The Cooperators Episode 19 Chris Mitchell on Rural Broadband and Co-Ops

If you live in the sticks and want broadband, Chris Mitchell is the man to know.

If you are a cooperator and want to hear a co-op success story, Chris Mitchell also is the man to know.

That’s because – as director of the Community Broadband Initiative – Mitchell knows the reality of what’s happening in bringing high speed Internet to rural America.  He also records a weekly podcast, Broadband Bits. It’s a good listen.

By his estimate maybe 85% of the lower 48 states land mass lacks high speed Internet.

By contrast, 90% of significantly populated areas have that access.

This is about a whole lot more than streaming porn and playing online games.  It many ways it’s about the life of rural America, much of which faces a depopulation crisis.

Good broadband just may cure that.

Nobody thinks broadband alone will keep folks on the farm. But a lack of broadband just may be enough to send them packing.

Where do co-ops fit in? As heroes in fact, roles played in much of the country by both electric co-ops and telephone co-ops (of which there are many hundreds by Mitchell’s count).

A few decades ago the telephone co-ops began to offer broadband. In the last decade the electric co-ops – generally much bigger companies with deeper pockets – have entered the picture.

Mitchell expects a stampede of co-ops entering the fight.

This all is reminiscent of the rural electrification project that brought light to the countryside in the FDR New Deal.

It worked then. Mitchell believes it will work again and is optimistic that rural America doon will enjoy quality broadband, very possibly better than what urban America gets.

“The solution is in view,” Mitchell said.  “There’s little that would stop co-ops from solving this problem.”

 Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 18 Christina Jennings Shared Capital

Need a loan? You want to know Christina Jennings, Executive Director of Shared Capital, a Twin Cities based loan fund that is itself a cooperative and makes loans only to member cooperatives and there are around 250 of them.

In the past 30 years Shared Capital has made around 850 loans totalling $50 million. This year it will make around a couple dozen loans, said Jennings, with an average loan amount a notch over $100,000.

Listen closely to this podcast to hear about the loan application process. Jennings is very explicit about what’s needed to succeed.

As for the mix of co-ops funded, Jennings said Shared Capital has seen a huge spike in the number of worker co-ops – now more than half the applicants. It’s also seen a decline in food co-ops, in part because that sector is fiercely competitive right now.

Jennings also discusses how to assess the viability of a start up worker co-op.

All in, said Jennings, this is a great time to be in the co-op world – they now are seen not as a fringe but as part of the economic solution.

But opening a new co-op remains a long and tough slog that may take a decade to bring to fruition. That’s why a key question has to be: why are you forming a co-op?

Want to become a Shared Capital member? Jennings tells the how to in this podcast. 

She also tells a great story about how Organic Valley, a Shared Capital member, is living the cooperative principles in its support for other co-ops.

Along the way in this podcast you’ll hear mentions of previous podcast guests such as Stuart Reid (food co-ops),  C. E. Pugh (also food co-ops), Paul Bradley (mobile home parks), and also Davil Gill of Marquette Brewing, a start-up that in fact Shared Capital has been working with.

Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 17 Cliff Rosenthal CDFIs

by Robert McGarvey

You want to know about community development financial institutions? Cliff Rosenthal is the man you want to talk to.  He literally wrote the book on CDFIs and also the longstanding credit union initiative to serve the unbanked: Democratizing Finance: Origins of the Community Development Financial Institutions Movement.

This podcast also posted to the CU2.0 Podcast series which I run.  That’s a professional credit union series but the Rosenthal podcast has wider appeal because – fundamentally – it’s about bringing financial services to the unbanked and underbanked and stimulating more economic activity in communities that may be ignored by mainstream banks and even many credit unions.

Credit unions of course are cooperatives. Not all credit union employees know that. But it is fact.

Have CDFIs lived up to their potential?

Have credit unions changed the shape of financial services in America?

Rosenthal has opinions and he shares them in this podcast.

Along the way he talks about his stint at the CFPB – and the ingrained credit union executive distrust of that institution. Which may not be entirely warranted.

Rosenthal pulls no punches. He said, “It dismays me that 100 years after the birth of credit unions we still have a significant problem of the underbanked and unbanked.” And, note, about 25% of households falls into the category.

 Rosenthal also said that in 1990 there were around 13,500 banks and thrifts and a like number of credit unions.  There now are about 5500 of each.  “The number of credit unions falls by 200 to 300 each year.  Ten years from now there will be 3000, 3500 credit unions.”

That math is flawless. And it has to scare you.

In this podcast, you’ll hear a discussion of the successes of a Mississippi CDFI credit union executive Bill Bynum.  He told his own story in this podcast.

You’ll also hear about Jim Blaine, the charismatic, longtime CEO of State Employees’ Credit Union in North Carolina, one of the country’s biggest.

And you’ll also hear Rosental insist that many credit unions that focus on serving the underserved do better financially than those that focus on fighting with banks for more affluent consumers.

If you enjoy this podcast, listen in to the podcast with Cathie Mahon, CEO of Inclusive, a trade group for institutions that focus on community development.

 Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 16 Felipe Witchger Community Purchasing Alliance

Bulk buying means lower costs. That’s a fact of life in the US and it also works to the detriment of smaller, community oriented institutions – think churches, charter schools, various non profits.

They are too small to win those discounts so they pay high prices for basic services and commodities.

The Community Purchasing Alliance was formed to solve exactly that inequity for non profits in the Washington DC area.

Right now about 75 non profits in the DC area are saving around $1 million annually on $17 million in purchases of electricity, trash hauling, security, copying, and other commodity services. That discount happens because they buy through CPA and its founder, Felipe Witchger, is the guest in this week’s podcast.

He tells how his organization formed – he tips his hat to Paul Hazen, a longtime Washington DC co-op heavyweight as suggesting it function as a co-op.

He also tells how CPA wins discounts for its members.

Felipe also observes that CPA now also operates in southern Connecticut and North Carolina. It also is scouting cities for an expansion later this year and as many as five may be targets. Listen up to find if your city is on the list – and if it isn’t, you’ll hear what Felipe is looking for in partners.

A couple housekeeping notes:

* He says CPA’s biggest member is Kipp DC. That’s a network of college prep schools with an annual budget over $100 million.

* There’s intermittent wind noise. Sorry about that. Some was deleted but some stubbornly persisted. The podcast can be heard and the content is valuable however, so persist.

Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 15 C. E. Pugh on Grocery Success

For many of us, our warmest, most intimate connection with a cooperative is our local grocer and at the National Co+Op Grocers the business of that co-operative is helping its 145 members, each a consumer facing co-op grocer, successfully compete against increasingly powerful national grocers.

The good news is that most co-op grocers are holding their own.

There had been tough times for co-op grocers, admitted this podcast’s interview, C. E. Pugh, CEO of the National Co+Op Grocers.  A big reason is that in the past decade the big national grocers, from WalMart on down, all discovered the consumer appeal of organic, of brown rice, of soy and almond milk, the kinds of products co-op grocers had long depended upon for successes.

And then they had a lot more competition.

But co-op grocers also have a trump card, said Pugh. They can and should double down on local goods, local farmers, the local community.  They are truly of the local community and to succeed, they need to accentuate that.

Many are doing just that.

Consider this podcast a guide to running a thriving food co-op.

Want to know still more about food co-ops?  Tune into The Cooperators Podcast Episode 9 with Stuart Reid of the Food Co-op Initiative. That discussion has a focus on starting new food co-ops, where the Pugh talk is more tilted towards succeeding at an operating co-op.

Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 14 Neal Gorenflo Shareable

Call this podcast a deep dive into platform cooperatives and more broadly the sharing economy. That’s what Neal Gorenflo, executive director of Shareable in San Francisco, spends his days noodling on. This is a wide ranging, largely unstructured conversation but there are headline moments strewn throughout, from Gorenflo’s Road to Damascus epiphany that prompted him to resign a corporate job and become a sharing guru through his bareful perspective on Uber – sizzling stuff – and musing about Emilia Romagna which he sees as something of a polar opposite of Silicon Valley because it’s a place where cooperatives really matter.

In many ways this is a challenge to what Gorenflo calls Silicon Valley orthodoxy where the true believers are convinced their way is the best way to build a business. Is it really? Gorenflo has real doubts.

Want some good news about cooperatives in the US? You’ll hear it here. We just may be on the cusp of a boom in cooperatives as more of us come to see that this is a flexible business format with lots of benefits for workers, communities, owners.

Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 13 Nathan Schneider

“Everything for Everyone” – that’s the title of Professor Nathan Schneider’s book that looks at many kinds of innovative co-ops and it’s a book that gave me optimism that there just may be a bold, bright next act for cooperatives in the US.

In some ways co-ops look to have stalled – where are the new credit unions, the new grocery co-ops? There just aren’t many.

Does that mean the end is nearing?

Nope. Schneider in this podcast talks about wholly new energy for what he calls platform co-ops and also reimagined housing co-ops for instance.

He also is a big booster of purchasing co-ops which, he says, often provide significant benefits to their members but without winning much public notice for the good they do.

There’s also a lot of enthusiasm around employee ownership of businesses – worker-co-ops for instances – which, Schneider points out, won support from both Paul Ryan and Bernie Sanders and it is difficult to imagine them agreeing on anything else.

New times call for new kinds of co-ops and that is happening. Not always smoothly, not always easily, but it is happening.

Why aren’t there still more co-ops? A lot of this podcast is an exploration of the infrastructure requirements that will help enable more co-op formation and success. It can happen. And you’ll hear concrete ideas about the changes that should happen.

And co-ops just maybe can bring improvement to many areas of our lives.

Co-ops also faced what might be called PR problems in the cold war era, said Schneider. It was not a good thing to be seen as a cooperator which some believed was a step nearer Communism. But that stigma may be fading away.

And that may also help an ushering in of a boom era for cooperatives.

A word on format. This podcast started out on one medium – but after 15 minutes that signal vanished. Another 45 minutes were then recorded on a different channel. If you think you hear differences you are probably right. But the quality is good throughout. And the ideas are provocative.

Listen up.

Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 12 David Gill Marquette Brewing, Drink Up

by Robert McGarvey

Mark your calendar. Late June is when Marquette Brewing in Michigan is slated to open, making it one of around 10 cooperative breweries in the US.

That number isn’t big but just about all these co-ops have formed in recent years. It’s a growing sector.

Understand, Marquette is a small town, population maybe 25,000, in Michigan’s remote Upper Peninsula.  There’s not a lot of population to draw upon in forming a new co-op but over 200 have joined Marquette Brewing, ponying up $99 apiece.

All in the co-op has raised over $200,000.

An important takeaway from this podcast is how much help other co-operatives have given Marquette Brewing. The co-operative principles really work.

Another takeaway: the rich information board president David Gill shares about this co-op’s journey to opening. He gives what amounts to a how to blueprint.

Great stuff.  Drink up.

Listen to this podcast here.

Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 11 Mike Reuter on Credit Unions

From the Ukraine to Ireland and Dominica, this podcast travels the globe with Mike Reuter, executive director of the Worldwide Foundation for Credit Unions, as he shares stories of the challenges faced by credit unions and also the generous willingness of other credit unions executives to help. Exhibit one may be the rebuilding of the Dominica credit union sector after that island’s economy was flattened in a 2017 hurricane.  Credit union execs want to help and they do.

You may think credit unions don’t know that they are in fact cooperatives. I know I think exactly that often and it is frustrating because the nation’s 5000 credit unions could do a lot to advance the whole cooperative movement.

It turns out however that, per Reuter, credit unions in fact do a lot of cooperating. He tells that story in this podcast.

Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.

The Cooperators Podcast Episode 10 Chuck Conner NCFC on Farmers and Cooperatives

No country produces the agricultural bounty that the US does. We eat better, at lower costs, than anywhere else – and most of that food is produced through farmer owned cooperatives. That’s why you want to meet Chuck Conner, CEO of NCFC, the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives.

Ask Conner what the number one issue facing his members is and the answer is blunt: immigration. The estimate is that the nation’s farms are worked on by over one million workers lacking proper documentation to work legally in the United States. Take them away and, poof, there goes the agricultural bounty because those workers comprise over half of the workforce on farms.

“Congress can’t seem to grapple with this,” said Conner and he chose his words carefully. But also honestly.

Conner also tells in this podcast why a generation ago it was not common to proudly wave the flag of a farmers cooperative – and today that fact is proudly pronounced as more consumers want to know what where their food comes from.

Want to know how to keep eating right? Listen to this podcast as Conner takes us on a tour of agri-business for the past century.

Like what you are hearing? The Cooperators Podcast seeks sponsors and supporters to help us spread the word about cooperatives and how they often are the better way. Contact Robert McGarvey to find out what you can do to sustain this podcast.