By Hilary Abell (C18)

Published 12.19.13

I began my career in sustainability two decades ago as a worker-owner at Equal Exchange, one of the largest democratic worker cooperatives in the United States, working to create a fair trade coffee industry. It was the dawn of the fair trade movement, and we were building it person-to-person, one shipping container of coffee at a time. My role was in sales and producer relations. I visited small farmers in Peru, Colombia and El Salvador, developing long-term trade partnerships that were economically just and environmentally sound.

When I was elected to the worker co-operative’s Board of Directors, I was a twenty-something with much to learn. The Board included worker-owners like myself and leaders from the fledgling worlds of socially responsible business and impact investing, though it wasn’t called that at the time. Our charge was to help Equal Exchange grow in ways that were consistent with its pioneering role, while embracing the opportunities in its future.

Later as Executive Director of WAGES (Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security), I continued to work with low-income families to improve their environmental health and economic well-being using the cooperative model. We incubated and grew five thriving businesses that served the needs of women workers, customers and the planet. It was very rewarding and very hard work. I started to seek answers to the questions that were vexing me, my organization and the cooperative movement. I wondered how we could combine cooperative models and entrepreneurial ambitions in new ways — to spread the benefits of shared ownership more broadly.

To help answer these questions, I enrolled in the PGS MBA program. At PGS, I’ve found students and faculty exploring economic models that benefit all stakeholders while teaching the fundamental business skills required in every entrepreneurial setting.

I’ve found that PGS’ practical approach to graduate school fits with my schedule as a mid-career professional who is frequently on the road. I can access coursework with its flexible schedule, including classes on the weekends.

Earlier this year, I joined the team at the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative as a consultant, trainer and system design strategist. We’re bringing local anchor institutions and cooperative businesses together to develop community wealth in Cleveland neighborhoods — whether it’s helping grow local urban agriculture, solar or even LEED-certified commercial laundry operations.

I am also putting the finishing touches on a white paper to be released early next year on the barriers and opportunities in worker cooperative development, and I’m the co-founder of a new organization that will address these issues in the Bay Area. In short, I am putting my classroom work to good use!

PGS is helping me build a toolkit of business skills and systems thinking. But my experience here is more than that. I’ve also found a group of people who understand the path I’ve taken, and who can be thought partners, potential collaborators, and more. Years ago, I saw a clear divide between people who were creating social movements and alternative economic models, and people in the business world. Today, PGS is helping me bridge that divide.


Hilary Abell (C18)

Hilary is an MBA candidate at Presidio Graduate School. She’s a vegetarian at home but rarely passes up a Chicago-style hot dog.

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