Business guru and supporter Kimber Lanning is expanding the reach of the non-profit that advocates a "buy local" philosophy to help Arizona-based Hispanic businesses promote their products and increase their outreach.
The new Fuerza Local has been established to help businesses build a network that can promote their products.
So far, more than 50 Latino-owned and -operated businesses have joined Fuerza Local, she said.
Lanning expected more to join at Wednesday night's mixer in west Phoenix. She described it as an opportunity for business owners to learn more about Fuerza Local's abilty to help them grow their businesses.
Hundreds of Latino-owned businesses -- small and large -- exist throughout the state.
"Obviously the Latino business community is an enormous factor in the health of the local economy in the state of Arizona," said Lanning, who founded the non-profit business advocacy and network Local First Arizona.
She said Fuerza Local is under the umbrella of Local First Arizona, which advocates for Arizona businesses.
To draw out Latino business owners across the Valley, Fuerza Local has started hosting mixers, with most of the conversations between business officials taking place in Spanish.
Lanning said Local First Arizona officials have been on the popular Phoenix radio station Radio Campesina and have given interviews with other Spanish-language media to tout the new network for Arizona businesses.
Annual membership fees for Local First Arizona and Fuerza Local range from $35 to $49.
Business owners and operators who join Fuerza Local will be able to access discounts for Arizona businesses, Lanning said. Learn more at localfirstaz.com.
Lanning said she is brushing up on her Spanish.
"Although I delivered all the welcoming comments in Spanish" at the most recent mixer, "when people start asking me questions back, I have two people helping me if I get lost," she said.
The BALLE Fellowship is the premiere learning and leadership community dedicated to connecting innovative and visionary local leaders. Our current fellows are creating impressive impact across the country as they work to stengthen their communities:
Kimber Lanning talks to USA Today about Fuerza Local, Local First Arizona’s Spanish-language campaign to empower the latino business community
Through their Growing New Farmers program, Jamee Haley of Lowcountry Local First secured a $94,000 USDA grant to jumpstart their incubator farm
Sponsor Feature: Etsy.com Save the Date for Etsy Craft Party 2012
From our friends at Etsy.
On Friday, August 24, 2012, we invite you to celebrate two cherished elements of our handmade lives — craft and community — by taking part in the 3rd annual Etsy Craft Party.
Craft Party celebrates meeting and making. It’s a time to have fun, show local pride, and share a creative skill. This year’s theme, “Wish You Were Here,” is ideal for BALLE — think about regional crafts, music, food, and landmarks that can spark hands-on creativity with a local flavor.
Etsy invites BALLE business owners to open their doors and host a Craft Party. We will provide online tools to help with organization and are working with partners to provide supplies. Further, we can help you join forces with an Etsy team (self-organized groups of Etsy members) in your area that is eager to participate with local businesses.
Like us? Then "Like" us! Following us? Then "Follow" us!
Recently, while in Grand Rapids, I had the occasion to meet Judy Wicks, the founder of the White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia, and the woman who, ten years ago, brought the Business Alliance for Living Local Economies (BALLE) into being. Since the meeting, we’ve been chatting by way of email… Here’s the interview.
MARK: Having just returned from the BALLE conference, I wanted to ask you a few questions about the organization, how it got started, and where you see the localist movement headed. Before we talk about BALLE, though, I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about your restaurant in Philadelphia, White Dog Cafe, and why you decided to open it 1983. Did you open it with the intention of pushing the envelope with regard to sustainability and ethical business practices, or did those ideas just evolve naturally over time?
JUDY: When I opened the White Dog Cafe on the first floor of my house, in 1983, I had never heard of sustainability or even socially responsible business. I just wanted to have a warm gathering place serving simple American food, where people could gather for friendship and good conversation. My ideas about business developed over time. My business was my teacher and became my vehicle for bringing social change.
MARK: I’ve read that, prior to the launch of White Dog, you were a co-founder of the Free People’s Store, which later became Urban Outfitters. I’m curious to know if the trajectory of Urban Outfitters in any way influenced your views on business. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but, having heard a few things about the culture, ethics and politics of Urban Outfitters, I’m wondering if what you did at White Dog, and later, through BALLE, was in any way in response to that experience.
JUDY: No, it was in no way a response. I started the Free People’s Store in 1970 with my first husband (Richard Hayne), my 5th grade boyfriend. We were 23 at the time and were very aligned politically as anti-war, anti-corporate progressives. The store was a sixties kind of place with progressive books, houseplants, new and used clothing, and hip house wares – a sort of department store for the under 30 crowd. We even campaigned for George McGovern out of the store. I left the marriage and the business in 1972 because I wanted to seek my own path for a number of reasons. As I continued my progressive views and learned to use my business to express those views through the educational programs at the restaurant as well as my business practices, I was unaware that my ex-husband had changed his views until about 10 years ago and that really had no effect on me whatsoever. We don’t talk politics or business when we do happen to run into each other.
MARK: White Dog was at the forefront of the local food movement, using local ingredients, nurturing relationships with farmers in the region, and encouraging other restaurants to do the same. If I’m not mistaken, you not only cultivated a network of local suppliers, but you shared your supplier list with your competitors. (My guess is that you wouldn’t refer to them as competitors, but you know what I mean.) Why did you think that this was important? Was it in reaction to the practices of factory farms, especially as they related to animal welfare? Or, was it more about taste and quality? Or, were you consciously trying, in your way, to hasten the reemergence of the small-scale “family” farm?
JUDY: My decision to share my farm suppliers with my competitors was a big turning point in my career, in my life really. I did it first of all because of my love for animals and my abhorrence of the factory farm system that is so inhumane to the animals that provide so much for humans. It is a moral issue for me. But also, the whole experience made me very conscious that it is not enough to have good business values and practices within our companies, but that we have to work together to build a whole economy with those values. There is no such thing as one sustainable business. We can only be a part of a sustainable system, and we must work cooperatively to build that system. Supporting local family farms by getting as many restaurants to buy from them as possible was something I could help do. Not only did I share my sources, but I used my own profits to start Fair Food and hire someone to provide free assistance to chefs in learning to buy from farmers. I also loaned $30,000 to the farmer bringing us pastured pork so that he could buy a truck to deliver to many restaurants. So, for me, it was not only about cooperating, but also sharing – two things we need to do in creating a sustainable world for all. Caring is at the base of it all.
MARK: I’ve read that you sold White Dog in 2009, but that you did so in such a way that local ownership was preserved, and the culture that you’d created would continue. Can you tell us how you were able to manage that?
JUDY: Yes, I kept ownership of the name White Dog Cafe and I now license the name to the new owners of the restaurant along with a social contract that requires them to maintain most all the sustainable practices I developed there, such as buying from local farmers, using only humanely raised meat, poultry and eggs, only sustainably caught seafood, fair trade chocolate, coffee, tea, vanilla and cinnamon, 100% renewable energy, solar hot water, composting, etc. They can start more White Dog Cafes, but only if 51% off the ownership lives within 50 miles – so no chains. They did start a second one in the suburbs near where the principle owner lives, and they are doing very well there – more business for local farmers, sustainable fisheries, etc. It’s turned out well.
MARK: Before we talk about your activities on the national stage, I was wondering if you could tell us a little about your neighborhood in Philadelphia, and how it changed with the existence of White Dog. Would I be correct in assuming that White Dog contributed toward making the neighborhood what it is today? Can you give us a few examples of things that happened, either directly, or indirectly, because of White Dog? Have employees, for instance, gone on to create businesses of their own? Have more families moved into the neighborhood?
JUDY: In 1972, when I moved to the block where the White Dog is today (the 3400 block of Sansom Street in Philadelphia), it was slated to be demolished to make way for a mall of chain stores and fast food restaurants. I was part of the community effort to stop the demolition. When we won, we were each given the right to buy our house. That was my first fight against corporate globalization. The White Dog became a hub for progressive activities in Philly with nationally known speakers such as Jim Hightower, Amy Goodman, Lester Brown, and Helen Caldicott, covering topics like ending the war on drugs, climate change, independent media – you name it! We took busses of customers to DC to protest the war or stand up for children. We also had community tours of farms, prisons, affordable housing, community gardens, etc, and international tours to places at odds with the US government – Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Soviet Union, to work on changing policy. We had a film series, storytelling, and community service days, and ran a mentoring program for inner city high school students. We changed many lives through these programs. A number of employees went onto to start their own restaurants as well as a bakery and a chocolate company.
MARK: At what point did you decide to expand your focus beyond Philadelphia, and get involved with the Social Venture Network, from which BALLE spun out ten years ago? What was the impetus behind that move?
JUDY: I was invited to join SVN by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry’s. Ben discovered me, and connected me to like minded business people. It was then that I realized I wasn’t working alone and that I wasn’t crazy. Other people, too, had unusual ideas about using business as a vehicle for social change. I learned many things at SVN, where we all inspired each other to do more in our efforts to make the world a better place. From my work in local economies in Philly, and also from the work I did with the Zapatistas in Chiapas, I understood that local self-reliance was crucial. I was greatly effected by the sale of Ben & Jerry’s (the sale was opposed by Jerry and Ben, by the way) and saw how even the socially responsible companies were using the old paradigm of continual growth to measure success – growing bigger and bigger, and then being bought out by multi-nationals: Odawalla Juice, Stoneyfield Farms, the Body Shop, Honest Tea, Tom’s of Maine – many of the icons of the movement. I saw that there needed to be a new movement – one that created an alternative economy that decentralized ownership where businesses were human scale and connected to place, protecting the local biosphere and supporting community life. I was the incoming chair of SVN and was thinking deeply about these issues. I suggested the SVN Local Network Initiative as a way to get support for this concept.
MARK: At the BALLE conference, I heard a few references to an historic meeting that took place in the “Wicky Wacky Woods.” Judging from the context, I’m guessing that’s where the idea for BALLE was hatched between you, Michale Shuman, Laurie Hammel, and others, to launch BALLE. Is that correct? And, if so, can you provide a little background?
JUDY: Yes, after I proposed the Local Network Initiative to the SVN board, it was decided that I would have a gathering of the SVN members interested in this. I invited them to my place in the Poconos that I call the Wicky Wacky Woods. There were about 20 of us from across the country from California to Chicago to Boston. We invited Michael Shuman to come because he had written the book “Going Local.” We developed some of the basic ideas at that retreat and decided that we would have speakers on localization at the fall SVN conference, encouraging more SVN members to come to our second meeting, at the end of the conference. It was then that we officially started a new organization, though still being incubated at SVN and not yet with the name BALLE. A number of us went home to our own communities and started local business networks – Laury in Boston, Jim Slama in Chicago, Ted Rouse in Baltimore, Guy Bazzanni in Grand Rapids, Joel Soloman in Vancouver, etc. Once we had some networks established we became an alliance of these networks – the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE).
MARK: How would you categorize the growth of BALLE over the past ten years? Did you think that the organization would have grown to over over 22,000 member businesses in just a decade?
JUDY: I’m not surprised that we have that many. We had some ups and downs that stifled growth – the usual growing pains – or we would likely have more members. I feel we are positioned now to grow much faster, especially because we are opening up membership to individual businesses, investors, and community leaders, where before BALLE members were local networks. Now if there is not a local network in your community, you can still join BALLE. The interest in localization is growing fast, and I expect BALLE grow even faster.
MARK: What are your thoughts on the future of BALLE, now that you’ve grown a robust network of ethics-driven, intensely-local businesses committed to sustainability? Are there ways to leverage the members that you have so far, who span the continent? Specifically, I was thinking that there might be ways to coordinate activities and lobby for single-payer health care, for instance. I appreciate that some members may be disinclined to get too political, and thus alienate potential allies in the localist movement, but I’ve got to think there are some issues that the BALLE membership might get behind.
JUDY: I’m with you on that, but its tricky. BALLE does not have the manpower to get involved in public policy directly, but BALLE is a member of the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) and we support their efforts to be the voice of progressive business.
MARK: I’m curious to know your thoughts on something. I’d like to consider myself a big supporter of local business. I’ve organize buy-local campaigns, held conferences on local business, and do my best to patronize and promote those local businesses that are doing good work in my area. I acknowledge, however, that sometimes it gets complicated. For instance, as much as I like to patronize my locally owned coffee shops, and celebrate the fact that my small city’s downtown has remained Starbucks free, I realize that it’s not black and white. For instance, Starbucks offers insurance, when my favorite local coffee shops do not. They also pay better. Furthermore, they’ve been at the forefront nationally on issues like gay rights. I’m wondering what you would say to someone, who, like me, is sometimes conflicted. In the hierarchy of values, why should localism carry more weight than other considerations?
JUDY: I agree that its not black and white. Not all local companies do the right thing. Often times small local companies can not afford to give the same benefits to their employers that a national chain does, even though they want to. And they are not big enough to have a national impact on issues. But if you want to have economic justice, we need to have more owners to spread wealth more broadly and bring economic power back to our communities. If we want to have a strong democracy, we need to have many owners to spread politically power broadly. We have seen all the bad things that have come from business ownership concentrating into the hands of a few when it comes to equality and freedom. So much of our lives have been controlled by large corporations – the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the news we read and even our government. Localization – the decentralization of food systems, energy systems, media, manufacturing – is changing that. Ultimately, this movement is creating a stronger democracy. And I feel that when every community in the world has food, water and energy security we will have the foundation for world peace. I also feel that there is greater community in places where there are locally owned companies and the owners are involved in civic life. The butcher, baker and candlestick maker were once the backbone of communities. We are building stronger communities and that increases happiness.
MARK: If I’m not mistaken, you’re presently working on a book. If it wouldn’t be giving too much away, could you tell me what it’s about?
JUDY: It’s a memoir focusing on my business career and the path that took me to the localization movement – from growing up in a small town, living in an Eskimo village, running the White Dog, and starting BALLE. It’s called “Good Morning, Beautiful Business – the Unexpected Journey of an Activist Entrepreneur and Local Economy Pioneer.” Chelsea Green is the publisher and it will be out next spring, 2013.
Every other Saturday in the winter, I head out to a bustling local-food bazaar, the pickup site of the multi-farm CSA I help run in North Carolina's Appalachian Mountains. A few weeks ago, I watched customers marvel over the spread: bok choy, kale, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, garlic, free-range eggs, pasture-raised meat, freshly baked bread, and more. The rest of Appalachia, where the economy still sucks, seemed a world away. I couldn't help but wonder if the answer to at least some of our jobs woes didn't lie right in front of me.
Every year, Americans spend almost $1.2 trillion on food, equal to nearly a tenth of total US GDP. In most communities, the great bulk of that goes to fast-food chains and retail giants like Walmart—and doesn't do much for locals. As Minnesota-based economist Ken Meter puts it, "Our food system is extractive, sort of like mining."
Indeed. A series of case studies by the consultancy Civic Economics shows that for every dollar we spend at a large chain, about 15 cents stays in the area, while locally owned enterprises trap 30 to 45 cents. Locally owned food companies are often on the upper end of that range. That's because they tend to source their products from the area—unlike, say, local bookstores or boutiques, which generally buy their inventory from far away.
The good news is that local food businesses have blossomed over the past two decades. Between 1992 and 2007, sales of farm goods sold directly to consumers through channels like farmers markets jumped 77 percent to $1.2 billion, a 2011 USDA study shows. And total local food sales—to consumers, but also through grocery stores and restaurants—reached an estimated $4.8 billion in 2008.
Still, we're only scratching the surface of local food's potential. That $4.8 billion? It amounts to just 1.9 percent of total US farm sales. The other 98 percent is mostly Big Ag. So what's holding us back? I know the answer from hard experience: Because of consolidation by the agribiz giants in recent years, small farms like ours are usually hours away from the nearest packinghouse, cold storage, dairy-processing facility, cannery, and the like. At our farm, for example, we'd consider raising animals for meat if we didn't have to haul them 50 miles to the slaughterhouse—what with the price of gas and the time we'd lose in the commute, it just doesn't make economic sense.
But these problems are not insurmountable—if you're willing to collaborate. When small food businesses find creative ways to work together, they build even more wealth within their communities. Meter pointed me to Snowville Creamery, a small dairy processor in rural Ohio that sells fresh milk, cream, and yogurt throughout Ohio and neighboring states. The company buys and processes milk from surrounding pasture-based dairy farms.
When you sell reduced-fat retail milk, you generate lots of cream—and Snowville was having trouble finding a market for all of it. While Snowville's owners pondered what to do with their glut, a boutique ice cream maker in Columbus, called Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, was looking for a high-quality cream. A partnership was born: Since 2010, Snowville has supplied Jeni's with cream and skim milk for a delicious ice cream base. So now, when Columbus residents buy a pint of Jeni's, they're supporting jobs at a food retailer, an ice cream maker, a dairy processor, and a dairy farm, all in one go.
The teamwork model isn't just for ice-cream-obsessed foodies. Back in 2006 a group of farmers in northeast Iowa noted that the region was producing plenty of soybeans and corn for livestock feed, but very little food for locals. So they lured farmers into devoting tiny patches of their land to growing fresh produce and expanded farmers markets where they could sell it. As a result, the USDA reports, local food sales in the area grew from less than $10,000 in 2006 to more than $2 million by 2010—creating an estimated 26 new jobs and drawing in 21 farms to sell produce directly to schools.
And then there's our farm. We've teamed up with other growers to make our bustling Saturday winter bazaar happen. Rather than each farm figuring out how to grow greens in the freezing cold, we all worked together to find grants that helped us build passive-solar greenhouses. And instead of hawking our beautiful bok choy at each of our far-flung farms, we found that we draw a bigger crowd when we're all in one place. The model has worked so well that we're recruiting other folks to join our team: Most recently we've partnered up with the county health department to offer CSA discounts—and cooking classes!—to teen parents and people who use the local free health care clinic. Are our little collaborations the silver bullet for Appalachia's flagging economy? Not quite. But they're a start.
Built in 1920, the brick warehouse at 4444 Second Avenue in Detroit used to be a showroom for the city’s pride: Model T-based automobiles. Now it’s a metaphor for urban reinvention. Last fall, the building reopened as the Green Garage, a living laboratory and co-working space for the what its owners, Tom and Peggy Brennan, see as the future of Motown — triple-bottom-line sustainable enterprises that define success by social and environmental measures as well as by financial profit.
Not everyone can envision a future in this place. Even as the postbailout auto industry shows signs of life, Detroit’s landscape, with its derelict skyscrapers, abandoned homes and shrinking population, has become a potent symbol of economic collapse. But the Brennans see the potential for new growth here. Though Detroit already has several business incubators, the Green Garage, they say, will walk a different path.
Mr. Brennan says he believes that traditional incubator and accelerator programs extrude entrepreneurs through a mechanized, one-size-fits-all process, sometimes spurring founders to charge ahead without first finding clarity on what they want to do, or why. Instead of focusing on acceleration, he’s working to build a start-up culture that’s a rough analogue of the slow-food movement: intimate, deliberate, unhurried. It’s an organic approach he knows won’t be for everyone.
In traditional programs, he said, “We have people who have an idea being told that they need to have a business plan. They need to have an elevator pitch. They need to take out a loan. They need to create a legal entity. They need to pay for some marketing advice and an attorney. But the punch line of the thing is at the end of that, they’re broke. Because they have a legal entity, they have a business plan, they have a loan that has to be paid this month. But they don’t have a business.”
Mr. Brennan is a 59-year-old Michigan native who spent most of his career at the global consulting firm Accenture, where he worked with large multinational clients, including several members of the Fortune 50. For him, it’s a tremendous shift to be working with small, triple-bottom-line ventures that he hopes will turn a profit while reaping social and environmental benefits, too.
“At first, I felt like I was coming in with this major backhoe, when what you needed was a little shovel,” Mr. Brennan said, describing the downscaling process. “Small is big. We think that it’s the cumulative affect of all the small changes that is really going to be the big thing.”
More than 200 community volunteers came together to help design and renovate the Green Garage. In accordance with its eco-friendly mission, they used mostly reclaimed materials, generated just one-and-a-half Dumpsters’ worth of waste, and used passive means – a white roof, triple-glazed windows and extra-thick insulation – to cut the building’s energy demand by 90 percent. The remaining demand is provided by renewable means. (Thanks in part to a solar-powered system for climate control that circulates hot water through pipes below the floor, the heating bill for one year — harsh Michigan winters included — is about what a traditionally outfitted building one-twentieth of the Green Garage’s size would pay, Mr. Brennan said.)
So far, the 11,500-square-foot space has attracted more than 20 one- to five-person companies. Participants brainstorm together in small working groups. They share gardening chores in a newly greened alley alongside the building. Each Friday, they break bread with visitors from the community at large .
They lease their Green Garage work spaces at rates ranging from $50 a month for an open chair at one of the room’s shared tables to $1,000 for an office-size area that fits four to five people. The Brennans also plan to generate revenue by offering consulting services to outside businesses pursuing triple-bottom-line strategies.
A few of the in-house businesses, like Dickinson by Design, which makes furniture and renovates homes using recycled materials, are already established and humming along; the company’s founder, Chad Dickinson, moved to Detroit from Nashville and just hired his first employee. Other enterprises are new and finding their way, eschewing traditional means of financing – Mr. Brennan isn’t big on loans that burden still-developing plans with debt – and looking to the community for help, ideas and materials. One such start-up, De-tread, plans to harvest the thousands of discarded tires that are a blight and health hazard around the city and turn the rubber into new products, including floor mats for cars, a good match for automobile manufacturers that have started pledging to include recycled content in new vehicles.
Jason Peet, 34, who interviews potential Green Garage residents, is the founder of a start-up called Mend, which uses old-growth beams from Detroit homes slated for demolition and refashions them into tables and housewares, each accompanied by a historical account of the home where the materials originated. Before joining the Green Garage, Mr. Peet attended a seminar at another incubator for local businesses. “They had this whole fast-track program, it gets you to a business plan very quickly,” he recalled. At the time, however, Mr. Peet was going through a divorce, had a 6-year-old son, and didn’t want to take out a loan to get the capital he’d need for a speedy start.
He switched tracks after meeting Mr. Brennan, who gave him a job as a carpenter on the Green Garage’s renovations, a way to pay his bills while working to conceive Mend on the side. A year later, Mr. Peet said, he’s reached the prototype stage for Mend, while keeping his finances intact.
“I haven’t really come out of pocket for it,” he said, adding that he feels good about the slow and measured growth of his plan. “The core needs to be real solid before you go forward.”
What do you think? Would you want to be part of a collaborative business community like the Green Garage?
When in Davis, California, you can leave your greenbacks at home.
Taking the concept of 'buying local' to another level, this city of approximately 65,000 has created its own currency to encourage residents to keep their money local, Fox News reports.
Launched in 2010 by Nicholas Barry, a UC Davis economics graduate, the Davis Dollar is a community currency that aims to encourage community development and to stimulate local businesses.
"From an economics point of view, we thought it sounded like it made a lot of sense as far as keeping spending local," Barry Start, 27, told the Modesto Bee. "Davis Dollars also is a way for community members to get to know each other."
Davis Dollars can be purchased at a one-to-one ratio with U.S. dollars and are currently accepted by more than 50 small businesses and local service providers, including restaurants, an acupuncture clinic and a law firm.
“Spend one dollar at a big box store and only about 6 to 10 cents of that stays local. And if you spend that money at a local mom and pop shop, about 60 cents stay local … And if you spend one Davis Dollar locally, 100 cents of that stay local," Barry told Fox News. Since the currency is only accepted inside the city, it ensures that the entire value stays local.
People can buy the dollars through the movement's website or at a weekly farmers market. Business can redeem a single Davis Dollar for $0.95.
As a concept, local currency is neither new nor unique.
During the Great Depression, when banks were failing and people struggled to sustain local commerce, community currencies -- called scrips -- were widely used.
Today, there are dozens of local currencies being used in communities across the country, including Brooklyn, N.Y., and Philadelphia, Pa.
Last year, for example, The Huffington Post reported that the Bernal Heights neighborhood in San Francisco had established its own currency.
Though the Davis effort is still small -- there are currently only about $3,500 worth of Davis Dollars in circulation and many local residents are still unaware of the movement -- some have expressed excitement about the possibilities this new currency may afford.
"It's a big thing for us -- to have someone create something that allows us to keep our money here and show that we're committed to community development. I think it's a good thing," a member of the Davis Food Co-Op, a participating business, told Fox News.
In my ”How local is local?” column, I mentioned I was attending a national conference in Grand Rapids of locally owned businesses. It was a whirlwind of entrepreneurs from all regions of the country, sharing their energy, successes and pitfalls freely with one another in an atmosphere of”can-do-ness.” Young and old (Grace Lee Boggs, 93-year-old matriarch for social justice from Detroit, gave a sterling keynote from her wheelchair); black, brown, white and all colors in between; bankers and bakers, bookstore and film theater owners, restaurateurs and farmers, architects and manufacturers were all represented.
What becomes clear from attending a BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies) conference is that there is an indefatigable power of creative possibilities alive and well in this nation of small local businesses. Here are a few possibilities being born in other communities: Rusty Chain Beer in Buffalo, N.Y., brews its own recipe for local beer while simultaneously supporting a bike-able community. Claire’s Restaurant and Tavern in Hardwick, Vt., was formed using a Community Supported Agriculture approach. RSA Social Finance in San Francisco is a financial firm that targets triple-bottom-line — a way of accounting that takes into account social, ecological and economic factors — small local businesses while returning profits to investors, large and small, thereby making it more viable for small businesses that want to do well by doing good.
There was lots of chatter by representatives of local BALLE networks about how to grow the support for locally owned business. Grand Rapids, the host community, has more than 500 local businesses in its Local First network, while Ann Arbor has more than 250. Bellingham, Wash., Buffalo, Burlington, Vt., Chicago, Bloomington, Ind., and many more cities were represented. In each community locally owned businesses cooperate with each other to build a strong community — one they have roots in and will not abandon when profit margins aren’t up to Wall Street speculators’ whims. Zingerman’s from Ann Arbor is just one example. Paul Saginaw, the co-founder, spoke about how employees are full partners in developing business opportunities and how they will keep their company’s geography, despite the possibility of growing national, focused on the region of the state. Laury Hammel, owner of Longfellow Clubs (a set of five tennis and athletic clubs in the Boston area), offers economically disadvantaged children free tennis lessons at the clubs.
There was lots of energy and discussion of the need for a new economy, one based not upon greed and self-aggrandizement but on community, creativity and the environment. Local entrepreneurs who dominated this meeting want to take back their places from the global Fortune 500 conglomerates that control so much of the economy. Fred Keller, CEO and founder of Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids, discussed becoming the first certified B-Corporation (public benefit corporation. Keller believes the triple-bottom-line is not only essential and morally right but also profitable. His company has seen steady double-digit growth figures for years while moving from being predominantly a plastics manufacturer into developing parts for wind turbines, developing a low-cost water filter for the Third World, hiring disadvantaged citizens (parolees, disabled, etc.), paying living wages and working to make his company the first publicly “anti-racist” firm in the country. Now with 1,500 employees in five states, there is no doubt that Keller has found a gold mine of possibilities.
Where do the possibilities end? They don’t. Ideas have power, and the idea of an economy of small, locally owned enterprises that have both their community and the planet at heart provides endless opportunities for human development in any community. See what microfinance has unleashed in Bangladesh, Botswana and Bolivia. The entrepreneurial spirit, when channeled for the local common good, has what scientists refer to as “emergent properties.” We tend to run into problems when we try to scale everything up and assume the specific model will work everywhere — just look at abandoned Walmart and K-Mart stores sprinkled around the planet. But that globalizing tendency also concentrates power away from the local community and with it much of its wealth.
The fifth annual post-holiday survey of independent businesses by the Institute for Local Self Reliance yielded powerful evidence that pro-local attitudes are yielding direct benefits for their members of local networks. The survey tallied responses from 1,768 businesses, all independent and locally owned, across 49 states. Among the notable results:
Independent businesses in communities with an active “buy independent/buy local” campaign run by grassroots groups like Capital Area Local First saw revenues grow 7.2 percent in 2011, compared to 2.6 percent for those in areas without an alliance.
Looking solely at retail respondents, the survey found those in areas with an active alliance reported holiday sales growth of 8.5 percent in 2011, compared to 5.2 percent for retailers in areas without such an initiative.
Have you visited one of our locally owned lumberyards recently for that summer deck project?
Immigrants are more inclined to own small businesses than native-born Americans and are increasingly opening shop in areas beyond the major cities in which they have traditionally settled, a trend that is energizing local economies and reshaping communities.
Immigrants accounted for 18% of the country's 4.9 million small-business owners in 2010, a six-percentage-point increase from two decades earlier, according to analysis of census data by the nonpartisan Fiscal Policy Institute. Immigrants, who represent 13% of the population, accounted for a third of the increase in the number of small-business owners between 1990 and 2010.
Small businesses are defined as companies with fewer than 100 employees. Small businesses owned by immigrants employed 4.7 million people in 2010 and generated an estimated $776 billion in revenue, according to FPI calculations.
The study confirms that business ownership remains a favored way to earn a living among immigrants. The latest surge in immigrant business owners began in the 1980s, when the country experienced a large wave of newcomers from Latin America and Asia.
The study downplays the role of immigrant-founded technology titans, such as Yahoo Inc. and Google Inc. Like a century ago, immigrant firms remain more likely to be mom-and-pop stores, which thrive despite the predominance of big-box retailers and the growth of online shopping.
"A bigger part of the immigrant business story is still the bread-and-butter grocery store, restaurant and retail shop, as well as doctors' offices, taxi services and dry cleaners," said David Kallick, principal author of the FPI report.
Traditionally, immigrants established businesses in enclaves of big cities that boast large populations from the same country, making it possible to operate with little or no English.
But in the past decade or so, many Asian and Latin American newcomers have rooted ethnic eateries and grocery stores in small towns in the U.S. heartland. In Schuyler, Neb., a meatpacking town of just 6,211 people, Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants have flocked to B Street, transforming a neighborhood where storefronts had stood vacant for years
"Our downtown is mostly immigrant businesses now," said Mayor David Reinecke. "If they weren't here, we'd be dying."
Delfino Bello emigrated from Mexico unable to speak English. Now, he runs three popular Mexican restaurants about 40 miles from Chicago.
In 1995, Mr. Bello opened his first eatery, called "El Faro," in a shopping strip in Bartlett, Ill., that had fallen on hard times. As the taqueria flourished, it attracted other businesses. A few years later, he opened restaurants in Elgin and East Dundee, serving a clientele that includes both immigrants and Americans.
"I had nothing, nothing when I arrived in this country," said Mr. Bello, 55 years old. If the economy continues to recover, he says he plans to open a fourth restaurant.
National Supermarket Association represents independent supermarket owners, including many Dominican immigrants who started as small grocers in New York's Hispanic neighborhoods. Now, many have found a niche by moving into non-immigrant, low-income areas in the city and beyond.
"They're not small businesses anymore," said Ramona Hernandez, a professor at the City College of New York who studies Dominican entrepreneurship. "They're chains that move billions of dollars each year."
The FPI study found that immigrants concentrate in some industries, such as taxi services, dry cleaners and gas stations. They also have a large presence in lodging and restaurants.
Mexicans, the single largest group of immigrants, own the greatest number of immigrant-owned small firms. They are followed by immigrants from India, Korea, Cuba, China and Vietnam.
Immigrants from countries with relatively small numbers in the overall population, such as Greece, are disproportionately more likely to own businesses, while immigrant women are twice as likely as U.S.-born women to be business owners.
The FPI found that the largest number of Indian-born small-business owners are in education, health and social services, followed by leisure and hospitality and computers and technology.
In the medical field, Indians have helped offset a shortage of primary-care doctors and dentists in some parts of the U.S.
India-born dentist Savpreet S. Dhami and his family moved to Cortland, N.Y., 35 miles from Syracuse, in 2005, where he joined an Indian-owned practice. After six years, Dr. Dhami, 48, got a $600,000 bank loan and bought a practice from a retiring dentist in nearby Cicero. Since opening in December, he has more than doubled his staff and recently invested in a $30,000 digital x-ray machine
Dr. Dhami says he hopes to bring another dentist into the practice, and in three or four years he hopes to open another practice. "Only in America can you become owner of a business like this," he said.
Not many come to plead for higher taxes and stronger regulation.
This week, though, a group called the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC) convened in our nation’s capital to issue "A Business Call for a New Economy" that's built around “triple bottom line” principles, shared prosperity and environmental stewardship. The event was unofficially closed to the media, but ASBC invited GreenBiz.com as a media observer.
The ASBC members -- about 125 showed up for a couple of days of meetings -- are supporting, among other things, higher taxes on big companies, closing overseas tax havens, tax credits for renewable energy, EPA regulation of greenhouse gas emissions and stricter regulation of chemicals.
In the Business Call for a New Economy [PDF, download], the group says it wants to preserve the efficiency and dynamism of markets, while curbing what it calls capitalism’s “destructive tendencies” toward “overuse of resources” and “extremes of wealth and poverty.”.
“When too few have too much and too many have too little, society cannot be sustained,” said Roger Smith, CEO of American Income Life, a fast-growing insurance company that provides life insurance to working families. “On the public policy side, the key word is investing. We are not going to cut our way to shared prosperity.”
“I am a big, big believer in unions, and a big, big believer in the collective bargaining process,” Smith said. Unions help build a strong middle class which is good for business, he said.
The ASBC was started in 2009 by Jeffrey Hollender, the former CEO of Seventh Generation, and David Levine, an entrepreneur, in part as a counterweight to conservative corporate lobbies like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Its members were welcomed to the White House (actually, the Executive Office Building) today by officials from the Obama administration; tomorrow they’ll visit Congress. The ASBC, a coalition of state and local business networks, says it represents 150,000 business and social enterprises, many of them small businesses that don’t have the time or resources to lobby. Among the better-known companies on hand in D.C. were Stonyfield Farms, Eileen Fisher, New Belgium Brewery and BetterWord Telecom.
On the opening the day of White House meetings, Levine said:
This is not just about greening a business. This is not just about being more socially responsible. We have a perspective. We have a set of values. Those can be translated into policies and strategies to build a new economy.
For the White House officials who showed up, and there were at least a dozen of them, it must have been a relief to hear from businesses that, for the most part, applauded the administration’s policies. The U.S. Chamber and Wall Street typically oppose taxes and regulation, saying they’re create a drag on economic growth.
By contrast, the ASBC’s Call for a New Economy says:
By properly managing markets, accounting for full costs, creating incentives, providing support and creating a level playing field, government can help create an enabling environment in which restorative, equitable and sustainable economic models can thrive.
Of course, turning such platitudes into policy isn't easy. The ASBC says it opposes “unfair advantages and subsidies” but it endorses subsidies for clean energy, presumably because fossil fuels are subsidized as well. It supports business development “that anchors living wage jobs and wealth in place,” but it's hard to believe that many of its members want to give up their freedom to locate operations wherever they choose.
Some of the group’s lobbying priorities seek to put small and medium-sized companies on an even footing with big ones The ASBC, as an example, supports legislation to curb the use of offshore tax havens and seeks to raise overall corporate tax rates. It argues that big companies aren't paying their fair share of taxes, when compared to smaller firms and individuals. By employing legions of lawyers and accountants, big firms also are better able than small ones to take advantage of tax breaks offered by state and local governments.
“Right now, the system is skewed so that it favors big business at the expense of local business,” said Sandy Wiggins, the board chair of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, or BALLE. “We’ve got to fix that.”
Not surprisingly, most of the interchanges between ASBC members and White House officials were friendly. Talking about farm policy and organic agriculture, Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield said: “The Obama administration has been better on these issues than any in my lifetime.”
Hilda Solis, the Secretary of Labor, was greeted warmly by the group, and returned the favor. “I want to salute you,” she said. “You care about your employees. You care about your neighborhoods. You care about the quality of life in the communities where you do business.”
Occasionally, friction arose. When Richard Kaufman, a senior advisor to the Department of Energy, said cheap and abundant natural gas will be good for the economy, he got pushback. But, he said, companies that care about the environment should support exploration of natural gas which, for the most part, will replace coal as an electricity source.
“When fracking is done appropriately ... I think we are comfortable that this is a good thing for the United States,” Kaufman said. “We are not going to be able, in the short run, to produce the energy we need in the United States from renewable energy.”
For many of us working on local food system development, one of the biggest challenges is forging the infrastructure needed to aggregate, process, distribute and market locally grown foods. These businesses are essential for meeting increased demand for local foods while creating jobs, connecting farms with buyers, and bolstering struggling local economies, both rural and urban. A major challenge has been attracting the capital necessary to finance local food enterprises, particularly new businesses just starting up.
As I drove the 700 miles from Minneapolis to Grand Rapids, Michigan for the annual Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) conference in May, I was hopeful that the discussions would provide new insights and strategies on attracting capital from commercial lenders, institutional investors and foundations. While some of the discussion focused on those issues, many of the speakers and workshops involved stories of successful business ventures brought about by attracting the necessary investment dollars locally.
In many instances, business ventures were capitalized entirely by community members or through equity raised locally from individuals that made it possible to later obtain conventional loans and other sources of outside investment. Many of the BALLE examples were championed by folks who were committed to their community and contributed the time and energy needed to attract other like-minded local investors around the vision of a vibrant, resilient local economy.
Over the last decade, many new vehicles for attracting local investment dollars have been developed. Local investment opportunity networks have formed around the country to enable entrepreneurs to introduce themselves and their business venture to local investors. Slow Money groups are linking local investors with food-related business ventures. Various internet-based vehicles have also been created.
Although there is the potential for abuse, recently passed federal legislation eases certain security law requirements that pertain to crowdfunding, and should make it easier for average citizens to invest directly in businesses. It will also enable enterprises to more readily connect with small, individual investors within and beyond their local community.
While the financial barriers for nascent food enterprises remain real and significant, my time at the BALLE conference highlighted that the ball, thankfully, is moving in the right direction.