Media Coverage | 30 Under 30 award winner: Meet Vanessa Buffry, Neighborhood Allies

Apr 28, 2021

Pittsburgh Business Times | April 24, 2021| Read the full story

Photo by Jim Harris/ PBT

Editor’s Note: Full profiles of the 30 Under 30 award winners, announced earlier this month, will be published in the April 30 edition of the Pittsburgh Business Times and online. Below is the profile for Vanessa Buffry, director of digital inclusion, Neighborhood Allies.

Vanessa Buffry had been on the job as director of digital inclusion at Neighborhood Allies, a nonprofit that provides funding and collaboration for projects that serve people living in the Pittsburgh neighborhoods of the Hill District, Hilltop, Homewood, Larimer, Millvale and Wilkinsburg, for just a few weeks when the pandemic shut everything down, including plans to build on-site spaces for computer learning skills for underserved residents.

Buffry quickly realized she had to take a different approach.

“It was one day into lockdown, and I already had people urgently calling for devices,” she said, but she was unable to find sources for the much-needed laptops and components.

Her solution was to create the Beyond the Laptops coalition in coordination with a number of organizations, including the Pittsburgh office of Computer Reach, a national nonprofit that provides computers to low-income people and donated 1,000 laptops to the project, and the University of Pittsburgh, which supplied much-need computer laptop chargers and other technical support. The coalition sourced, refurbished and distributed devices to nearly 1,200 students in the region.

The group also has focused on increasing internet access. By accessing public Wi-Fi, 5G hotspots and defraying the cost of in-home connectivity solutions, the coalition created access in 1,000 households in the region.

When did you first realize the need to get laptops into the hands of underserved communities? Within the first three days of Pennsylvania’s closure on March 16, 2020, I noticed calls on social media from community leaders seeking laptops for disconnected households. I dove into researching options and kept finding connectable dots and solvable problems. By the next week, I was coordinating early deliveries, fundraising and volunteers. Soon after, our cause was elevated by local corporate and foundation champions and was born.

What did you do to get those laptops out to people who needed them? Neighborhood Allies surveyed organizations serving census hotspots where race, poverty and lack of connectivity overlapped. In parallel, Pittsburgh Public Schools issued a Home Tech Survey that helped identify precisely whom was in need of a device. Working with Computer Reach, we donated over 600 laptops to PPS to help speed up their delivery timeline.

Tell us about your work to refurbish laptops for underserved communities. We mobilized an all-hands-on-deck operation. With global supply chains shut down, we had to look closer to home, coordinating device donations from businesses across the county. Pitt helped us obtain critical parts and stood up a remote IT Help Desk to accommodate the sudden torrent of first-time users.

What more can be done, and why is it important to close the digital divide for underserved residents, especially once the pandemic ends? Before the pandemic, 70% of jobs in Pennsylvania called for tech skills by the end of the decade. That timeline has crashed considerably, with automation swiftly replacing workers as the pandemic wore on.

Has the pandemic affected your career perspective? Definitely. As I’m sure the world can relate, the intersectional and overlapping challenges of the pandemic have underlined the value of work-life balance and mental health. Before the pandemic I would overfill my plate, standard practice in the nonprofit sector. There is so much to be done and not enough resources, so many work overtime emotionally and literally. The pandemic delivered such an overload of need, coupled with round-the-clock awareness of such, that I had no choice but to reckon with those pressures and develop a game plan to be more balanced, self-aware and resilient.

What would you tell your future self 40 years from now? The early investments you made, not just to your retirement accounts, but to focus more intentionally after 2020 on your family and well-being, have hopefully paid off.


Vanessa Buffry, director of digital inclusion, Neighborhood Allies

Age: 29

Birthplace: Irvine, California (moved at 2 years old, grew up in Denver)

Education: B.A., international relations, American University; M.A., history, Central European University; M.S., public policy and management, Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College

Family: Husband, Guillaume; daughter, Elinor (3)

Hobbies: Hiking, beginner meditation, gardening, reading

Donates time to: Wilkinsburg community advocacy, running for Wilkinsburg School Board


Book: “Think Like a Monk” by Jay Shetty

Song: The obligatory quarantine anthem is “Mask, Gloves, Soap, Scrubs” by Todrick Hall

Take-out dining choice: Everyday Noodles … Those soup dumplings feed the soul!

Exercise: Perhaps the most interesting activity we devised is the toddler-approved ‘Disco’ we run with a $10 rainbow strobe light and the Cars soundtrack.”

Top Header Image Photo Credit: Prototyping Larimer Stories by artist John Peña, photo by OPA