Our findings point to an ecosystem-building approach that jumps in quickly to the hard work of building cooperative businesses, while also developing system-wide entrepreneurial leadership skills and clearly defining the ways that other ecosystem actors can be instrumental to this business development. In early-stage ecosystems, it is critical to strengthen the Essential Elements of the ecosystem: build member skills and capacity, mobilize appropriate capital, pair capital with cooperative-specific technical assistance, and increase the capacity of cooperative developers. Diverse actors can amplify the work of growth-oriented cooperative developers in a variety of ways.
Economic development and workforce development practitioners can collaborate with prospective cooperative developers to provide member training and small business supports and to develop market access opportunities.
Social movement allies can work with other actors in the ecosystem to co-create campaigns for inclusive economic development that creates market opportunities for worker cooperatives.
Local governments, capital providers and philanthropic funders can invest in supportive infrastructure such as business advisory services, and a variety of patient capital sources to support co-op development.
Worker cooperatives can invest in their own entrepreneurial leadership and connect more broadly to allies, understanding that they play a critical direct role in building local ecosystems for scale.
Educational institutions can take on multiple roles in an ecosystem—as research centers, anchor institutions, and key capacity-builders for cooperative development skills and expertise, particularly building management and entrepreneurial leadership capacity.
The past several decades of sustained growth in worker cooperatives offer us clear lessons. One such lesson is that deeper investment – not only in building cooperative businesses but in the supportive ecosystem itself – is needed to fully realize the promise that worker cooperatives offer our communities. Anyone interested in the potential of worker cooperatives as an inclusive economic development strategy should begin by investing in building this ecosystem.
Understanding early-stage ecosystem development work as long-term investment in a Cooperative Growth Ecosystem framework can help keep the focus on development of sustainable worker cooperative businesses. In this approach, cooperative developers are not struggling in isolation to launch one business or even five businesses, but building toward a longer-term tipping point, the density of high-impact cooperatives within an ecosystem of support. One eye is always on the next stages: Consolidate gains and Sustain the model.