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.
When I think about what’s happening in our world, I see wealth consolidation, growing inequality, I see more homeless folks.
Do my investments in corporate America and all the publicly traded companies that are part of the S&P 500 have anything to do with that?
1. I feel trapped.
I’m stuck in the mainstream retirement investing paradigm.
And I want out.
I did all the things I was told. I made smart choices and took advantage of employer’s matching contribution. I put extra money into Vanguard S&P 500 Index Funds. I even put money into the best Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) funds I could find: Calvert, Pax, Domini, TIAA-CREFF.
Every time I review my investments though, I get frustrated with how entangled I am in the same exploitative economic system I believe is at the root of so many of our problems.
I feel the intense dissonance from what I say I believe in and where my money actually is. It’s a similar dissonance to those times when I eat a burger, even though I know if I skipped it, I would save enough energy to charge my iPhone for 4.5 years.
It’s cognitive dissonance.
The challenge with investing is: where are all the good “happy” meat options?
2. Angry at “Those” People
“Today will be the last day for Stow, Melanie… [and a list of names were read]”
“Please clean out your offices by 5pm.”
I was 22 and it was my first Friday of my first full-time job. I was thrilled because I had basically landed a dream job as an energy researcher at one of the top firms in the world. As the meeting came to an end, I realized that dozens of colleagues were being laid off. Stow was the renewable energy expert I was most excited to work with. He had co-authored the definitive paper on emerging energy technologies. Melanie, a single mother with a son in Iraq, who worked with me on getting settled in on the job, selecting benefits, and everything else.
As I searched for answers, I found many colleagues distraught, but they calmly explained that while we had been a private company, we were recently acquired by a larger publicly traded firm, and the lay-offs were likely an effort to please investors by positioning for company for better quarterly returns.
This was a key moment in my awakening. The 401(k) options my employer offered got me started on this path. It was a path I wasn’t sure I wanted to be part of, but everybody in my life told me it was the right, smart thing to do.
I think this is how most of us start.
The injustice of how Stow and my other colleagues were treated jolted me to realize the world was really run by those shareholders – those big banks and folks on Wall Street.
As I’ve continued to reflect on, ask questions, and learn about investing, I realize my ownership of mutual funds and index funds means I’m also one of “those” people.
3. Entangled. We are all Those People
Merely by following the advice of the smartest people around us (as I did, when I was counseled by people I trust and that share my values), we go with the mutual and index fund options we’re offered.
I bet you’re just as entangled as I am. The reality is everyone who owns a mutual fund – even the socially responsible investment (SRI) funds — we own shares of these publicly traded companies that are beholden to our desire to grow shareholder value and deliver a return – ideally on par with the rest of the market.
Because that’s what you and I want when we review our investments, right?
We want the hard earned $250 that we eek out of our monthly budget to turn into $750,000.
With the power of compound interest, we know that if we start when we’re 30 and retire at age 70 and earn an 8% annual return along the way, we’ll get to $750,000.
If we earn an average of 9% return, we’d have more than $1,000,000.
If the average annual return is 5%, then it’s only $362,000.
That’s the power of compound interest (all with the same $250/month for 40 years). It’s also why there’s a whole industry around retirement planning, savings, and so much information about investing.
4. Disconnected. What do we want from our investments?
Well, clearly we want to retire. That’s something that in the past was part of the deal we got when we signed up with an employer — a pension. Today, it’s something we have to build on our own and that’s why 401k and 403b and Roth IRAs and financial advice and investing has become so much more focused on the mass market. We’re getting messages all the time about what we should and shouldn’t do. My hope is that you might take a step away from all of that and join me in asking some bigger questions.
What do we want to be part of?
I still have yet to receive a Google Ad or sponsored social media content that actually takes me to an investment option that really aligns with my values and conscience.
When I think about what’s happening in our world and our country, I see wealth consolidation, growing inequality, I see more homeless folks.
Do my investments in corporate America and all the publicly traded companies that are part of the S&P 500 have anything to do with that?
As a student of economics, a person of faith, and a co-op entrepreneur, I wish I was encouraged to wrestle with these questions more seriously in light of my faith. In the absence of hearing it from the pulpit, I invite you to think with me about these questions as a matter of conscience.
5. Hopeful. Alternatives are Becoming More Accessible
Though I’ve been wrestling with these questions for nearly 10 years — about our mainstream investment paradigm, socially responsible investing (SRI), and alternatives that make sense for me – I’m feeling more hopeful than ever about the options that are emerging.
One of the most inspiring recent things I’ve seen is the movement towards “Community Capital” spurred by recent changes in securities law (JOBS Act), allowing more people to participate in crowd-funding platforms that allow you to make equity investments in small businesses.
Resources that I’ve recently come across include:
Locavesting, a website (and book) pointing to many local, alternative and community capital options
Investibule, a platform for small firms looking to raise money
NC3 – a network & collaborative bringing together champions of community capital to more local, social entrepreneurs
I admit, some of this takes work. I also believe it’s a tremendous opportunity.
I see it as an opportunity for:
new relationships, (i.e. slow money networking)
to re-weave the fabric of our local communities,
building more equitable, prosperous, and just future for our kids and grandchildren,
economic democracy, cooperatives, ESOPs, and other employee-owned firms,
you and I to have a much more meaningful and authentic impact with our investments.
What possibilities could you imagine if half the people you knew took half of their investments and channeled them in ways that really resonated with their values and vision? What would that world look like?
What path are you looking for?
Drop me a line and let’s discuss. My hope in writing this is that it starts a discussion and leads to new things.
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
Will you join me?
I’m eager to build and contribute to communities of people that want to ask, wrestle with, and live into these tensions with more integrity.
Today, we are 75 member-owner community institutions. We collaborate on $15,000,000+ in contracts each year. Yet the most important thing we’ve created doesn’t show up in the numbers.
We’ve built an incredible amount of trust with our members. What’s surprising to me about this is that most of the trust-building has happened not because of anything the staff did, but because of the conversations we facilitated between members. When decision-makers are talking to peer decision-makers about a similar challenge, the value they create and insight they’re able to offer builds something special
“I’ve noticed some patterns that may become more common in the co-ops to come.”
He’s reflecting on his experience as a reporter:
“They will create value not just with the services they offer to members, but with the connections they enable among members—and the efficiencies members discover together.
This rings true for my experience. For example, at the founding meeting of our co-op in 2014, I remember sitting next to Troy Watson and her telling the room of 50 founding and prospective members and others gathered, “While the savings are helpful, it’s the connections I value most.”
I think this continues to be the experience many of our members have. While we help them manage risk and reduce cost in some of their contracts, it’s the personal connections we’re able to help them make with peers that they value most.
“Their specialty will be in fostering trust on trustless networks…”
As I think about where we grow next — whether through building out an online platform for users to co-create value and connection building on something like MARVL.org or whether through developing a new co-op using a similar model in another region — Nathan reminds me that the focus of our work must be in fostering trust.
That’s the specialty of what a co-op can offer and offer with great integrity.
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.
As I was walking with my 5-year-old daughter Micaela last night, I asked her:
“Do you still want to be an artist?”
“I want to be an artist, a songwriter, a painter, and an art teacher.”
I want her to make good on that dream.
That’s why I’m here.
I’ve spent the last 28 days doing the hard work of writing everyday.
The scariest thing I wrote was a letter to Micaela.
I knew I was doing something right because the morning after I posted it online, I wanted to take it down. I was scared of what I said. Scared of what I committed to doing.
Scared because it felt like the stakes were higher.
The motto of the workshop I’m just finishing is:
“Do the Hard Work First | Embrace Emotional Labor | Dance with Fear”
I didn’t understand this third part “Dance with Fear” until the feeling I got as I woke up on Sunday morning. The feeling of wanting to quickly revise and take down the letter. The feeling of uncertainty. Is that really who I am? Is that what I want?
What am I for?
Those are the questions I want to wrestle with here.
The clearer I get, the more I believe I’ll be able to make my art.