Saturday, July 04, 2009

Day job report - a Spanish co-op model for Iowa County, WI

I usually use these posts to share something enlightening that works in support of my premise that we need to create economic security for ourselves and for our communities by making jobs through new enterprises.

For folks who have tagged along on these essays, some of what I do for my day jobs has come through. This post will be one of those essays, following up on a couple of recent ones about developing new smarter, faster, cheaper startups.

I currently am privileged to work in rural economic development in a very special place, Iowa County, Wisconsin. It's immediately west of Madison and just up the road from Dubuque, where IBM has just transformed the economic landscape by moving a huge data support center there. The landscape of where I work is spectacular. It's called the 'Driftless region' because the landscape has never been flattened by glaciers. It is a land of ancient mountains and pristine valleys, now softened by time into a scale that is so pleasant I can't do it justice.

This beautiful upper Midwest landscape is surrounded by 35 million people within a few hours drive. The rise of regional economics, especially in foods is compelling. In service to this economic and geographic landscape I'm working with wonderful new friends to launch a new job creation platform we hope to make transparent and reproducible in other counties, and other states. If we do it well enough it will work in other continents. That would be a good gift from the upper Midwest Driftless region I love so much.

So, here's a first report from the field.

We held a kickoff meeting for interested stakeholders in a wonderful one room schoolhouse built in 1875. Just down the hill from Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesen, it now serves as the Town hall for the Town of Wyoming in Iowa County. When we first assembled our mailing list 12 days before the meeting, we only had 15 people on the list. As word spread during those first days, over 200 people had asked to be included. When the day came, I sat in the empty schoolhouse whistling past the graveyard as they say. When the time came however, the building came alive.

More than 50 people from all over Wisconsin attended. We had a wonderful group of farmers, food buyers, ag specialists, investors, community bankers, people from every place on the political spectrum, University folks, people from USDA Rural Development, and on and on. This is a topic people really want to delve into.

And we did.

The gist of what we are proposing is the creation of a leadership co-op based on a model developed in Mondregon, in the Basque region of Spain. They start and launch new interrelated enterprises based on a proven system of training, research, financing and mentorship. [See links at the end]. Rather than gush about the good stuff, let me highlight one number. When new enterprises are created under this model the success rate for those new businesses after 5 years is 97%. You read that right. In doing so they have created about 200,000 good paying sustainable jobs.

What this means is that investors, who typically have to wrench huge returns out of startup investments because so many fail, can now approach this model with a sense that their risks are largely mitigated, and they can participate in the economics of these emerging enterprises with longer term, more secure return expectations.

What this would mean to my beautiful county is that we can create a leadership co-op of a few key visionaries who are not afraid to fail and who hold a new vision for creating jobs and building economic independence in a real and lasting way.

In a post I put up earlier this month I talked about smarter, faster, cheaper economic development models for rural economic development.

Our new effort in support of this plan is what we are doing about it. We are calling the effort the Driftless Foods Co-Op. The people that are coming to join this new effort are amazing. I've done many startups before and I have never ever seen talent and ethics like this emerge.

We are working to develop the financing and the infrastructure to begin processing foods that we refer to produced and marketed under 'regional fair trade' standards.

We are forming the leadership co-op now. It is my hope to begin build the first food plant so that it can start processing this year. I would like to build 2 more plants the following year under the umbrella of the Driftless Foods Co-Op. The following year I hope to add 3 more plants.

We are promising our stakeholders and anyone who cares to listen that we are doing this as an experiment. We want our work to be used to create case studies and documentation such that our efforts and policies can be reproduced elsewhere, with different ag assets, probably even non-ag assets. I posit that it's the process that needs to be honed to a reproducible model. Given all that entails - financing, production, mentor relations, community relations, worker participation, buyer transparency, and on and on - this little experiment can be used to make the economics of business creation and job growth far more sustainable and valuable than the policies responsible for what we're experiencing now.

This is my kind of economic development. Work that drives revenue and security to the producers and the communities they live in. It's an energetic, well-grounded launch with wonderful people and noble, sustainable goals.

If we do it right, we just may be able to change the world in small but important ways that last for generations.

Happy Independence Day!

Mondragon in the Basque region of northern Spain is the shining example of an entrepreneurial economy shaped by over 100 co-ops owned by 200,000 people. Thanks to the Mondragon co-ops, the people of the Basque region enjoy one of the highest standards of living in all of Europe while being phenomenally entrepreneurial. Mondragon is proof that co-op ownership can work on a grand scale and compete globally.

Article about our Driftless Foods Co-Op kickoff meeting in the Wisconsin State Journal

Download our working definition of regional fair trade, in PDF

The Mondragon model comes to the inner city Mid West.

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