A new approach to local economic development has never been more urgent, as poverty concentrates and inequality rises in cities across the United States[i]. A new approach has also never been more possible. Faced with a widening racial wealth gap, unprecedented displacement of people of color from urban cores, and deadlocked federal and state governments, cities across the country are flexing their local muscle to solve big problems. They are innovating. They are prioritizing strong local economies. Various public and private sector actors are working together to maximize broad-based community benefit in real and sustainable ways.
The Cooperative Growth Ecosystem framework encourages diverse stakeholders in the field of community economic development to invest in inclusive economic development by fostering cooperatively owned enterprises within a broader entrepreneurial ecosystem. It encourages organizations investing in worker cooperative development to push their conception of “cooperative business development” beyond basic supports for shared entrepreneurship to more coordinated, high-investment incubation and conversion models. It reframes quality jobs as well-paid jobs with ownership opportunities and envisions an ecosystem that can be leveraged to support viable worker-owned enterprises.
We started with the following questions:
– What are the key elements of an entrepreneurial ecosystem that supports sustainable growth of cooperative enterprises and their ability to create quality jobs and assets for low-wage workers?
– How do different elements in an ecosystem interact with each other to support pathways to scale—whether through startups, acceleration, or conversion of conventional businesses to cooperative ownership?
– Who are the actors in an ecosystem and how can they leverage existing resources and culture to develop and support those elements that are most critical for scale?
– Are there common stages of development for a Cooperative Growth Ecosystem?
– In active ecosystems like the five we studied, how can actors collaborate for next-stage growth?
– In communities where no worker cooperatives or co-op developers exist today, what is the best place to start?
In other words, how can all the actors in a place work together strategically to turn the demand for worker cooperatives into the supply of what is needed to create them?
Beginning to answer these questions—and using the answers to develop strategic action plans—will position those investing time, resources, and political capital in developing worker cooperatives for success. We believe that ecosystem thinking and well-informed collaboration can make the difference between creating a few worker cooperatives and building an ecosystem in which worker coops create good jobs and real wealth for large numbers of people who are today working poor, underemployed and unemployed.