Introducing Antonina Simeti, Senior Associate
How did you arrive at U3 Advisors?
It’s been a long and curvy road. I came to U3 predominantly through the Buffalo Purchasing Initiative (BPI), but we do have connections further back. For a time, I was a consultant with another firm where I was doing work with anchor institutions like universities and museums, and a lot of work with corporations on their workplace strategy and other kinds of design research. For example, working with academic institutions to try to design spaces, not just for formal learning, but informal learning, and really bringing the community together to understand their needs and design around those needs. Through that, I learned about Karen’’s firm (K. Backus & Associates, a predecessor to U3 Advisors), before U3 even became U3! Before that, as a planner, I had been working for a planning firm doing more traditional environmental impact assessments and I spent a few years doing public policy research in California on the economics of water supply planning. That doesn’t directly relate to the work I do now, but is relevant very much in terms of understanding policy and the different dynamics of development and economics.
I think it really set the stage for doing more work around community engagement and getting broader community input into planning projects at the urban scale. That brought me to my next position, which was helping to launch a Community Schools initiative in New York City. This was an interesting partnership between really different anchor institutions: The Partnership for New York City (a sort of chamber of commerce working between business and government), the United Federation of Teachers (a teachers union), and Trinity Wall Street, a church and community organization which is one of the largest landowners in Lower Manhattan. I helped create community schools across New York City working to mediate the three anchors’ very different perspectives on how investment should happen in schools and in communities more broadly. By the time I left, we had seventeen schools using this model.
After that, we lived and taught in Amsterdam and Berlin, and then we moved to Buffalo. I was hired to reinvigorate a nonprofit called Groundwork Buffalo, which is part of a network of over 20 neighborhood-based organizations that deal with revitalization of the urban environment through things like urban agriculture, community gardening, and youth environmental education. At the same time, I was Executive Director of the Western New York Environmental Alliance, a collective of environmental nonprofits in the region. That was about stakeholder engagement and collectively elevating environmental issues: not just climate change, but climate justice.
All those things brought me to BPI, which has been another instance of helping to launch something new, designing and implementing its infrastructure, and bringing together powerful stakeholders together to make decisions about how to have impact in the community.
There’s a common thread in all of your work: starting new things and moving them to implementation and sustainability.
I realize now, after 10 years of this work, that I’m a startup person! That’s where I’m most comfortable: always in mission-based work, but getting things going, taking a vision and making it real.
What makes a procurement strategy work well? What are the things you look for in terms of trying to build something like that from scratch in a new community?
One of the things I pay attention to is the presence of a common vision. The folks that are sponsoring the work have to be in alignment on what they should be doing and the expectations for what should get done. If you don’t have the leadership bought in, we’re going to have a hard time being successful. If organizations aren’t willing to work together and aren’t willing to share data, the project just is not going to go anywhere. That might have to do with leadership, but it could also have to do with the openness of the people that are on the ground day to day running procurement or managing relationships.
Of course, trust from the community side is also important. If the vendors or suppliers you are trying to work with don’t know about and trust what you’re doing, they’re just not going to show up.
How do you foster trust in the community? How do you know if it’s there or not?
One of the first things I did in BPI, and what I’m trying to do with these other projects, is meet the suppliers and vendors that are out there. Hear their stories and hear their perspectives. Every one of these sorts of initiatives is like a puzzle and their different perspectives are like pieces. You have to make sure you talk to everyone and see how they feel about each other and what their vision is for the project, then put it all together.
What is the case you make to a city – say, a skeptical mayor or foundation staff person – about why these kinds of procurement strategies should matter to them?
One is that these are direct dollars: it’s your spending with these vendors, your dollars that are purchasing their products or services, and you’re helping that business grow. In Buffalo, we know that $42 million over three years went directly to the businesses because of BPI. When we shared that statistic, a partner at our local community foundation noted that no other local grant program has driven that much money directly to the businesses we’re trying to work with. That direct infusion of dollars into the hands of business owners who use it to grow their businesses the way they want to is really different from a grant-based philanthropic model.
Procurement departments make a lot of decisions, but not all, so you can use these initiatives as a way to get everyone thinking about supporting the community in a different way, even when you’re doing something small that you do every day, like catering a lunch – if you are among the largest institutions in the region, you can have real impact.
Why did you decide to come to U3 full time?
Working with a whole team and not just by myself, and having projects all over the country is exciting. It’s also a place that has a healthy culture. That’s something I didn’t even look for previously, but after having been working alone for a while, it’s something that I want to have in my life.
As far as the work itself, as somebody who’s interested in new ideas and new strategies, it’s exciting to be part of that “leading edge” and helping to get things going. I think that U3, based on having partnered with them in the past, has a really great approach to this work: the lessons we learned together and the sort of collaboration we’ve already had will result in success in other projects that they’re being called to do. Like I said, I enjoy the excitement of the new, but I also enjoy getting infrastructure built and sustained. I feel like I’ve done that here in Buffalo, so a way to keep doing that is to be part of U3, so we can do it again and again.