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April 30, 2014 / Rebekah Seder, Editor

Worker-Owners, An Important Step Toward Self-Reliance

By Jason Washingon, City First Enterprises, and Tamara Copeland, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

Stormwater management has been identified as the first business that’s right for our region and for the philanthropic community’s vision of community wealth building. Next step: finding the right worker/owners for this unique cooperative business approach.

How do you identify the right employees when you are a company with a very unique mission, looking for a very unique employee? The philanthropic community started with its first hire: City First Enterprise. Now City First is working to answer that pivotal question as they begin to design the workforce development component of this project.

Sponsored initially by The Community Foundation for the National Capital Region in partnership with the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers (WRAG), the Community Wealth Building Initiative (CWBI)’s mission is to develop and grow employee-controlled businesses in the Greater Washington region. The businesses will be anchored to the region by meeting the business needs of large, place-based employers, such as universities, local governments, and/or hospitals. The businesses will  ”green” these anchor institutions’ supply chains while at the same time helping build wealth in low-income communities.

A little over two years ago, the local philanthropic community led an effort to adapt a cooperative ownership model of wealth building to our region. Meetings were held with leaders across the region. Ultimately the opportunity ripest for this approach was deemed to be stormwater management in Prince George’s County. A company is now being assembled in which the employees will also hold part ownership. While there are many efforts in our region and across the country to employ low income people, very few focus on enabling these employees to be business owners. It is this entrepreneurial component that makes the Community Wealth Building Initiative so important for our region.

In Cleveland, Ohio, the Cleveland Community Foundation led a similar effort. Here’s what the employee/owners of their Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, a cooperatively owned business there had to say about how being a business owner has changed their lives.

Now, we have the same opportunity to be transformative in our region. Getting the right complement of staff is key. CWBI is collaborating with local workforce development partners to identify and support harder-to-employ individuals through a tailored process that will address both hard and soft skills, and provide the education necessary for employees to assume management and control of the businesses themselves. CWBI is also forming partnerships with local and community-based support service organizations to ensure that worker-owners have access to programs and resources that will allow them to take full advantage of the opportunity to persist and be successful in the workplace, and, ultimately, to build wealth.

Utilizing best practices gleaned from Towards Employment (the initial workforce development partner for the Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland) the CWBI will recruit a diverse pool of applicants, focusing on harder-to-employ populations in areas with limited wealth-building opportunities, and from that pool, select employee-owners who exhibit a desire to grow both professionally and personally. In year one CWBI expects to employ at least 10 employee-owners, with projections of up to 40 employee-owners by year four.

The experience of the Evergreen Cooperatives and other groups demonstrates that when properly selected and trained, these employee-owners thrive, develop a sense of pride in their businesses, become vocal in their management, and avail themselves of the opportunity to share in wealth created by the businesses they control and operate. We are expecting no less in our region. The stormwater management business in Prince George’s County is just the first step in a Community Wealth Building Initiative that funders hope will impact all parts of our region, not just by getting folks a job, but by changing their lives.


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