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Jessica Mason: Cultivating GenNext of Large-scale Cooperative Businesses

Jessica Mason: Cultivating GenNext of Large-scale Cooperative Businesses

Spiffy here, your interplanetary journalist reporting from Planet Earth with an eye on entrepreneurs working to make this world more equitable. I have one more interview for you this week. Today I’m super excited to speak with Jessica Mason, the co-director of Start.coop.

Spiffy: Welcome, Jessica! Let’s jump right in. What challenge is Start.coop addressing?

Jessica: Thanks for inviting me, Spiffy! To answer your question, inequality is at an all-time high and our economy is broken. 79% of the nation's wealth is held by millionaires and billionaires. Ownership—one of the key drivers of wealth—is concentrated in the hands of business owners and investors. Systematic racism piles on top of all this, making it even harder for Black, Indigenous and other people of color to start businesses and build wealth. We need to fix the ownership gap, and give more people the chance to own and benefit from the businesses they work in, contribute to, and consume from.

Spiffy: What motivated you to do it?

Jessica: My work at Start.coop is centered around the question: How might we unleash a tidal wave of equity so that every single person can architect and experience their dream future? I'm hyper-aware of the way that our economy and society at-large are built on a foundation of inequity. I am motivated by working with others in pursuit of equity, justice, and shared prosperity. As a financially secure White woman, I have a lot of economic and race privilege that I can channel towards opening doors and creating opportunity for those who don't have a seat at the table.

Spiffy: Can you elaborate more on how you and Start.coop are working towards a more equitable world?

Jessica: Our mission is that cooperative businesses—those that share ownership with the community they serve—thrive and lead by example across all sectors of the US economy, transforming what it means to be a worker and a consumer, redefining who is rewarded for the value they create in our economy, and reducing the racial wealth gap. We are specifically focused on cultivating the next generation of cooperative businesses with ambitions of scale: imagine Apple owned by its workers, TikTok owned by its users, Uber owned by its drivers—these are the kinds of businesses we are helping create.

Spiffy: Tell me about a recent milestone or initiative by Start.coop and the impact it makes on your community.

Jessica: Starting a cooperative is messy and hard, because it's the path less traveled and there are fewer resources and support for cooperative entrepreneurs. So in 2021 we launched Lean Co-op, a free online course intended to help social entrepreneurs get started and build a cooperatively owned business. Over 750 people have signed up, which demonstrates that people starting cooperative businesses are hungry for guidance and support. The more we can provide helpful resources and tools like Lean Co-op, the more we can increase the number of cooperative businesses getting started, increase the number of people benefitting from ownership, and change the narrative about how businesses should be owned and operated for a more just future.

Spiffy: Tell me about a startup or project you’ve worked with that exemplifies the impact you’re striving to make.

Jessica: Navajo Power Home is a startup in our 2022 Accelerator. They provide solar service for off-grid homes on Navajo and Hopi lands. The co-op will be owned by the Indigenous families it serves, which means these families will benefit financially when the co-op is profitable and will also be able to participate in the cooperative's governance and decision-making. What's really exciting about this startup is that not only are they making an impact for Indigenous families by getting them access to electricity, they are also using solar power (a renewable energy source) and they are democratizing ownership by giving the Indigenous families the right to own the business.

Spiffy: Wow that sounds fantastic! Is there anything else you would love to tell our audience?

Jessica: Entrepreneurship can be scary and beautiful and powerful. Surround yourself with people smarter than you and don't be afraid to try things, knowing you will fail a thousand times but probably succeed when it counts most.

Spiffy: Thanks for speaking with me today, Jessica—it’s been an honor!

Jessica Mason is the co-director of Start.coop, an organization dedicated to cultivating the next generation of cooperative businesses with ambitions of scale. Her previous roles include founding a social impact consulting firm and directing a Harvard University portfolio of social innovation labs in Latin America. She also serves as an elected member of the board at Ampled. (Nominated by Alissa Orlando at The Driver’s Co-operative. First published on the Ladderworks website on May 12, 2022.)

© 2022 Ladderworks LLC. Edited by Anushree Nande. Spiffy’s illustration by Shreyas Navare. For the Ladderworks digital curriculum to help K-3 kids advance the UN SDGs, visit Spiffy's Corner here.