As they state on their website, The Foundry is an incubator and creative community space on the East Side of Buffalo. It provides opportunities to build a business, create arts & crafts and inspires the next generation of makers, learners and doers. Megan was nominated by BreadHive, and we wanted to know more about how she started, and why she does it. We really like what we learned.
“I’m the Executive Director and Co-founder of The Foundry. While in college, I bought a foreclosure house next door to this building. I was 20 years old at the time and started really getting into carpentry, but have always been into education and empowerment. Especially women’s empowerment. I went to an all women’s college, because when I bought this house, and got into the construction trades, I had this realization that women in the construction trades is a crazy thing that people don’t think is possible. When I was growing up, I felt like I could do anything. My parents told me I could do whatever I wanted to do. Seeing that this wasn’t exactly true was a hit in the face. I would call companies and they wouldn’t answer my questions or would ask to speak to my boss. There were so many instances that reminded me that this was real and true. All of this pushed me towards women’s empowerment and to working with youth and young girls – exposing them to the idea that they really could do what they want, even though some people might be weird or mean about it. You have to care enough about what you do to do it. Because that’s awesome. We do a lot of that here. I ended up getting really involved in teaching classes and started having professionals come into my house that I bought to teach classes on how to fix things in the house.
“I was working in the community gardens down here, which is the perfect time to get to know people as you are shoveling dirt for hours. What I learned is that one of the main concerns in this community is that there’s 50% home vacancy. Of the ones that are occupied, they’re built in the late 1800’s or early 1900’s. They need a lot of work. People would get notices from the city that their home is unsafe, but you can’t afford to hire someone to fix it. From these conversations, I thought of having a project house where people could learn about fixing walls, or plumbing, or learn about how to address citations like that from the city. I got really into that and ended up traveling around the country doing alternative building. I was building straw bale houses, adobe houses, earthships – which are off-the-grid houses built in the middle of the desert in New Mexico. They’re heated by the sun and they collect rainwater and dew into grey water systems that get filtered into drinking water. I ended up at Yestermorrow Design and Build School in Vermont. I met this retired woodworker who did about 3 jobs a year in NYC and was set the rest of the year. He built his own house and shop on the mountainside in Vermont and would go skiing a majority of the winter. I hung out with him and learned all about woodworking. I decided to start my own woodworking company when I came back home to Buffalo.”
How did you get the idea of The Foundry?
“There were a few other people who had their own businesses at the time I started my woodworking business company called Rusted Grain, which mostly made reclaimed wood furniture. I needed space and these other companies needed space, so we started renting out this warehouse. Suddenly, we realized that it was really unaffordable as a startup company to have a 25,000 square foot warehouse. We started putting out calls to see who might be interested in sharing it with us. It turns out there is not that much readily available manufacturing space available in the city of Buffalo that’s less than a 1000 square feet. What we try to offer is between 100 and 400 square feet of space. We have a varied amount of space in which people can just plug in at whatever point they are in their business. Maybe they’ll start off at 100, but then they might expand to 400, but once they outgrow that, we have to kind of bump them out.”
“You can have a lasting effect here in Buffalo. It would be a lot harder to acquire a random warehouse elsewhere. We’ve built it up over time, and we have a waiting list now. We’re renovating the second floor and will have 12 additional spaces, which are already filled. We probably need another building. We did a kickstarter campaign to help us buy this building and got 280 people to donate, which raised enough for a down payment to buy the building. Everything in here is really very community and grassroots built. We didn’t get any major funding to get a lot of stuff other than to renovate the second floor. It’s all been volunteer sweat and power.”
More about The Foundry
“The Foundry is a business incubator and community space. We focus on small businesses that are just starting up and trying to figure out an idea. It’s mostly product based companies that are looking for a space that is easy entry, low risk and already has a community that exists that will help them facilitate the creation of their business. A lot of businesses follow a lonely path when you’re doing it alone. They like to be here because there are other people here that can cheer them on. We also focus on education for the Buffalo community, but we focus more specifically on youth in poverty. We have 51% of youth in poverty in Buffalo, which is so depressing. We try to provide them with more opportunities and chances to learn about different careers and different options that they might not know about. 97% of people who start their own company have been exposed to entrepreneurship through someone else. If you’re not exposed to entrepreneurship at a young age, you have no idea that it’s a possibility for you. We’re here to shake up that thought process a little bit and to tell people to dream big. If you really do want to go and create your own business, it’s possible. Even if you just want to learn a skill and be employed in the trades, there’s a lot of good money to be made out there with skills. Those are the two main things that we do. We also have community arts events, in which we invite people to engage and try something new. We do a lot of public art where people can come in and paint something, or put some mosaics on the wall – or just get a little out of their comfort zone and feel empowered in something new.”
What keeps you going?
“Seeing somebody using a tool for the first time, and their eyes lighting up, saying “I can do this”. They’re likely coming from a family or support system doesn’t exist. Or teachers have told them they’re not good enough and they feel bad about themselves. They’re feeling like they can’t do things. We plug them into a place where suddenly they can do whatever they want. We align them with creativity and freedom, and seeing what they create out of that is just so exciting for me. They come out and say “I made the coolest thing!” Seeing that empowerment and that excitement about making something that they can show to their family and be proud of, it’s what keeps me doing this. Obviously the business incubation is exciting too. The first time someone quit their job we had a giant celebration. It was really fun. This understanding – where someone built their business to where they are now self-employed – it takes a lot of will-power and risk. The minute that they reach that point, when it happens, it’s great. It’s a cool moment. When people leave here and have their grand opening, the entire family of The Foundry comes to celebrate with them. We try to build an environment where it’s not just about your business, it’s about everyone’s business. If you don’t have friends, nobody is going to refer you. A lot of business in Buffalo is word of mouth and if you don’t have a good network of businesses that don’t care about your success, it’s going to make it harder to succeed… for the most part. Some people are lucky.”
Any predictions or goals?
“The long term goal is to try to provide additional space for people to move into. A lot of the people that grow out of here aren’t necessarily ready to hire a bunch of new employees. We want to have a second space where people could have a little more room while figuring it all out. Kind of like a Foundry 2. On the education side, we’re just really expanding in terms of our offerings. We’re growing the options for the shared shops, which are the wood shop, metal shop, fiber arts studio, pottery, paper making, and tech shops. We want to expand those opportunities and make it into a makers space, but really focused on small business incubation and empowerment for education – working with different youth programs. I’d love to see every day filled with awesome classes. Right now it’s probably twice a month that we have a youth program in here. I’d love to see different ones every day. Especially since all of the school budgets are cut in Buffalo. Where are the tech classes? McKinley is great, and gives kids trade experience. Other than that, it’s hard to find many high schools that do awesome technology stuff that get kids to think in a creative way or get kids thinking outside of the box – that maybe the trades are for me. If we can add to that mix of career exploration, I’d love to figure out a way to make that happen more often.”
While I was interviewing Megan, her husband walked in to tell her that they were awarded a 3 year grant for Youth Build. As Megan states: “Youth Build takes youth who have dropped out of high school and provides them with training to get their high school equivalency, but also teaches job skills and job readiness. For instance, they teach for nine months on how to do renovation of buildings. Megan: “The grant means that we will continue to do the work for 3 more years! There are a lot of kids dropping out of school in Buffalo – almost half of high school students. This program works with only 32 kids a year, but at least those 32 kids will have some skills.”
Why does The Foundry work here in Buffalo?
“It’s a trend across the country, having incubator and makers spaces. But there is a rebirth of an entrepreneurial spirit here in Buffalo. People are sick of paying into large corporations. They would rather find stuff that is made locally and see their dollars stay in their community. Places like this are important because you can go and meet the person that is making the thing that you purchased. It’s such a direct connection. You can see that you’re employing a person and feeding their family. Making a commitment to local manufacturing is happening in rust belt cities where there is already a history of manufacturing and creation. Across Buffalo, there really isn’t anything that exists like us. We’re just filling that void.”
What can people do to help The Foundry?
“We need a lot of help in getting the shared spaces online. If people have nice tools that they would like to donate to somewhere, not necessarily woodworking tools, but anything – metal working, welding, fiber arts things like looms, spinning equipment, dying equipment – we have a whole laundry list of things that we need. Like a CNC router. We would love to upgrade the tools that we have available to people. Also, if you’ve ever been a shop teacher, or want to be a shop teacher, or have certain skill, we have workshop supervisors. The supervisors volunteer here, and we are looking for more and different skilled crafts people to help us out with that.”
What would you tell a younger version of yourself
“I believe in making mistakes and learning from them. I honestly don’t think that I would tell myself anything, because of the experiences that I have had to go through to get me where I am. I feel like I’ve had to go through all of the hard things that I’ve questioned. I learned from those decisions. It’s tempting, because you want to avoid some of the hardships that you’ve had to go through.”
But she has a message for other people: “Whenever I do kids tours, or we’re talking to them about career development, I always tell them to not listen to the warning signals. It may sound backwards, but I feel like I jumped into so many things without overthinking it, in a good way. Had I really taken the time to think about what it really took to start a business, or buying a house at 20 years old, if I had really thought about the implications of that, it never would have happened. Of course, don’t make dangerous a decision, but jump in! If you have good intentions and your intentions are leading you toward a better thing, it’s going to work out. If you have bad intentions, you probably shouldn’t make that decision to jump. People with good intentions tend to head down a path where it will all work out.”
One last thing
“If you come to the Foundry, be ready to try something new. If you’re bored with your life or want to try something new, we’re going to force you to do it.”
- Tamara Lewis + Zandra Cunningham (mother daughter duo run Zandra, a natural bath and body product company)
- John Washington at PUSH Buffalo
- Lonnie Barlow (musician, tapped into #buffaloartsunderground)