How it happened

September 20, 2028: Doug O’Brien recently testified before the U.S. House Small Business Committee and the Senate Small Business committee on the role that cooperatives played in saving tens of thousands of small Main Street businesses in the wake of the economic downturn in the early 2020’s. He explained how a robust set of financial, technical assistance, and educational tools were set up quickly in 2021 to make it possible for workers, consumers, and small business owners to convert small businesses to worker, consumer, or multi-stakeholder cooperatives. Specifically, he pointed to:

  • Sizeable dedicated resources at the Small Business Administration through Small Business Development Centers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture that ensured nearly all small businesses that were considering selling or closing their business understood the opportunity to convert the business to a co-op;
  • A new finance mechanism that complimented the National Cooperative Bank, credit unions and CDFI that made it possible for people in local communities as well as social impact investors to finance the transactions;
  • An army of technical assistance specialists funded by SBA and USDA to help people with the complicated work of establishing a cooperative and transferring an ongoing business;
  • The emphasis of this work in persistent poverty and communities of color in both urban and rural communities. By GAO estimates, over 50,000 minority and women owned businesses were created with the coordinated policy strategy.

O’Brien also pointed to the crucial role that worker-owned cooperatives have played in the reengineering of the child-care and home care sectors. With the infusion of billions of dollars into these critical sectors in the early part of the decade, the cooperative community presented an elegant solution embraced by policy makers: Empower the workers – who are much more likely to be women and people of color – to own and control thousands of the new small businesses that solve some of the most nettlesome local community challenges.

What O’Brien did not share at the Congressional Hearings was the ground work that made these changes possible. An extraordinary effort to build grassroots and grasstops support emanated from the twin locus of the formidable established cooperative community as well as the energy and ingenuity of the Shared Ownership Coalition. This blend of old and new leveraged the strength of millions of people seeking a solution to systems that resulted in yawning inequality, intransigent climate policy, and a new era of technopolies that captured most of the value of the knowledge-based economy to benefit the few.

The alliance was not always easy. It took deep work so that key players understood the impassioned and settled views of many leaders – from all quarters. Different players also had varying ideas on how and when to use certain tactics. Some excelled at quiet conversations seeking to move key policy makers, while others were much more upfront and sought to bold tactics designed to optimize attention and exposure.

The movement not only shifted the ground on how people think about cooperatives in the realm of small businesses; it also created a real alternative for knowledge-based workers to join together at scale so that consumers again realized real choice in the marketplace. For many people across the globe, the success of the movement has provided agency not recognized for generations. The people who have come of age in this era – known as the C-19’s – promise to continue to bend the arc of history away from the injustices and inequities that became so stark earlier in the decade. The recent successes are first set of transformational events resulting from the organizing, coalition building, and strategic advocacy in the last decade.

2 thoughts on “How it happened

  1. Marvelous! Surely a vision of just how we finally tie capital to place and restore human dignity to the workplace!


  2. Hi Doug–You’ve given me part of the answer to my question of what specific policy recommendations are needed to make the world I envision in 2050 possible. I love the world we’re building toward! As an advisor to businesses, I found many business owners would avoid SBA loans if at all possible because of burden requiring personal guarantees. Many also were reluctant to consider an ESOP because they couldn’t get their “number” from the sale of the business, it felt too risky to finance personally, or they felt their employees were inadequately trained/prepared to run a business. (Some even got that they hadn’t done enough to develop them). As I understand from Jennifer, that personal guarantee is also what makes it nearly impossible to lend to coops today. So I’m curious to hear you tell us more about “A new finance mechanism that complimented the National Cooperative Bank [sorry–what is that?like CoBank?], credit unions and CDFI that made it possible for people in local communities as well as social impact investors to finance the transactions”.


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