by Richard T. Stuebi
One of the more promising stories to emerge from Cleveland in recent years is the formation of the Evergreen Cooperatives, a holding company to fund start-up companies that:
- Employ disadvantaged citizens from some of the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods in Cleveland
- Are founded on the principle of being worker-owned cooperatives, to enable employees to participate in the wealth-creation of the business
- Serve the needs of the local community, anchored by the market requirements of major enduring institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, and Case Western Reserve University
- Provide a product/service that is truly sustainable and consistent with the green economy of the future
Since Evergreen was formed and seed-funded in late 2009, the first three businesses launched are the Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, Ohio Cooperative Solar, and GreenCity Growers Cooperative. With just a few months of operation, these green economy enterprises are now employing dozens of Clevelanders who otherwise would be challenged in finding meaningful employment opportunities, affording true career-tracks and wealth-creation (as opposed to merely a meager wage).
Admittedly still in its early days, the long-term impact of Evergreen will only be known and felt years from now. But, the prospects are promising. In the late 1950’s, the Mondragon region of Spain suffered from many of the same economic travails now besetting Cleveland, but the formation of the Mondragon Corporation (a similar network of cooperative businesses) has now led to an economic powerhouse of more than 100 firms employing 120,000 people and annual revenues of more than $20 billion.
The world is taking notice of this social experiment: so far in 2010, Evergreen has been reported on in The Economist and Business Week, but perhaps the most thorough story on the Evergreen Cooperative is found in “The Cleveland Model”, an article appearing in a recent issue of The Nation. I urge you to read this article to learn more about a truly positive glimmer of hope in the revitalization of the industrial Midwest of the United States — and in the mainstreaming of cleantech throughout the American economy all the way into its inner cities.
There are too many heroes underlying the birth of Evergreen to list in one place, and I’m sure I don’t know them all, but I cannot complete this posting without special tips of the hat to: Lillian Kuri and India Pierce Lee of the The Cleveland Foundation, Ted Howard of the Democracy Collaborative, Stephen Kiel of Ohio Cooperative Solar, Mary Ann Stropki of ShoreBank Enterprise, and the late and deeply-missed John Logue of the Ohio Employee Ownership Center at Kent State University.
Richard T. Stuebi is a founding principal of NorTech Energy Enterprise, the advanced energy initiative at NorTech, where he is on loan from The Cleveland Foundation as its Fellow of Energy and Environmental Advancement. He is also a Managing Director in charge of cleantech investment activities at Early Stage Partners, a Cleveland-based venture capital firm.