If you had told me a year ago that my internship last summer would include helping a homeless man with his garden and building a cornhole game from scratch, I would have scratched my head and wondered what I was getting into. Until last summer, I had associated startups with young energy pouring over code and preparing pitches for VCs. My internship at The Foundry through the ILR High Road Fellowship challenged all my old notions of progress and what startups should look like. When you step into The Foundry, you hear metal becoming custom bikes, saws turning driftwood into public benches, and teenagers putting up drywall.
Located on the East Side of Buffalo, NY, The Foundry is a startup that is a community space and business incubator with a trade-based focus. Through its mentor program, metal shop, woodshop, and fiber arts studio, The Foundry helps people start product-based businesses. With a special focus on women and minority-owned businesses, The Foundry strives to incubate the community around it. The East Side of Buffalo is known for its poverty and vacant lots. Right next to The Foundry, a homeless man inhabited one of these vacant lots and lived in a tent of blue tarps. It was not long until we we exchanged hellos multiple times a day and he started opening up to me about what he wanted to see in his garden.
The Foundry was started by Megan McNally, a Buffalo native who graduated Barnard College with a desire to become a woodworker. She set her Ivy League degree aside and attended Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Vermont. After building sustainable homes around the United States, she returned to the house she had purchased (at age 20!) on the East Side of Buffalo from a foreclosure sale. The house was next to an old warehouse that once was a laundry. When the building went for sale, McNally saw an opportunity to transform it into something her struggling community could use, and The Foundry was born. Not only does The Foundry help people start businesses, but it also helps teenagers learn trade skills through collaborating with the Western NY YouthBuild Program.
The Foundry is three years old and very much in the startup phase. My project over the summer was to canvass nearby streets to educate local people about The Foundry and find out how the organization could better serve them. This hands-on work was exciting but also frightening because it involved approaching people I did not know and assuring them I was not trying to hurt them or sell anything. Gaining legitimacy and trust from those around you is something every individual and startup faces, and as I explained what The Foundry is to people who lived just a few houses down from it, I learned this work never truly ends.
One of the greatest startup lessons I learned at The Foundry is the difficulty between keeping current customers and community members engaged while also reaching more people. This is especially important to nonprofits which thrive on loyal donor bases. One effective way The Foundry addressed this challenge was through a fundraiser. Both people who knew about The Foundry from its beginning to new people who just moved to Buffalo came to bid at a silent auction for little libraries. Another way The Foundry reached more people at the fundraiser was by co-hosting the event with another nonprofit in the area. This way, supporters of each organization were introduced to the work and staff of the other, building more support for both organizations.
Finally, The Foundry taught me that there is always a level of discomfort and uncertainty present when operating a startup. Starting a business – especially a socially driven one – involves becoming competent in both business matters as well as social ones. Understanding the racial, political, and economic demographics of where a business operates and the people it serves (hopefully there is overlap here!) is crucial to its success. Nonprofit and socially driven businesses commonly have people solicit and expect help from them that is outside the business’ missions and budgets. Maintaining a positive reputation within communities while fielding these requests is difficult. While difficult, it is not impossible.
Learn more about the Cornell ILR High Road Fellowship (open to undergraduates across colleges) here.