, but I also feel like human beings need to feel like there is room for growth to be happy. If you are in a place where you don’t see or at least envision, “Wow, in one year or two years I could be running a team,” or “In one or two years I could have adopted two or three new skills that put me at a new level in my career”—if you don’t have that, that could cause problems. The fact that people have that here is a reason [we won the award].

James: Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that—and I can’t speak for everyone, of course—but I bet everyone here would say that this isn’t just some dead-end job. We talk about Bak USA creating opportunities for people. That’s certainly always been the case for me, and like I always say, there are so many other people who work here whose stories are so much more powerful than my own, but that sense of acceptance and capability resonates with everyone, every day, which is important.

We discussed comfort, but I also feel like human beings need to feel like there is room for growth to be happy.

Eva: Yes, and so our mission is very important in our giving back to the community, but it’s also very important that part of our mission is in-house. We hire from vulnerable populations. We are around people of all different backgrounds, and we learn from them every day. Any given day you can sit down and have a conversation with someone who will teach you something, and I think that keeps people inspired on both sides. It’s not just about where you come from—everyone is learning from each other as we’re working together. And to me, if you ask me why this is a best place to work? That’s why. It’s that every single day I’ll have an opportunity to expand my mind and learn from the people I work with.

James: And we’re going to see even more future opportunities for growth together when we start to incorporate English classes through Literacy Buffalo. I was really excited to see that a lot of people who signed up for that—there were about 21 people—and not all of them are non-native English speakers. A couple of participants are Buffalo natives, which is cool.

Eva: Oh, that’s great!

James: Yes, and that tells me they want to help their co-workers, and so that must come from a very real and genuine place, especially because it’s voluntary for everyone.

It’s not just about where you come from—everyone is learning from each other as we’re working together. And to me, if you ask me why this is a best place to work? That’s why.

Eva: That’s really great. Why do you think Bak USA is the best place to work, James?

James: I can tell you why I know it’s the best place I’ve ever worked.

Eva: [Laughs.]

James: Well, Eva, when Luis discovered me…

Eva: Luis did discover you!

James: I was a broken man! On my last legs. And, you know, I had a few years of writing experience and a “failed” teaching career. I had been laid off from a pretty great job, so I was washing dishes and shaking up chicken wings to make ends meet, and I was really starting to question all the terrible decisions I made in my life. I don’t think that’s a bad way to make a living, by the way, and in fact I respect the hell out of it. It’s just a way of life that I thought I had moved on from.

Eva: Yeah, I can see that. I understand.

James: And so I applied for a lot of writing jobs, and I was very honest in my submissions, my writing samples. Perhaps too honest because I think I probably freaked a lot of people out, and in retrospect maybe that wasn’t the best way to go, but I maintained my identity. When you talk about bringing who you really are to a workplace, that’s what I was going for. Which goes both ways, I guess,  because when I found out that Bak USA is a computer company, I thought, “Gross. I don’t want to write for a computer company!” But then I read the Bak story and I learned that the opportunity to tell that story would be something really special. So I guess the point is that what seemed like a total mismatch at first turned out to be the best possible scenario—we just had to be willing to be open-minded about it. And now I get to tell the Bak story every day but in a different way, which is challenging but really rewarding. And to see that this is a place that is really growing and to be a part of that growth, to contribute, and to have the freedom to help create the voice of the company… I feel super lucky.

Eva: So for you it sounds like you get to be authentic.

James: That’s exactly right.

Eva: And that’s very rare.

James: For sure. And that’s the difference-maker.

If people aren’t psychologically and spiritually happy, that will affect the way they work.

Eva: Right! And I know what you mean, too, because I come from a background of psychology and spirituality—and then I went into a computer company. But the truth is, if you actually take those two elements, especially the psychology part, and put them inside a company, it’s very powerful because if people aren’t psychologically and spiritually happy, that will affect the way they work. And so to be able to look out for ways to help support employees in the right type of way, that’s another really big element of why people feel heard in this company. Why? Because we realize the limitations of humanity. And prioritizing things, like mental health for example—which can be a scary phrase for a lot of people—but we care about that big-time. Some managers in other workplaces might see a person and think, “Oh, she’s lazy” or something, but here we might look at someone and think, “Oh, that person is going through something. What can we do reach out and see what we can actually do to support them?

James: Yeah, and I think the teaching analogy is true there, too. If you see a student who isn’t performing consistently or seems to be struggling in one way or another, a lot of times it isn’t because they are lazy or don’t care but because there is some other underlying issue—and the opportunity to talk about it can really make a difference. When people—students or employees—assume that their general well-being isn’t a consideration of their teachers or managers, they can become frustrated and uninspired. We talked about not wanting to work at a computer company, but here we are, and that’s a testament to how Bak USA is welcoming to all different types of talented people who might not necessarily be wired for life at a tech company, but you recognize their talent and then find a good way for them to help that company succeed.

Eva: Yes, there are so many of us who come from so many different backgrounds, but we’re all coming together to “warm our hands around the same fireplace.” That’s again going back to the same point where you don’t see a closed door in front of you; you seen an open door of possibilities. And I hope that’s what people feel when they come to work here.

James: Absolutely.


For more news and notes from inside Bak USA, check out our blog page online.


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James A. Colombo III