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Green Worker Cooperatives as a Business Model

Tell me about the Green Worker Cooperatives.

The Green Worker Cooperatives are a non-profit organization that I founded in 2003 . It’s based in the Bronx, and our focus is to develop a strong local

justice. We are out to support and create businesses that empower  their  workers  to improve their health and quality of life in the Bronx. We do that exclusively through worker owned green businesses, known as worker cooperatives.

Cooperatives are any business owned collectively by its customers. In the case of worker cooperatives it’s any business owned by its workers. With the workers making the decisions, it’s all about seeking alignment. The team has to be aligned on the future of the business and the direction of the company.

 Profits made by the business stay in the community longer because the workers/owners are local to the community, spend their money there, and offer jobs to other members of the community. The other aspect of our work is making sure that the businesses are environmentally friendly. We specialize in transforming people’s ideas for improving environ-mental conditions into reality. We walk them through the specific ways their businesses can have a positive impact on both the environment and the community.

 How did you use what you learned in the Team, Management and Leadership Program?

I had been looking for something like the Team program for years.

 The 2 years before joining team were the most difficult. I had started a cooperative that was my brainchild, I had done the business planning, raised almost $1,000,000, and formed a team of people to run it. It lasted about 2 years, while suffering the whole time. It wasn’t making the sales it needed to and in 2010 we closed the business. It was really an emotionally hard time for me.

 When I took the Communication Curriculum and then joined Team, I found what was missing.  I wasn’t being accountable, holding others to account, and operating with integrity to make things happen. I’ve always been good at enrolling people initially and getting their support, but I was never really able to make it last.

 Being on Team this past year has been amazing in what I’ve seen for myself and how I ran my business. I had been around the country talking about these cooperatives, but I didn’t really have a functioning team myself! I was completely out of integrity that whole time.

 I had a group of people who were really dedicated but I wasn’t holding them to account for the work that they were doing. I was more concerned about being nice to the extent that I couldn’t hold myself and others to account or really honor my word.

 I got the structure and the distinctions of Team to apply. Since then I’ve been able to build a much wider base of support. Before, it was just myself and 2 other people putting on the 16-week course. Now there are 3 different universities that supply classroom space and 2 colleges supplying students for researchers and support as graphic artists.

What kind of businesses are involved in this cooperative?

I started a training program called the Coop Academy. This has been my project on Team for the past year. We’ve been developing programs for participants to become leaders and to start up their own cooperatives. In order to go through it, they must have a team of at least 3 people. They start up the business and we work with them over the course of 4 months. They take courses together as a team and we supply them with support including lawyers, graphic designers, and web designers. The goal is to be able to launch their business by the end of the 4-month period.

 You were mentioning before about how you came up with this project…

 I had worked with several non-profit environmental organizations that were based in the Bronx and in other parts of the City. I spent a lot of time fighting against companies, the City and the State, challenging them on their plans to let dirty companies in our communities.

 The idea for the Green Worker Cooperatives came out of a realization that there had to be some way of creating an economy run by those affected by it. One directly in our community, creating an economy that is local, able to empower people in their work place, and operates in a way that sustains life instead of harming life. That is what I was out to cause, and that’s what we are still creating.

How do you create jobs within clean companies? How does it work?

 People come to us with an idea, saying “I want to start a business with my friends.” For example a woman who went through the Academy wanted to start a catering business that provided healthy food in the community. So that’s the business she started, a family business that has now become a cooperative. They cater events throughout the City and in the Bronx and they use locally grown food. They are really conscious of waste, not wasting, and using biodegradable products, things like that. Basically being conscious of what goes into their food, avoiding fat and things that can be harmful for you and the environment.

There are two things that we specialize in – being green and being cooperative. When it comes to being green, to being environmentally friendly, we work with the entrepreneurs to make sure that they look at every piece of their business and figure out things that they can do that will reduce the impact on the planet and the community. The other part of it is that we specialize in operating cooperatively, as a team.

We have lots of classes and workshops on how to work together, really looking at communication, how they are communicating with each other and with the people in their lives. Essentially looking at working together effectively in the same context as what we do on Team. Having them be there and supporting each other in what they are out to create. Doing it in a way that they have structures in place for all aspects, and people are accountable with those structures so things don’t fall through the cracks. As a result there are not unmet expectations for people to get frustrated about. We also partner with other organizations to provide training in the more traditional business fundamentals of sales, marketing and finance.

Does  the  government  fund  this program or is it self-funded? Do the people who take your classes have to pay for the courses?

We get funding from private foundations and individual donations. The people do have to pay and the registration fee that we charge is $500 per person. We require that each team fund-raise for the money and we ask them not to pay out of their pocket up front, but that their first assignment is to fund-raise so that each member of the team can go through the course.

Is this the only Coop organization in the United States?

No, but the worker-owned sector is extremely small in the US. It is estimated that there are only 400 businesses that are structured this way, where the workers own the business entirely. In the non-profit world, there are only a handful of such non-profits in the US. Green Coop is one of those that are dedicated to the creation of worker-owned cooperatives. So we are at the forefront of creating this new sector in the economy.

We provide training for entrepreneurs, but the distinction is that they are working as a cooperative, a Team. There are lots of opportunities to train people to be sole entrepreneurs of a business as an individual, but there is practically nothing out there for people to start a cooperative organization. 

So where do you see this Green Coop in 5 years?

In five years I see our work extending beyond the Bronx. In five years the Bronx will become one of the largest centers of worker-owned businesses in the country. The program we have created, the Coop Academy, will be replicated in other cities around the US .

Five years from now the concept of worker-owned businesses will not be something alien. It will be some-  thing  that  is  commonly  understood as another way of doing business and will become an option for many people as a result of the work we are doing.

Let’s say I want to start a company and I want to use Green Worker Coop model living in California. What would you recommend for me to learn to start a company using your model, and how does that relate to what you learned on Team?

Number one is to seek out resources that are local to you and other cooperatives support organizations. In the Bay Area there are actually a few worker-owned cooperatives.

If there is a team of people, have a conversation with them and have them lay out what it is that they want to accomplish, as a team, for the business and community. Create a plan of how they are going to do it, how to divide up the work, and      have a number of conversations about how they are going to approach decision-making and division of profits. Those are the big things to consider. For the day to day, the distinctions we make on Team are what make any business work. They are even more important in a worker cooperative because workers are coming together as people who are invested in having a say.

In TMLP, the way people listen to us and we listen to others is very important, the same exists in a worker cooperative. You own the business with a team of people, so your team members, your cooperative members are not there strictly to get a check and leave. They have an interest in the business and they see each other as sharing common interests in the business. This is very different from just being an employee.

What’s the difference between a team and a group?

In a team there is direction, and there is  movement  in  one  direction.  That’s a difference I see between a team and a group. I’ve been involved in many groups, and there are occasional moments when team was present, but there was not always movement in a cohesive direction, that’s the difference. Before being in the TMLP, I was more concerned about looking good, than actually being in communication and getting things done.

Is there something you’d like to share about your experience on Team?

I joined Team because I really wanted to create teams in my life. I wanted to be able to create something and form a team of people to make it happen. Through the TMLP I got that, in new ways that I hadn’t gotten it before. I got what it means to be accountable, to hold people to account, and to be my word.

Greenworker Coops:

Interview by Kimchi Chow, Team San Jose
Written by Jan Marijag, San Jose Alumna and Kyle Bizon, Seattle
Edited by James Marchand, NY

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