September 20th, 2012
September 20th, 2012
There was nothing about my childhood to suggest I would become a radical economist and entrepreneur, giving away most of my money to finance worker cooperatives in Argentina, Nicaragua and the U.S. As a kid growing up in generic suburbs of Rochester, NY, I wasn’t particularly aware of poverty or inequality, nor did I have a sense that the system we are born into was something to be considered and possibly changed. Radical giving and interest in alternative economics are not things I inherited from my family
Maybe the seed was planted after my parents divorced. My mother returned to the job market as a woman in her fifties and found only low wage, unskilled options. I saw the toll that economic insecurity took on her, the incredible stress of trying to give her children a good life with a very limited income. It was extremely painful to watch. My father continued his corporate ascension and eventually ran a tech business that made him wealthy. While visiting him in Hong Kong, I saw overwhelming poverty for the first time. It seemed wrong that some people worked so hard and had so little while others lived lives of leisure and privilege.
I took my first economics class in an elite high school paid for by my father’s business where we read Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers, a book which presents economics as an invention rather than a set of natural laws. As I studied economics more, I was taught that corporations see workers as costs to be minimized and eliminated. If economies are created by people, why can’t we continue to improve them to better serve the needs of people and not just profits?
After college, I took a job at a Wall Street information firm as general manager and learned about human resources from the view of the boss. I discovered I was good at management and planning. I earned a good salary and enjoyed New York, but I never lost my interest in experimenting with the economy
Then, in November 2004, I saw a documentary that changed my life The Take by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein. The film tells the story of workers winning control of factories in Argentina. This was the opportunity I had sought. I was so inspired by the film that I talked Avi into flying to Argentina to show me the factories himself.
After meeting the workers and documenting their stories with a team from Argentina, I immediately saw opportunities to improve things and make business loans from my own pocket. Five thousand dollars can make a huge difference for a struggling cooperative in Argentina. Continuing my Wall Street job remotely, I decided not to wait for outside funding and instead donated all of my savings and most of my income to The Working World, a non-profit revolving loan fund I created to support fledgling cooperatives.
The work was extremely demanding but immensely gratifying. It was not about giving money away but about investing in an infrastructure people could use to build their own livelihood. I could have bought a fancy car or an oversized apartment, but it was infinitely more satisfying to build a financial system workers could use to start and own their own successful businesses. Building new things like cooperatives or alternative financial institutions is extremely hard, but if you don’t give up, eventually visions can become reality. And this work ended up being the best thing I’ve done in my life.
My family, especially my father, did not really understand why I was giving so much money and taking so much risk on this radical venture. Ironically, my Dad started giving money to my siblings and me at about the same time. He decided to put almost $1M for each of us into sophisticated hedge funds, some of which soon lost 60% in the meltdown of 2009. The repayment rate on Working World loans is 98%. In this climate, it was hard to see being radical as the riskier game. Now, after eight years at the Working World, my family is very supportive, and my father has even helped contribute to its success.
I am not motivated by charity. One of the workers asked me “Are you here to help us? “ and I answered, “No, I am here because what you are doing in Argentina can help the world.” I see this as a way to experiment with innovations on how to run our economies better. Once I became convinced that most cooperatives could be successful if they had access to supportive finance, I decided to expand the model to Nicaragua and then to the US.
I am currently raising money for New Era Windows, a Chicago windows factory that has been through years of struggle with predatory managers. We have waged a public relations campaign to force the owners to negotiate with us and are close to our initial investment goal. The stakes are higher in the US, but if we succeed, New Era can change the way we think about the options that are available to us in our economy. My vision is to create large scale, dependable financing for a democratic economy in the US, and help toward a new system that values people above profits.