“Most of the time, people want to be seen, understood and appreciated. And if we can offer someone dignity, we give them a gift that’s difficult to find.”
This Christmas, I took the risk and wrote a few personal notes (instead of gifts).
As I wrote, I found myself surprised how difficult it can be to really see, understand and offer specific appreciation for others that we’re not used to really seeing and appreciating.
I found myself looking into a mirror and seeing how my own judgements about others — even those close to me — can cloud my ability to really understand them. As a result, I wasn’t able to readily write the letter that I most wanted to offer.
That said, I think the attempt of offering another that dignity of being seen — might still be one of the most important gifts we can offer one another.
“Are there many others talking about Catholic Social Teaching and economics and business?”
His question is valid.
I’ve felt it myself. Haven’t you?
About 9 months ago a cousin forwarded me an email about a small group he had gotten invited to with the subject line: “CST + New Economy”.
In the invite, it talked about a contemplative meditation and then each person would be invited to give a 5 minute TED Talk as a way of introducing themselves. I was ecstatic — these must be my people. I asked my cousin if he could write to the organizer and tell him that I also wanted to join the group.
After my first meeting with that group, I felt compelled to write.
More recently, I’ve realized one of the gifts I can offer is my propensity to act. I’m willing to take risks to just start something. I’m willing to call people together, facilitate a highly interactive space, and see what emerges.
So in November when I accepted to go to Italy for the Francesco Economy event in March 2020 and then I realized there were dozens of events happening all over the world but nothing being organized in the United States. I called Elizabeth and Nathan. They each had been talking about writing something or trying to pull something together.
I told them we had to put a date on the calendar. We just had to set a date. After some significant back and forth we eventually found a date and a time.
Over the past 6 weeks, I’ve gradually begun finding more and more people like me. By shamelessly emailing everybody I know who is Catholic, or who cares about Economic Justice or Catholic Social Teaching or Pope Francis… word has gradually started to spread. We’ve had group calls with 8 people multiple times and gradually a small group of people has similarly spread the word through their networks.
I’m finding that there are many people wrestling with questions of faith, our economy, and what we can do to change things. In fact, I think there are many many more than we think there are.
My hope with this gathering on December 16, and on February 19th and hopefully more throughout 2020 — is that we, collectively might begin to paint the landscape of thinkers and practitioners that feel animated by Pope Francis’ letter.
My hope is that more of us might encounter one another to find inspiration and collaborators.
My hope is that we might come together to collaboratively brainstorm and begin building pathways into a future that is more beautiful than we can imagine.
The stakes are too high. We’re heading into an unlivable future. We know that. We also know that we must be the protagonists of this transformation.
Shifting our investments to local, direct investing is really about buying “livable future insurance”.
The concept is basically that we’re dramatically under-calculating the devastating impacts of super storms, heat waves, hurricanes, & all climate related disruptions over the next 20-40 years. The interesting thing is that many of us will be drawing down our retirement savings on a similar time horizon. I think collectively we’re grossly under-calculating the risk of climate, inequality and related disruptions will have on the stock market. The 8% average annual returns of the past 90 years are not what we’re going to see going forward. Not if you believe the most recent IPCC report.
When you add on to this the reality of health care and long-term care costs, food system instability, other unexpected disruptions — the world will be fundamentally different 20-40 years from now. Whether you’re a technologist (with VR and AI), or a malthusian (finite limits of world’s resources) — the world will be different.
But what are we doing to re-think our retirement savings strategies? Our long-term investing? How are we investing for a livable future?
Here’s my proposal
Durham’s Angel Investor / Slow Money Circle
Investing in Black & Latinx Entrepreneurs
We believe the traditional advice on investing needs to be re-thought given current realities with carbon, inequality, refugees, healthcare, elder care, and mass criminalization of black and brown bodies. We need to be more thoughtful about the structures of sin and evil we are complicit in perpetuating by following status quo investment advice.
We believe the stock market is riskier than most people think, and that we need deeper economic, power, financial, & ruthlessly critical analyses to help us create a livable future for our grandkids and their grandkids.
We believe that understanding racism, all of it’s systemic, institutional, interpersonal impacts is fundamental for white folks to do the work to begin to see the ways we’re all bound up in the structures and extractive mindset that keeps us apart, disconnected from deeper work, where we’re from, and where we’re going.
We believe in the redeeming power of real, deep relationships and contemplative practice, especially based on trust, mutual respect, mutual accountability, grace, and mercy.
We need new vehicles, platforms, communities, learning groups, cohorts to do the important, hard thinking on how do we really divest and where do we reinvest? What alternatives are we building?
Capitalism tends toward the concentration and centralization of wealth and we see it all the time in various sectors and industries we’re in (for example John Oliver’s recent piece on Private Equity’s recent entrance into manufactured housing). Can we democratize these sectors, create co-ops, employee ownership structures that can scale?
What collaboratives of deep thinkers are you engaging with to build this next generation of people moving their money in strategic ways to build the power we need for a more just and livable future to be possible?
“Now the other thing we’ll have to do is this: Always anchor our external direct action with the power of economic withdrawal.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Imagine a monopoly game with 8 people. Then imagine 4 of the people are forced to leave the room until all the properties are purchased. Those 4 people are invited back in and asked to keep playing. How do you think they’ll do?”
“That’s what it’s like to be black.”
Geraud Staton tells a story like this during his February 2018 Equity in Entrepreneurship talk at ReCity – an innovative co-working space in Durham. Geraud leads LaunchDurham as part of his role at the Helius Foundation, where he helps necessity-driven entrepreneurs grow their businesses and give it their best shot.
To me, this feels like some of the most meaningful work we can do if we want to get serious about racial equity.
Three years ago I met Traveon Smith, Founder of LGC Security because a charter school leader told me she wanted to give him a chance to bid on the security services their school was going to need that year. I was running a purchasing cooperative in Washington DC that helped churches and schools find high-performing local service providers. That Spring one of my projects was helping eight charter schools find a more responsive and reliable security services provider. A week after we released our Request for Proposals, Traveon from LGC sent me his bid. I decided to sit down with him and tell him a bit more about what the schools and our co-op were looking for and to get a sense of his company, his experience, and why he was so eager for this opportunity.
It turns out LGC was selected by one school that summer. Then another that Fall, and three more that Spring. By 2017, Traveon had landed more than $2 million per year in security contracts from charter schools and was about to win a bid to serve Howard University. His team had grown from 3 to more than 100 full-time staff.
The way I helped Traveon and LGC wasn’t to give them a handout, it was simply to help better understand the needs of the clients he wanted to serve. I gave him insight about how they thought about their schools and what I head learned was most important to them. Then he did the rest. He won their businesses. He’s had to work extremely hard to earn their renewals and referrals and it still isn’t easy. But now he has a business. He’s built some wealth for his family and is offering good employment for more than 100 people that look like him.
When I think about the twenty public and private-sector leaders I’ve met with in Durham over the past few months, I’ve heard racial equity come up over and over again. But when I ask about what action they’re taking or organizing as a collective, it feels like there is less happening than we’d like.
I want to propose a locally-focused purchasing cooperative owned by and led by Durham leaders. The cooperative would be a collaboration between non-profits, faith institutions, education leaders, property owners, and our largest anchor institutions: universities, health care, and public sector. The focus of the co-op would be three-fold:
(1) Help community institutions (i.e. churches, small business, non-profits and any others) save money and be more intentional on contracting for facilities, construction, and professional services.
(2) Build spaces for large buyers to meet, discuss, and hear trusted peers talk about good experiences with local, minority- and women-owned firms. The purpose being to help spread the word about newer and smaller firms that are hungry to grow.
(3) Support entrepreneurs in coming together to hear about the landscape of upcoming projects, build trust with peers, perhaps new collaborations, and discuss shared challenges. The purpose would be to direct folks to existing resources and identify gaps.
We recognize Durham and our region is undergoing incredible growth. Construction firms consistently tell me how hungry they are for more skilled workforce.
My hope is that by building a collective vehicle that organizes more of our purchasing, we connect more of the dollars we spend with high-performing businesses owned by people of color.
In the past 4 years, I grew a buying co-op of community institutions that collaborated on utility bills and saved $100,000 to what is today a group of 75 that now shifts $16,000,000 per year and intentionally contracts together with 57% of their spend now going to minority owned businesses.
Working with Durham and other area leaders I believe we can be more intentional with our purchasing and contracting and over the course of a few years shift more than $1,000,000,000 to minority-owned firms.
My aim is to start small, begin with where we’re at today, but gradually build a vehicle for each of us to become more intentional in making our purchasing a force multiplier for change.
Together with my co-founder, Merald Holloway, I have been gradually building the basis for a buying co-op here in Durham & beyond.
On Thursday at 6pm, Merald and I will join some really remarkable entrepreneurs:
Geraud Staton (Helius Foundation) – watch the first 2 minutes of this video and you’ll be blown away by the inequity in black business ownership in Durham, where we once were and where we are today. Geraud’s one of the most pioneering contributors to this space.
Keith Daniels and Tom Droege (Resilient Ventures) – a mix between an angel and VC fund, aimed specifically at helping black entrepreneurs in Durham, NC, and beyond.
Rob Sheilds & Zenzele Barnes from ReCity Network (see previous roundtable events here), will be hosting and facilitating an interactive community conversation that I hope will re-invigorate our imagination of what we can be doing together to really move the needle.
Might you be able to join us on Thursday and ask a hard question, that deepens our collective thinking on this?
I’m inviting you for two reasons:
(1) I think you have something to contribute & believe the conversation can help us imagine more about what kinds of partnerships and collaborations are possible.
(2) Geraud, Keith, Tom, Rob, Zenzele, and Merald are grounded in the reality we live in, but are taking big leaps to do the hard tangible work to push us forward.
I’ve been inspired by their grounded-ness, audacity, and hope this conversation can help move us collectively in the right direction.
In 2018, our coop aggregated $16 M in contracts. 60% went to minority owned businesses. Here’s my invite to you… let’s come together to actualize the flourishing of ALL entrepreneurs in our community by implementing anti-racist spending decisions at our community institutions.
Michael Schrage’s insight about how innovative companies change their customers has stuck with me. And it’s changed the way I understand the work my organization does.
Successful innovations go beyond the quid pro quo; they’re targeted investments in the customer’s future value.
Most customers believe that “the market” sets the terms of engagement for service delivery.
At CPA Co-op, we shape an experience for customers where they have the power to reset the terms to align with their interests.
If we organize a group of customers with a collective contract value (or the promise thereof) that provides sufficient motivation for service providers, the nature of the relationship can be re-shaped.
CPA Co-op plays the role of building these trusted relationships with service providers and customers, synthesizing insights gleaned from both sides, and then negotiating the terms that facilitate this market shift.
CPA Co-op’s Process follows 6 basic steps:
Listen well to customer challenges, probing for areas of dissatisfaction that could be improved
Understand service providers’ business model, where they want to go, and what they look for in a good customer relationship
Craft a group solicitation process that is fair to vendors and brings in proposals that meet key customer interests
Organize a group evaluation meeting (and others if helpful) where customers openly share concerns, bad experiences, fears and also what they will need to move forward / how they’d like to make it happen.
Facilitate the meeting in such a way that people share openly and respond to other’s concerns and fears. The process builds trust. Then ask them who they want to select and propose a path forward that meets their needs and will be within reason for vendors.
Follow-through by negotiating the new framework with finalist service providers and then threading the needle with each individual customer, by drawing on specific customer stories, and/or additional group meetings to clinch the deal.
Justin, a customer and member-owner of CPA Co-op, named the dynamic for me this week, “Each time the co-op organizes a group RFP process, you change the game.”
As I look back on the origins of our work, I see the common thread of our group processes driving change.
Our first group energy aggregations in 2011 and 2012, re-wrote the energy supply services agreement, mitigating the most significant risks for customers.
Our trash & recycling negotiations in 2013 and 2014 eliminated fees and auto-renewal provisions.
Our landscaping efforts in 2014 gave explicit expectations for turf height and specific scope of work during each visit.
Our solar work in 2014 pushed developers to give rates below what anybody else was offering.
Our janitorial process in 2015 integrated best practices for transparency in wages and profit margins to even the smallest customer types and opened opportunity for women and minority-owned businesses to access much large contracts.
Our copier work in 2016 brought dramatic savings, incorporated service guarantees with real teeth, and cut unfair profit-making provisions from service agreements and leases.
Our security efforts in 2016 brought accountability for chronic scheduling errors, and built opportunity for local, black-owned firms to show how quality guards could re-shape a school’s culture.
In 2017, our solar work flipped the standard contract, delivered more value to customers than anything anybody in DC had previously offered, and opened the door to roof replacements as part of even small solar projects.
At the core of each of these processes was a well-facilitated group space that built trust between participants and delivered practical insight.
If we can continue to do this in new areas, I think we create a new type of member worldview that believes they have the power to reshape any industry.
If we keep building this, I believe we’ll have the keys to an unstoppable vehicle for innovation and social change. We’ll have innovated something that changes the game on what’s possible for groups of customers acting together.
“Successful innovations go beyond the quid pro quo; they’re targeted investments in the customer’s future value.”
Because of this realization, I propose we invest significantly more resources in organizing group processes to help customers change the game in the contracting areas they identify as priority areas for improvement.