Tearing down silo city.

by Matthew K. Pelkey
June 7, 2019

The year is 1917. Woodrow Wilson is President and the United States is entering the Great War at its peak. Buffalo at the time is a major center of commerce, a shining beacon of innovation in electricity, agriculture, manufacturing, and transportation. Strategically positioned on the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes, the Queen City is a major access point for any shipments traveling east/west by rail or sea — especially grain. We are, by all accounts, a booming City of opportunity.

1917 was also the year that Buffalo built the largest grain elevator on the Buffalo River, Concrete Central: a grain silo that was so innovative at the time that the plans and construction details were kept secret. The giant walls of Concrete Central became one of many grain elevators built along the Buffalo River and were a short distance from a collection of grain silos now affectionately known as Silo City. Together they changed the Buffalo landscape forever.

A lot has happened in the 102 years since Concrete Central was erected. Sixteen Presidents have come and gone. So too did the Great Depression and countless wars. Buffalo’s population increased to over one million before losing thousands of manufacturing jobs and suffering economic collapse. The City’s population cratered as people sought opportunities elsewhere or moved to the suburbs. The Erie Canal became little more than a relic tourist attraction and a song taught to school children. We struggled (and still do) with poverty, segregation and income inequality. Add in four Super Bowl losses and a skate-in-the-crease, and this City has seen its fair share of challenges since building it’s grand silos.

And yet, Buffalo persevered.

Over the last ten years that perseverance has started changing our economy and our trajectory. No longer are we relying on the hopes of steel plants an grain mills returning to their glory. Instead we are investing in innovation and seeing technology companies like ACV Auctions create hundreds of good-paying jobs while bringing tens of millions of dollars of private investment into our local economy. The City’s population has stabilized, our economy is growing, unemployment is at a record low, and key population demographics like millennials are even growing. Spend five minutes Googling Buffalo and you’ll see we have become a top city to start a business, buy a home, spend a weekend getaway, or enjoy a quality of life that is illusory in most large cities.

102 years of rise, fall, and rebirth, and those grand concrete silos still remain — a surreal cavernous testament to our industrial heritage. Sadly though, those silos which once represented innovation and opportunity now present a significant challenge to creating sustainable growth in our entrepreneurial community. Of course, I am not talking about the physical concrete grain silos but the silos we have built in our communities which prevent collaboration, innovation, and equity. In this regard, much of our City is still stuck in antiquated ideology. Instead of focusing on creating greater value for all, there is still a tendency to protect my interests first:

Work with my people.

Pursue funding for my interests.

Introduce my client to my investors.

Grow my organization.

Network with people at my club.

Mentor someone who reflects my interests.

Meet with someone who can help me.

Notice a theme here? With countless self-interested decisions made each day we create silos that insulate us from the greater community. It has been said enough times that it is well becoming cliché, but by not being intentionally inclusive, we become unintentionally exclusive — we create hundreds of silos we then work to protect in the name of self-interest. These exist in nonprofits, neighborhoods, private clubs, alumni networks, political organizations, community groups, businesses, and long-standing social networks. Just as their century-old-concrete counterparts erected walls to protect their contents, these silos too create barriers: barriers to sustainable innovation. For innovation to flourish it must be built upon diverse ideas across the broadest spectrum of individuals. It must be collaborative.

For our community to succeed we need to tear down our silos.

But how exactly do we go about this? Fortunately, this is one of the challenges that Techstars is tackling here in Buffalo. The idea is simple enough, yet marks a profound shift for many in Western New York:

Give First.

Give before you get for yourself. Give to your community without the expectation of return. Help without the expectation of help. Better our community with an understanding that your own betterment is secondary. Help others whenever possible, in every way possible. Do that, and only that.

Now before the Pollyanna accusations start flying, achieving such a fundamental shift is by no means going to happen overnight. It would of course be naïve to think so. But if each stakeholder in our startup ecosystem pledges to live by these values, and to hold each other accountable, we can separate ourselves from the countless mistakes made over the last 102 years, and position our community towards sustainable, inclusive, and equitable growth. This all starts with a pledge.

Will you take the Pledge?

The Buffalo Startup Ecosystem Pledge is an agreement that members of the Buffalo startup community, like you, publicly commit to honoring as they operate their daily activities and interact with other members. By signing this pledge, you are leading by example and declaring your commitment to making this ecosystem the best it can be for everyone involved.

I pledge, as part of the Buffalo Startup Community,

To welcome anyone into our community and support their journey through it.

To sign up for the mission to serve the Buffalo community before serving my company’s or my own needs. In that spirit, I will not bring my agenda to the forefront, but the agenda of the community as a priority.

To operate in an honorable manner by doing what I said I would do.

To put founders first which means making decisions based on what would be best for a founder and their company.

To #givefirst whenever possible, without expectation of anything in return. I will take meetings when asked and offer advice without payment.

To contribute to the growth of this community because I know its development benefits everyone, not just me.

To create an inclusive and welcoming environment for all participants.

To foster the next generation of entrepreneurs and community leaders.

To connect individuals asking for help from my network when possible with as little curation or filters as reasonable.

To exhibit daily a spirit of Win/Win, not a Zero-Sum or Win/Lose mentality.

To operate in the spirit of collaboration, and avoid competition, even though I might come out ahead if I was to compete.

To reject the idea of gatekeepers and ensure everyone in the community is treated as an equal with equal access to information and resources.

To support underrepresented groups in their pursuit of entrepreneurship and proactively reach out to them for inclusion in this community.

To publicly exhibit your love of place (Buffalo) in all interactions (face-to-face, social media, etc.)

To publicly support this pledge as often as possible, and encourage others in the community to do so as well.

Visit www.buffalostartupledge.com to sign the pledge.