For those with a business idea and the drive to make it happen, Green Worker Cooperatives is offering a free, five-month course for fledgling entrepreneurs who are willing to form a cooperative, a company that is jointly owned by its workers. At the organization’s Co-op Academy in Hunts Point, participants learn how to transform their business idea into reality.
South Bronx native Omar Freilla founded the organization as a worker’s co-operative in 2003, and later began operating it as a building supply company that used salvaged and recycled materials. In 2011, he extended the business to focus on helping to create more worker co-operatives.
“We want to see a coop on every block – maybe two,” said Freilla.
Over five years, the Co-op Academy has helped form approximately 20 new cooperatives, creating approximately 50 to 60 jobs. Between 80 to 90 percent of their participants are people of color, most with other day jobs, at least to start.
Through the use of a unique set of business development tools designed by Freilla, participants are walked through the process of developing an idea, helping them to see what works. They’re taught how to establish their revenue model, how to price their product and how to conduct market research. They’re instructed on internal matters as well, from financial planning to tax preparation to internal management.
“The challenge and beauty of going through the academy is that every business will deal with the limits and possibilities of their idea,” said Ileia Burgos, the program’s outreach coordinator.
Instructors connect participants to free legal services to help them file their incorporation documents and help them get a tax ID number. They also help the co-ops receive low-cost financial services through The Working World, a microcredit loan fund that lends only to cooperatives.
“The business pays it back only after they start making a profit,” said Burgos.
For low-income individuals, self-employment can be a risk. But cooperative businesses are jointly-owned by their workers, which includes spreading responsibilities among the group.
“In a typical corporation, you have one person seeking investors, assuming all the risk. In this, everyone shares the risk,” said Burgos.
The Co-op Academy is organized around a concept of economic equality called the Rochdale Principles. First established in 1844 in England, the principles include open membership (worker-owned), salary equity among members, democratic processes for decision making, education and training for members, and concern for the surrounding community. Freilla describes this sense of social responsibility as part of the architecture of a cooperative.
“It leads to businesses taking pride in the communities they’re in because the decision makers live there,” he said.
It’s a model that works for Guadalupe Perez, founder of Ometeotl, a design cooperative that employs survivors of domestic abuse. Ometeotl creates jewelry and art pieces from recyclable materials and uses hypo-allergenic inputs like glue made of a flour base. Graduates of the spring 2016 session, Ometeotl has already earned revenue through selling their pieces to the Bronx Museum and Eileen Fisher, a women’s fashion designer with stores in Midtown Manhattan and SoHo.
Once a shelter resident, Perez is now a spirited businesswoman living with her son and daughter in her own place in the Norwood section of the Bronx. She’s never without a sketch notebook. “You never know when inspiration will come,” said Perez.
Freilla expects the number of operating coops to grow. Their first class had about 12 participants. Last session’s class had nearly 40. Burgos said that she’s also noticed increased enthusiasm in participants of more recent classes.
“People come in after long days of working, taking care of their kids, whatever it is and they still have a lot of energy,” said Burgos.
According to Alan Rinaldo, a member of Ometeotl, participants will need it. “Homework. There’s a lot of homework,” he said. “You have presentations every week. There’s a lot to research.”
Registration for the fall session continues until June 30. Weekly classes are held on Mondays from 6 to 9 p.m. at Green Worker Cooperative’s offices in the Banknote building on Lafayette Avenue. Child care and translation services (Spanish to English) are provided free of charge through Caracol Interpreters Cooperative, the oldest of Co-op Academy’s businesses.
To be accepted in the course, participants must be part of a group of two or more with an idea for a business. Those interested can learn more at Green Worker Cooperatives’ website at www.greenworker.coop/coopacademy.