SOCAP Conversations: Entrepreneur Minhaj Chowdhury on Overcoming Challenges in Social Impact Work

Posted by on August 14th, 2015

minhaj chowdhuryMinhaj Chowdhury is the co-founder and CEO of DrinkWell, a venture that is working to solve the global crisis of arsenic contaminated water. His venture supplies filtration technology and business tools to a network of entrepreneurs who sell arsenic free water within their local communities. In 2014 Minhaj was named a 2014 Echoing Green Global Fellow, and won a scholarship to SOCAP and a Gratitude Award. This year he was named one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs.

We recently reached Minhaj in Bangladesh to talk about his path to entrepreneurship and his insight into what it takes to build an innovative social impact venture.


SOCAP: You grew up in the US, but have family in Bangladesh, some of whom have been affected by arsenic poisoning. Do you think it is helpful for impact entrepreneurs to have personal connections to their area of impact?

I absolutely think it is. It is just so hard otherwise. To fish out the motivation and tenacity you need. Especially working in countries where the institutions are broken, the infrastructure is far from smooth, the rule of law and governance are severely lacking, where the ability to maintain accountability is severely challenging. It’s not just one issue of, “how do I set up a clean water filtration system that can provide people safe water?” It’s all these other things that impede any entrepreneur from doing well. So you are really taking on a litany of issues all at the same time. Ironically what I’ve found is that, the deeper I get into this work, the deeper I try to scale it, the less time I’m actually spending on the actual product and the more time I’m spending on these kind of ecosystem governance issues that we need to deal with to really scale the solution. When it comes to supply chain, when it comes to franchise contracts, endorsements, and all kinds of other things that creates the enabling environment for you to scale.

I was drawn to this issue because my family’s home villages were affected by the arsenic crisis. We had family members fall sick and some passed away. Certain friends and family members maintained positions in the civil service that continuously failed at solving this issue. That really helped me understand the problem. What really got me to invest my life in this problem was the fact that I found myself being uniquely advantaged to traverse the worlds between Bangladesh and the US. I could speak Bangla in Bangladesh and really connect with the lowest decile populations. I can venture out in the village and speak with people, and really get the true story of what their challenges are. I am also comfortable in a suit stateside where I can pitch and present in boardrooms in the US where the flows of capital are sufficient to actually achieve scale. My family connections with the public health sector and other stakeholders have helped me pursue this.

So having a support system on the ground helps you overcome many of the unique challenges found in social impact work?

Yes, I rely on my family. The biggest issue with scaling a social enterprise is finding the right talent. Talent that you know can be good managers. My family has built large businesses in Bangladesh so I’ve been able to access the talent pools there to fill critical positions for Drinkwell with trustworthy, reliable staff that can get the job done without taking advantage of the fact that they are working for a firm run by a Bangladeshi-American. I really rely on my family for that piece of human resource, talent needs. Which is I think the biggest issue, not just in Bangladesh and India, but frankly anywhere. So having a local connection, specifically with family that has been enterprising, helps me overcome that.

Another challenge is with procurement, supply chain, and general know-how of how to operate in a country in a prudent way. Capital from the US is great, but know-how is severely lacking. Frankly, it is unfair for me to expect someone based in San Francisco who wants to invest in impact to be able to add operational value. And so having the family here helps. And then beyond all those more tactical things, I think just the peace of mind knowing you have your family, they love you, they care for you, they are here for you is helpful. But what really got me over the line is fellowships.

I credit a lot of my drive to the Fulbright Fellowship program. Another important fellowship that helped me get Drinkwell off the ground was Echoing Green. That is a family of entrepreneurs that are really trying to build businesses in these really hard to reach areas. So Echoing Green, they are a fantastic two-year fellowship program that really, beyond the two years when they give you funding, they give you a network of hundreds of fellows based all over the world. I have in my cohort alone at least a dozen other entrepreneurs based in India who I can call up, or meet up with and say, “Hey it’s been really stressful. What about you?” We’re all in it together and that helps with the lows. And I think so it’s that combination of family and fellowships that really helps me persevere through the grind of entrepreneurship.

What is really inspiring you in your work right now. What is giving you hope?

I would say, by far, it is meeting with prospective entrepreneurs. On the field in Bangladesh we have the chance to connect with amazing people who don’t have access to Microsoft Office or the Internet. My view of impact today is that you can be successful only if you know how to use Microsoft Office. That is the structural mechanism that is set for funding and for progress. There are so many people that are close to the problem, and even closer to the solution, that we never hear from at conferences or case studies because they can’t communicate through Microsoft Office. When I meet with them it gives me a whole new perspective on the hope that we have in solving these crises. Because these voices, despite being underserved and unheard, are persisting because it is a matter of life or death for them. And they have some incredibly innovative ideas on how to solve issues.

One of our entrepreneurs got an innovative idea from one of our customer’s experiences with our product. It has been very tough to convince people to buy our water. Because water is something that should be, frankly, free. It’s a human right. So how do you then convince people to purchase safe water? Arsenic free water is something you can’t visibly see the benefit of because arsenic is something that you can’t see or smell. The entrepreneur I speak of heard about a young woman who found a 10 liter jug of Drinkwell water in her home for the first time and thought, “Well that is interesting, we’ve never bought water before. I don’t know what this is for but I’m just about to take a shower so maybe I should use this.” Drinkwell launched during wedding season. She was getting ready for a wedding event that night–a holud. So she used our water for showering and then at the reception everyone said to her, “Oh my gosh, how is your hair so smooth?” And she told them, “Oh I used Drinkwell water.” Sales went up 200%.

Getting better health outcomes is a long-term benefit. Arsenic itself takes about two to five years to onset. So I’m not going to part with my hard earned dollars for that. But man if I can immediately look good like this, I’m in. I’ll definitely subscribe to this water. This entrepreneur picked up on that. And really helped brand the water, as what is essentially in Bangla, “Drinkwell, Live-well, Be-well.”

What really hit this home for me was she said I want to change the consumer’s mindset in looking at this product as an alternative to free water and I actually want them to look as an alternative to a beauty product like shampoo or detergent. If I can convince people to use my water because it has less iron for smooth hair, for better tasting fish when cooking, for whiter whites when doing laundry, and then happen to also get the long term health benefits because they are consuming my water, then we have won.

This insight would never have occurred if we stuck to our lean start-up approach focused on building experiments in Excel and just executing those out in the field without involving her directly in our process. By giving these entrepreneurs the agency to really take on the marketing and sales themselves we’re able to prove there is hope in solving this through innovative ways.

What do you foresee coming up for Drinkwell in the next year?

We’re currently preparing for scale. The biggest barrier to that is accessing finances for entrepreneurs. I don’t think that’s exclusive to us. I think any tech energy or water social enterprise really has to confront the issue of, especially with high upfront costs, how to bridge the gap that your franchisees may have. So we want to focus on really building partnerships and derisking cash flow for our franchisees to the point where other debt financiers come in and provide debt. It’s a very scarce resource in social impact. Up until now we’ve really scaled through CSR and grants. Now we’re really buttoning up our operations to have much more long term visibility into cash flows. Implementing cash management processes, like the inclusion of mobile money where you can guard against theft, will be critical to give microlenders the assurance they need around payments. That is the top risk that I’m focused on both this year and next year.

Beyond that, another huge development for us is that we recently received a government grant to set up pipe water systems, which is really the holy grail. We want to mimic the experience we get here in the U.S. of being able to turn the tap and have safe water. We plan to execute those projects by the last quarter of this year. If that goes well it changes the entire game. The government financing is great because the government should provide the capex financing (as opposed to microlenders) as we feel the public sector is a critical stakeholder to eradicating the water crisis. So if we can nurture these public-private partnerships and marry them with the innovations around mobile technology specifically surrounding payments and sensors, there is no reason why we can’t reach a million people by 2017.

Minhaj Chowdhury earned his degree in Public Health Studies from Johns Hopkins University in 2011. After graduation he won a Fulbright Fellowship and spent the next year in Dhaka, Bangladesh developing and testing three social business models across six villages as potential market-based solutions to the arsenic water crisis. He presented his findings to heads of Bangladesh Ministry of Health, UNICEF, WaterAid Bangladesh, Dhaka WASA, and the US Ambassador to Bangladesh. After his Fulbright, Minhaj spent 2 years helping public sector organizations design and deploy health insurance exchanges and data systems via Salesforce as a technology consultant. He now is the CEO and Co-Founder of Drinkwell.

For social entrepreneurs who are looking for advice on how to maximize your SOCAP experience, read Minhaj’s Chowdhury’s article How to Get the Most out of SOCAP: Tips for Entreprenuers.

SOCAP Voices: Judy Wicks On Inspiration, Investing, and Impact at the Local Level

Posted by on July 30th, 2015

rsz_1judywicksMany members in the SOCAP community are working inside traditional capital markets to create change, whereas others are pursuing disruptive systems. Local investing is gaining momentum as an alternative to the aggressive profit-maximization driven through the stock market, and as a catalyst for tangible social and environmental impact. We recently asked BALLE Co-founder and living local economies thought-leader Judy Wicks to share with us a few of her own thoughts on the localist movement.

We spoke to Judy after she delivered the keynote address at an event for entrepreneurs from the nature-based business accelerator program Accelerating Appalachia.

SOCAP: What is inspiring you in your work right now?

Judy Wicks: What’s inspiring me are the young entrepreneurs that are working on new concepts that are green and locally based. I feel like our hope for the future really lies in these young entrepreneurs rebuilding the economy. We need to help them and it was great to hear from so many of them at tonight’s event.

What infrastructure or resources are missing that are necessary to catalyze the social entrepreneurial movement at the local level?

I think the main thing is just awareness on the part of the general public and the consumer to be mindful of the power of the dollar. And how they spend their dollars. Investing, buying, (and) selling has a lot of power. We’re actually creating the world we live in by how we spend our money. People are very much oblivious to that. Even when they have fair trade options available. People don’t pay attention to whether a chocolate is fair trade or not.

A lot of people don’t pay attention to whether something is local. People aren’t being mindful. I think that’s beginning to change and think that’s also the holdback because we’re not going to get anywhere until people are mindful of how they spend their money.

So it’s not just the entrepreneurs that have to become more mindful in how they run their businesses but consumers have to be more mindful in how they shop. By not shopping in a wasteful way and buying things we don’t need and buying trivia. But also really understanding the power of the dollar. That we can build a local economy if we all support it.

And of course investment is a big thing. Getting people to take money out of the stock market, and really money in the stock market is supporting an economy that’s disastrous. It’s causing climate change and great inequality, rising inequality, yet people continue to invest in the stock market. A suicidal economy. So I think that’s the most important thing is just to get people to wake up and realize that we can build a new economy, but it takes everybody.

Where are the most impactful places an investor can invest at the local level?

The most important thing is to build the capacity to produce basic needs regionally; food, shelter, clothing, and renewable energy. And those are the most important areas to invest in. Accelerating Appalachia is a great example of a program that provides services to regional “basic needs businesses” in food, farming, forest products, fiber, and fuel. They provide a vetted pipeline of investment-ready nature-based businesses to help investors move their investments from Wall Street to Main Street. When building a sustainable food systems, we need to help farmers but also the local food enterprises that process food, so that ultimately, when we walk into a grocery store, it’s not just the fresh produce that is local but also the products in the middle aisles come from small regional producers who are responsible to the environment and to their community.

Clothing; one of the most wasteful and gradually destructive industries is clothing and all the dyes and stuff is very polluting. So, we need investment in sustainable fashion and getting the textile industry started up again in our communities. There’s hemp. We need to legalize hemp and we need to invest in that – Kentucky has legalized hemp and ACAP has connected KY hemp growers to regional food and fiber producers. Eric Henry started up Dirt to Shirt here in North Carolina, because he realized that the t-shirts he was buying the cotton was not from North Carolina, yet North Carolina is a cotton state. So that’s where investment is needed. How can we build our local supply chains so that we have cotton from North Carolina?

The food shed, the fiber shed, renewable energy sources, renewable energy, wind turbines, solar panels, electric cars, we need charging stations. All those things, green building. The whole green building industry, building materials, can we produce more building materials locally through sustainable forestry, through sustainable quarries, brick making. So those areas of basic needs are the most important ones to invest in so that our regions become self-reliant and have food security, energy security, water security and so on. It’s great to see programs like Accelerating Appalachia growing support for those basic needs businesses and investments.

Judy Wicks is a leader in the local-living-economies movement and the Co-founder and Board Chair Emeritus of BALLE. As the Founder of Philadelphia’s White Dog Café, Judy pioneered new socially and environmentally responsible business practices that have inspired entrepreneurs worldwide. In 2013, She published her memoir and a manifesto for economic change at the local level, Good Morning, Beautiful Business: The Unexpected Journey of an Activist Entrepreneur and Local-Economy Pioneer. Judy first appeared at the Social Capital Markets Conference in 2014. Watch Judy Wicks’ speech at SOCAP14: Loving Local: Place, Economy, and Community.

BALLE is a SOCAP Network Partner that will be featured at SOCAP15 October 6-9th.

SOCAP Voices: A Conversation with Rosa Lee Harden

Posted by on July 23rd, 2015

Watch Carol Sanford’s Interview with Rosa Lee Harden

Before she co-founded the Social Capital Markets Conference (SOCAP), Rosa Lee Harden built a successful career as an entrepreneur and publisher of newspapers, magazines, and trade journals. As an ordained Episcopal priest, she served as the leader of Holy Innocents Church in San Francisco for 10 years. Today, Rosa Lee is the Executive Producer of SOCAP15. She also serves as Canon for Money & Meaning at The Cathedral of All Souls in Asheville, North Carolina.

Rosa Lee recently sat down for a thoughtful conversation about faith, entrepreneurship, impact investing, community building and other topics at the intersection of money and meaning with Carol Sanford, author of the book The Responsible Entrepreneur.

In Part 1 of her conversation with Carol, Rosa Lee discusses the pathways she has taken in her journey as a serial entrepreneur, priest, and convener. She recalls her introduction to impact investing and enterprise philanthropy, her growing conviction that the need for people of faith to be involved in those arenas, and the bridge between money and faith.

Part 2: How have you made the progression from personal investing to community investing?

Rosa Lee tells how, in the early 2000’s, Good Capital Co-founders Kevin Jones (Rosa Lee’s husband) and Tim Freundlich saw in the impact investing community a need for a space where entrepreneurs and investors could meet, share knowledge, and work together to create positive social and environmental change. Their realization that a supportive community of investors could make much more of a social impact than individual investors working alone led them to invite Rosa Lee to be a part of creating SOCAP.

Part 3: What is the purpose of SOCAP?

Rosa Lee answers by talking about how SOCAP brings together investors, entrepreneurs, academics, non-profit leaders, and other professionals working in the social impact space together in the same space. The SOCAP conference was designed to build the impact community by showcasing new ideas and enterprises while bringing together, “people who are thinking about this in a wide variety of ways to see what synergies can happen. To see how creative we can get. How you can learn from me and I can learn from you. To have our community physically present so we can have these conversations.”

Part 4: What new changes are you excited about as a result of your work?

Rosa Lee discusses how exciting it has been to watch the growth of interest in impact investing. Annual increases in attendance numbers at SOCAP testifies to that. Increasingly, people are thinking differently about how they invest and how they spend their money. She also talks about how encouraged she has been to see the collaborations that have come out of the diverse SOCAP community, the rising number of other conveners who are creating events focused on social impact.

Part 5: What do you keep in mind when making investment choices?

Rosa Lee highlights the importance of understanding the unique values and goals of each investor when choosing impact investments. For some groups, financial return will be a requirement, while others will be entirely focused on social returns. She gives some examples of investments that demonstrate how vital it is for each individual investor or investment group to discuss and understand the desired returns, both financial and social.

Part 6: How does one go about moving into the 100% Club?

Carol asks Rosa Lee her thoughts on Charlie and Lisa Kleisner’s “100% club,” in which investors work towards having 100% of their assets in social impact investments. Rosa Lee discusses that strategy, and also how important it is for anyone interested in impact investing to realize that they can still make a difference even if they cannot realistically achieve that 100% mark.

Part 7: How do you reconcile your aspirations and your ability to act?

Rosa Lee discusses a spiritual process we can use to make peace between the desire for change and real life challenges that can make change difficult. She also talks about the strength that can come from faith and from being part of a supportive community. Rosa Lee answers this question in part, with these thoughts on impact investing:

“Just do what you can do and quit worrying about the things you can’t do and find a community, which we find through SOCAP. Or you might find through a giving circle in your hometown, or you might find through a church group or you might find by connecting with folks through a podcast. Find a community who supports you in that and figure out how to be supported in the work that you want to do in the world.”

Join Vineet Rai and Kevin Jones in Conversation: Sign Up for the Impact Investing 2.0 Webinar

Posted by on July 17th, 2015

webinar image squareWe are excited to share that Kevin Doyle Jones and Vineet Rai will be meeting online to discuss the future of impact investing, and share their unique perspectives on emerging developments in the global impact investment movement. You are invited to watch Kevin and Vineet’s Impact Investing 2.0 webinar on Friday July 24th 12pm-1pm Eastern Time/9am – 10am Pacific.

Sign Up for the Impact Investing 2.0 Webinar Here 

This webinar will be recorded. If you are uncertain whether or not you will be available to watch the webinar the day of the event, sign up for the event to be notified when the video is released online.


A Conversation Between Two Leaders in the Impact Investment Movement

The webinar promises to offer a provocative and forward looking conversation between two of the most knowledgeable figures working in the impact investing space today:

Vineet Rai is the Co-founder and Chairman of Intellecap, convener of Sankalp Forum – one of the foremost convening platforms for conversation on global inclusive development. He is also the Founder and Managing Director of Aavishkaar and he chairs the Board of Villgro, an incubating and funding platform, and IntelleGrow, an Intellecap subsidiary, which provides venture debt services to impact enterprises. His career has included work in early-stage venture capital, microenterprises, microfinance investments, incubations. Vineet also served on the International Development Working Group of G8 Task Force on Impact Investing in 2014.

Kevin Doyle Jones is a Co-Founder and Convener of SOCAP and the founder of Good Capital, an Impact Investment Fund which created one of the first social enterprise expansion funds (SEEF). His latest GoodCap incubated project can be found at

Topics for Discussion

Potential topics for conversation during the Impact Investing 2.0 webinar include:

  • Questions for the Future of Impact Investing: Where are we headed? Are we at the cutting edge or playing it safe? Are we effectively leveraging technology and analyzing data to inform the future of impact investing?
  • Course Correction: Should we rethink the relevance of impact investing? What is the new benchmark we should set?
  • Collaboration: How we do we enable effective collaboration and move towards exponential growth realization? Who are the new players, how do we enable quick integration for them

Let us know what topics related to impact investing you are most interested in hearing discussed during this conversation. When you sign up for the webinar, please submit your questions for Kevin Jones and Vineet Rai.

Watch Kevin and Vineet On Stage Together at SOCAP14

Kevin and Vineet last appeared together on the SOCAP stage in 2014 at the closing plenary session. During that conversation, which was moderated by Penelope Douglas, Kevin and Vineet looked to the future of impact along with entrepreneur Catherine Hoke of Defy Ventures and Lisa Sharon Harper of the Christian social justice organization, Sojourners. To see Kevin and Vineet in conversation before the Impact Investing 2.0 Webinar on Friday, July 24th, watch the video of that panel:

SOCAP Voices: Gar Alperovitz

Posted by on July 9th, 2015

“Fellow revolutionaries I am delighted to be with you…”

Gar Alperovitz greeted his audience at SOCAP12 as, “fellow revolutionaries.” His speech focused on co-ops, worker owned companies, and the New Economy Movement, but he also spoke of the necessity of a broader movement. In 2015 that broader movement is coming together. Gar now serves as Co-Chair of The Next System Project, an initiative designed to stir productive conversations and debates that will ultimately lead to sustainable, lasting, and more democratic social, economic, and ecological outcomes for all.

The SOCAP community cares deeply about, and is already working to solve, many of the systemic problems identified by The Next System Project: economic inequality, generational poverty, climate change, racial injustice, and others. Watch Gar’s 2012 speech to see the groundwork and then visit to sign on or learn more about how you can participate in the process of creating systemic solutions.

How Do We Build the New Democratic Economy We Need?

As I was listening to the last two speakers, it occurred to me, looking around the room as well, that the way to begin this talk is to say, fellow revolutionaries I am delighted to be with you. And I mean that in a very fundamental way. I think we are talking about transforming the largest economy in the history of the world and a world economy that is in great difficulty; there are great economic difficulties, ecological problems, we all know that. I don’t know that we all get how deep it is. So I want to talk to you just a bit about something called the New Economy Movement and then give you some ideas about going to scale that are beginning to dawn on people when they face the depth of the problem we all face. Just to begin, I’ve been traveling around the country lately and the so-called New Economy Movement includes: you all, it includes co-ops, worker-owned companies, land trusts.

There are 130 million Americans who are members of co-ops. Most people don’t know that. There are 10 million Americans who are members of worker owned companies: some 11,000 of them. There are more people involved in worker owned companies than there are members of unions in the private sector—very strange things going on. There are neighborhood corporations, four or five thousand of them. Several thousand social enterprises of various kinds—you folks are more familiar I am sure with the social enterprise movement. But there is a movement building that cuts across many, many parts of the spectrum and indeed it is calling itself the new economy movement for lack of better terms. The thing I think is important about it, and why it could be transformative including the direction that is represented by this cutting edge part of the movement is it in fact is asking itself, “are we up to, really, what it would take to transform an economic system—not just doing isolated projects, but projects that build up and begin to ask that big, big question together in a strategic way, not simply a tactical way.

democracycollaborative (3)So I’m going come back at the end of this brief talk to talk about a few cities, so let me give you just a hint of what I mean. We’ve been working, our group the Democracy Collaborative, Ted Howard is the executive director, in the city of Cleveland. (Cleveland) has gone from 900,000 people to 400,000 people over the last 30 years. Where did all the people go? They disappeared. They were scattered. Something strange is happening when a whole city [vanishes]…we are throwing away cities. Think of not only the human cost but the capital cost of schools, houses, roads, hospitals: everything in place for that population had to be rebuilt someplace else again at same huge capital cost and also huge carbon cost.

Secondly, when you destabilize whole cities and throw them away—and this is part of what’s being addressed at this other level—you cannot do serious sustainability planning. You can’t do mass transit planning and you can’t do high density housing planning and it’s hard even to keep the economic base available for smaller projects of various kinds when you undermine whole cities.

If you’ve been to Detroit recently, they lost a million people. They went someplace else. Nobody pays attention to the human costs, and the capital costs, and the carbon costs, and what happens in terms of climate change if you can’t do the kinds of things we are talking about. So I want to open up that level of scale as well in our conversation. So I don’t think we here are talking about projects alone. I don’t think we are talking only about entrepreneurship, I don’t think we are talking only about impact investing. I think we are talking, and I sometimes wear a historian’s hat, I think we are talking about laying down the foundations and ideas, people, projects, experiments, for something new and difficult. We are establishing the prehistory in this work, step-by-step, of the possible great transformation.

So I am talking to you about identity: who we are in the matter. Are we doing projects? Are we doing investing? Are we doing great programs? I’m talking to the person in your chair. Or are we seeing ourselves as part of this larger historic process of transforming an entire economy and indeed the world economy by implication. Our project is there. But if we can do it here we will offer leadership I think in a time of great, great crisis.

So that’s what (I’m older than some of the folks here) that used to be called a heavy rap. That is something that, if we take ourselves deeply seriously, we might get to. So, to use the term that’s popular here, that’s the lens that I’d like you to think about as we go into some of this.

The second way to think about it is this: can we begin to think of scale and ownership in a different way. Ownership. I mentioned those 10,000 companies that are worker owned. Most people don’t know about it because the press doesn’t cover it. 10 million people. I mentioned 130 million people in co-ops. Most people don’t know about that. But how do we take that idea to scale and how do we talk about ownership in a different way.

The number that keeps ringing in my ears when I think about this is a very strange number. I didn’t believe this number. This number has to do with democracy. Four hundred people, people not percentage, 400 individual people now in the United States have more wealth than the bottom 180 million people taken together. That is literally a medieval number. I don’t mean that rhetorically. That is how medieval society was organized. And if you want to step up to our revolutionary problem: can we have a democratic society if we don’t democratize ownership in a different way so that people have a very different stake in what they are doing and have ownership in a meaningful way that takes it all across the society? So what does that mean? That’s what those co-ops and these worker owned companies are about— trying to actually get a practical idea [of how to do this]… entrepreneurs individually are part of this. Building up a different way and a different sense of ownership as well as an experience of ownership. Most of what we are talking about so far is at a scale that doesn’t yet get us to where we want to go. That’s what I mean about pre-history that developmental period.

Most of the programs that became The New Deal in the 1930s came from people like the people here in this room, in the laboratories of democracy who then moved things to scale when the time was right. And I think that’s also what you’re beginning to see. But there are also some really interesting examples building up that begin to ask: how do we address Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore, St. Louis, those bigger problems in many cities throughout the country and also the distribution of income and wealth in a different way. We’re not getting there on the tax front, changing ownership is part of the answer, most people think. And were almost certain to see a lot more of it.

So I wanted to give you just a feel, the beginning feel, of some of the other possibilities that push us to that revolutionary scale, just a little bit. Some of you may know about the Mondragon Corporation out in the Basque country of Spain. It is a cooperative, worker owned cooperative, (shows picture of inside Mondragon). This is going to scale: 85 thousand people, a huge operation. Does everything from sales, to high-tech, sales, to construction, to medical instruments to aerospace. And it is in entirely worker owned as a cooperative. Strange, not your little garden variety cooperative. A way to think about the future. Not only, but the ratio internally of top to bottom [in wages], if we want to think about the equity lens, [is capped in most of the Mondragon coops at] 6 to 1. Think about that. Worker owned, high tech, 85 thousand people. Top to bottom ratio of 6 to 1. And it is penetrating markets all over the world and it is thriving in, not only Spain. In a few of the larger sector coops they realized they had to change the pay ratio slightly because they were much bigger, so 8 to 1 is the max. Here, [in the US] top paid to bottom paid [at] big corporations are commonly 250 to 1. 300 to 1. They are demonstrating there that you can do things you didn’t think you could do through democratic ownership. That is just one example. Just a flavor.

Its happening around the world and the light bulb is how we are beginning to ask the same question in the New Economy Movement. There’s another place in the Emilia Romagna area of Spain. 15,000 linked worker owned cooperatives, and again it’s high tech. It’s taken the poorest region of Italy to the one of the richest regions over 30 years in all of Europe in a very very carefully interlinked and well-managed structure of worker owned coops that are high tech and working. In fact it is the subject of new studies by MIT’s political scientists as a way to move to the future. You get both decentralization, change of ownership, you get high tech and you get real impact at large scale in whole regions. Think of Cleveland, think of St. Louis, think of Detroit and think of what we are not addressing. And think of us us moving over time to different scale. There’s another one in Japan, [a consumer cooperative called Seikatsu], same thing happening at a large scale that I don’t have time to go into given the time available.

I do want to tell you about one of the most fascinating and powerful experiments going on in the United States. It’s in Cleveland, where there are a series of worker owned cooperatives, linked together by a revolving fund and a nonprofit corporation. Odd structure. It is a community building structure that has worker ownership in it, but the revolving fund supports expansion over time of this structure, and allows you to build community as well. This is one of them (shows photograph). These are the Evergreen Cooperatives. One is the largest, in the United States, greenhouse, in an urban area—a co-op capable of producing 3 million heads of lettuce a year. That’s one of the linked cooperatives in this area, and it’s an area of 40 thousand people whose average income is 18 thousand. Here’s another one. That’s the Evergreen Energy Solutions, another solar co-op, one of the linked ones putting in more installation than exists in all the state of Ohio over the next three years. Twice as much. Here’s a third: the most advanced industrial scale laundry in the Midwest and the greenest as well. Very high-tech. And that’s the scale of what is beginning to be possible.

Atlanta is now moving in the same direction and trying to apply this worker owned cooperative model and its impact, linked together, to build out from there. They’re also using the purchasing power of large-scale anchor institutions—hospitals, universities, 3 billion dollars of purchases in that area of Cleveland, none of which went to that area. So they’re beginning to leverage that.

Pittsburgh, Washington DC and several other cities—Milwaukee, Chicago—are now considering it. Amarillo, Texas is doing it. There is something happening that is beginning to take transforming ownership, building community, and this direction forward as part of the larger New Economy Movement we all share together. It is a very interesting moment in history. We are not simply doing projects. We’re not simply doing great things. We are, I think maybe, laying down this groundwork. And I suspect there are people in this room, possibly the person sitting in your chair, who will take this larger direction, this larger movement we all share, and make it the next great American revolution, together. Thank you very much.



Some exciting Next System Project programming will be featured at SOCAP15. To participate in the conversation about what should come next, join the SOCAP Community in San Francisco, October 6-9 at the Fort Mason Center.