Presidio Graduate School is unlike other graduate degree programs. Our curriculum integrates sustainability, equity, and social impact to equip and embolden students to reimagine systems and business models and identify projects and career paths that align with their values. Presidio stands behind and encourages students as they pursue individual interests and opportunities to create a positive impact.
One such example of this is The Business of Distributing Power: An Employee Ownership Speaker Series. This five-part speaker series was created and managed by Presidio students Gaby Seltzer and Megan Meo in collaboration with Presidio’s Office of Career Services.
We recently sat down with Dual MBA/MPA Degree students Gaby Seltzer (C36) and Megan Meo (C34) and Presidio alum Hilary Abell (C18), Project Equity Co-founder and Chief Policy & Impact Officer, to learn more about their involvement in the Employee Ownership Speaker Series, why employee ownership movements are critical in responding to the climate crisis, and how Presidio Graduate School is contributing to a broader conversational shift in the ways students think about sustainability.
Hello Gaby and Megan! Can you tell us more about the Employee Ownership Speaker Series and what inspired you to launch the series?
Gaby: We connected over our passion for cooperatives and our desire to discuss the intersections of economic justice and sustainability movements. We both had some experience with cooperatives, felt they were under-tapped resources in the sustainability and business worlds, and hoped they would be featured more in Presidio’s curriculum.
Megan: While there are different forms of employee ownership, our series focused on worker cooperatives. Worker cooperatives are workplaces that are democratically owned and controlled by the members (the workers) to benefit those members. Worker co-ops take many shapes and sizes and can be found in all industries around the world. Some worker co-ops have hierarchical management structures, while others have flat, nonhierarchical structures. Each session features practitioners and advocates who speak to employee ownership to distribute power and wealth through business.
Gaby: Before starting at Presidio, I managed a local food systems initiative in Washington DC called Healthy Corners. The program assisted independent corner store owners in DC’s food apartheid areas by stocking the healthy and fresh foods their shoppers wanted. Through conversations with store owners and community members, I realized that an effective way for our team to “work ourselves out of a job” would be to help the store owners transition to a purchasing cooperative model. I started attending trainings and DC Cooperative Stakeholders Group meetings. While the vision for a purchasing cooperative has not yet been realized, this experience taught me about cooperatives’ unique challenges and opportunities and convinced me that they are central to sustainability because of their ability to foster community power.
Megan: In undergrad at Hampshire College, I designed a major focused on worker-owned businesses. As part of my degree, I co-designed and led a bike tour visiting and hosting educational events at co-ops across the country. On that trip, I saw the power of worker co-ops: a mental health cooperative that transitioned from a top-down agency where upper management called the shots to a business where everyone had ownership; an engineering firm where the worker-owners collectively vote on one another’s salaries; cooperative developers building economic stability in low-wealth communities. Regardless of the shape or size, I realized that co-ops, by creating meaningful, wealth-building, and secure jobs, are essential to the movement toward economic justice.
Presidio alum, Hilary Abell, was involved in the planning and production of the speaker series. Can you tell us more about how that came about?
Gaby: I saw Hilary Abell, a Presidio alum and co-founder of Project Equity, speak on a panel at the Mills College Center for Transformative Action Conference, googled her, and learned that Megan was working with her! We started imagining ways to bring Hilary in to speak with our classmates. Once we started pulling that thread, we realized how powerful a speaker series might be in educating all Presidio’s community members.
As we developed session topics and began to have conversations with potential speakers, we were met with a lot of enthusiasm from students, alums, and co-op movement leaders. Each speaker helped shape the arc of the series and connected us with other industry professionals who could speak about our topics. Before we knew it, the series came together quite seamlessly. We attempted to build a series that starts more broadly and gets deeper into the details with each event.
Can you tell us more about the individual series events?
Gaby: Our first event, “The Case for Employee Ownership,” with Hilary Abell, taught us about the roots of the cooperative movement and demonstrated how employee-owned businesses support sustainability by generating long-term thinking and reducing inequality. Our second event, “The Practice of Sharing Governance,” with Rebecca Bauen and James Razsa, addressed the opportunities and challenges of sharing power and fostering democracy at work – specifically when we often operate in systems and cultures that disconnect us from our collective power. And our third event, “Developing and Funding Employee-Owned Businesses,” with Margo Dalal and Gilda Haas, dove into sharing wealth. We learned how to recognize extractive financing practices and discussed liberatory alternatives such as Seed Commons. All of our speakers thus far have emphasized the importance of sustainability and business professionals getting involved in this work.
Why did the two of you feel that launching this series was important, particularly in an academic setting? And what do you hope participants will gain from the series?
Gaby: All sustainability issues are embedded in systems and power structures. The increasing concentration of power and wealth is a dangerous trend that threatens sustainability, as inequality reduces the power communities and workers have to influence their worlds, make decisions about their resources, and build resilience.
Sustainability, equity, and democracy are thus intertwined, and cooperatives and other employee ownership models provide templates for how these connections can be embodied in our organizational structures. Cooperatives, whether formal or informal, have helped communities build resilience across cultures and history. In the U.S., however, they are not well-known nor widespread; this is partially because the institutions that help grow businesses, i.e., schools, financial and legal institutions, government agencies, etc., do not educate enough about it. There are also structural and cultural barriers to employee ownership being more widespread, but more education and investment would make these issues surmountable.
With all this in mind, Presidio seemed like the perfect place to start educating our community members more about the ripe opportunities in combining sustainability and economic justice movements. Presidio attracts brilliant and passionate changemakers who are equipped to think in systems and challenge the status quo.
We hope that by attending this speaker series, participants will feel encouraged to ask questions about the ownership structures in their organizations and who these structures serve. We also hope participants survey the sustainability and business initiatives they’re part of, whatever those may look like, and notice opportunities to pull in more democratic practices. On a broader scale, we hope that Presidio can set an example for other business and sustainability schools by centering governance and economic justice issues in our curriculum and operations.
How do you think Presidio inspires students to reimagine how they think about and approach their work as sustainability professionals?
Megan: Our fellow students and Presidio alums showed immediate interest and enthusiasm on the subject when we floated the idea. Many students and alums showed up for early planning calls and helped shape the direction of the series, recommended speakers and topics, provided feedback, and assisted with logistics during events.
Presidio’s staff was critical: We had help navigating the financial operations, which enabled us to secure funding to offer speaker honorariums. This was so important to building reciprocal relationships with our speakers. We also had help navigating the process of creating a co-op club to help launch this series, which brought students together for more conversations and learning on the topic.
And Maggie Winslow, Presidio’s Academic Dean, met with us early on and throughout our planning process to help us build the series in a way that would lend itself best to future coursework on the subject.
Presidio is now offering a new elective course in the Spring called Cooperatives, Employee Ownership, and Workplace Democracy, which Hilary will instruct! What came to mind when you learned Presidio will now offer a course focusing more on worker cooperatives?
Megan: In offering this class, Presidio is communicating the value of incorporating cooperative education into business school curriculums. As we’ve learned throughout the series, there are many needs within the employee ownership movement, from marketing to finance, that MBA students could help address. Students in this class will enrich their education by exploring alternative business models while also learning how they can show up for the cooperative movement.
Gaby: One of our primary goals in hosting this speaker series was the introduction of more official coursework on the subject, so we are so happy to have achieved success in this regard. We’re lucky to have an academic dean and administrative staff who supported this goal. And we hope this is just the beginning! We’d love to see more and more opportunities for students to explore the opportunities of cooperatives, employee ownership, and other business models that move us towards economic justice, whether that’s the introduction of more new courses or integration into existing ones.
Hilary – can you tell us about your Presidio experience and involvement in the speaker series?
Hilary: I came to Presidio to get my MBA in 2012 because I wanted greater business skills in order to help co-ops do what I want them to do: to create quality jobs, dignified workplaces, wealth-building opportunities for low-wage workers, and opportunities to participate in governance and ownership. I wanted to learn more about business to build a strong cooperative movement.
To mainstream employee ownership, we need business schools and business people, especially sustainability-minded professionals, to embrace this. That’s why I’m so excited about teaching a new course at Presidio next semester called Cooperatives, Employee Ownership, and Workplace Democracy. I’m thrilled to see the growing interest among Presidio students – and more broadly in our society – in these topics.
Thank you again, Gaby, Megan, and Hilary, for your time and for telling us about the Employee Ownership Speaker Series!
If you’re interested in learning more about Presidio Graduate School and how we can help you further your career in the sustainability and social justice spheres, contact us today to learn more about our degree programs and admissions process.
Register to attend the remaining Employee Ownership Speaker Series events.