Putting Intersecting Identities to Work

One of the reasons I am so ready for this incubator is that I have been avoiding myself. I’ve been avoiding the hard questions, and certainly avoiding the necessary reflection required to answer them. I initiated my current trajectory at a time where I felt very sure of myself. I wrote my narrative and put my Self on autopilot. I didn’t account for personal change. I didn’t account for personal growth.

Despite the inevitability of key life events transpiring in the almost ten years since I first started formulating my outdated plan, I let my momentum from a decade ago carry me into the present. And the weight of accumulating beliefs that don’t serve me are slowing me down. That momentum is dwindling (or has dwindled). This incubator is my confrontation with my biggest fear: fear of conflict. In this case, an absurd conflict, which is a conflict with myself.

Over the next few weeks, I commit to let myself question and answer myself. My question will be – how might I let my intersecting identities guide me to fulfilling work, and not overwhelm me? I will start exploring this question by establishing two related goals that sprout from my identities as a business co-owner, a woman of color, entrepreneur, sustainability professional, and tired person. These identities do not exist in isolation of themselves, but I need a stake in the ground to start.

  1. THE GOAL: My tangible goals will be:
  • To convert PizzaPlex to a worker-owned company (an already stated, public-facing goal, but repeating it reinforces its priority to the business)
  • To establish a network of women interested in investing in women- and POC-owned businesses, including those business leaders

This second goal has been a nebulous idea in my mind that I have yet to socialize publicly or fully formulate! “Establish” can be vague – in this case, I mean assemble, develop a value proposition, and proceed with activating the network only if tangible value to other women and communities of color can be confirmed.

  1. THE BENEFITS: The benefits I perceive of worker ownership are to redistribute wealth to all the people who tirelessly strive to make a small business first exist and then thrive, and then to return wealth back into the community who serves as our gracious host. I have the privilege to start a business as an entrepreneur outside of my primary livelihood. I am convinced that democratic decision-making – involving not only the staff but the adjacent ecosystem of partners and neighbors – is at the heart of “good business.” For me, there’s a selfishness in proving this – because it benefits the people putting in the work and establishes a business model that can be transferred to other enterprises of which I am a part or will start myself. I would never call this business an experiment, because that word could trivialize its meaning. So I’ll say that I want this template to succeed, and I want to apply it to new networks I create – including one established for women who want to transform their local economies.

I develop programming for women-led organizations to some degree at my “day job.” I want to make my life’s work about investing in women, who invest in their families and communities, and who in turn can develop sustainable and equitable neighborhoods, organizations, businesses, and governments together. The goal for now isn’t about life’s work. It’s about establishing a small nurturing network first.

  1. OBSTACLES: For PizzaPlex, the obstacle is succeeding as a conventional business to achieve our social enterprise goals. We will not convert to a worker-owned business when one of the primary things to “own” at the moment is liability from our day-to-day business operations. Hence, when we break even and start generating profit, we will share the profits, and formally re-write our articles of organization to reflect “ownership” by the full team driving our small but mighty engine. Acknowledging the fundamental challenges of growing a small business (let alone one trying to restructure itself!) as an obstacle expresses my sincere desire to operate a transparent business. A social enterprise needs to be a conventionally successful business to achieve its mission. I have nothing but gratitude for all the people and organizations who are taking this plunge with me.

For a network of women investors and investees, the obstacle is establishing feasibility and relevance. Is this desire to connect with and drive the good work of other women relevant to other women? Is this needed? Aren’t there an abundance of these organizations, initiatives, spaces? I need to affirm that there’s a desire for this concept first. Sometimes, my dual roles as a business co-owner and a person who simultaneously thinks about what social enterprises need to succeed, can conflate and contradict each other, and expand my examination lens to a point of dissolving purpose. (This is a fine example of intersecting identities overwhelming me.)

  1. SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE REQUIRED: Our team at PizzaPlex is striving to figure out the business formula. And we are learning this through trial and error. But how long can our runway sustain trial and error? We consistently update projections and adapt our business plan to reveal what needs to change operationally to lead to growth. At the same time, we need to know the nuts and bolts of what a conversion looks and feels like. (The next part addresses that – who our local experts are to guide us through this!)

As for developing a network, the skills and knowledge required include ability to conduct real market research through transparent and open, vulnerable conversation: what’s the real need? Is this Ale waxing philosophical about something she wants in a vacuum? I also will be served by the ability to make meaningful connections that will accelerate the beginning of or growth of an enterprise, and the ability to raise funds or other necessary resources.

  1.  THE PEOPLE AND GROUPS WHO CAN HELP: For PizzaPlex, we have a couple of trusted key partners who already help. These are the Center for Community Based Enterprise (C2BE) and the Detroit Community Wealth Fund. These are local experts on cooperatives, social enterprises, and worker ownership. Another third party review that would benefit us at this stage is from a finance professional who also understands the dynamics of operating a business with an integrated social and environmental mission. We must holistically evaluate the impacts of our decisions.

For a network of women interested in seeing their business thrive or the businesses of other women thrive – the people and groups who can help are aspiring and existing business owners, investors, technical experts, women willing to serve as mentors, and these groups’ allies. The same groups supporting PizzaPlex are likely to be wonderful partners for a nurturing network.

  1. PLANS OF ACTION:

For PizzaPlex:

  • Create systems and infrastructure that reduce extra labor on staff; find ways to maximize their effort at work so they enjoy work more and worry less. This looks like me, Ale, actually observing tasks, writing policies, and enabling behaviors that make staff happier
  • Continuously tweak our business model to identify areas of improvement, and then improve them – this may mean finding new businesses opportunities or paring down existing operations to optimize
  • Leverage our partners to develop the groundwork for our conversion more actively (i.e. ask for more help, and respond to their questions more quickly!)

For this so-called network (better word forthcoming, I promise):

    • Interview at least ten women entrepreneurs, investors, technical experts, and community leaders for feedback on this concept
    • Convene these women if there is an established need (and cook for them and feed them to thank them!)
    • Collectively identify roles of interest for these women, and plan next steps together in celebration
  1. DEADLINES: PizzaPlex will be a worker-owned business by the end of 2020. I will establish this network (placeholder word) by May 2020.

RS – I am in awe at how your comments prompted me to dig deeper. And, in fact, that’s the biggest takeaway from reflecting on my two goals since publishing them – that I deserve to carve out time for more reflection, and communicate what my reflection yields in what I write. I am also grateful for the way your questions nudge me to break big goals into small steps, and to work backwards from there. Each small step corresponds to a digestible question, so I will blend my own reflection time with self-questioning. Sometimes, admittedly, I’m not clear what to ask. Seeing your questions (and suggestions!) in writing has been very fulfilling, and I can go back to them to reference.

I’ve started tackling my plans of action and have had some really energizing conversations this past week that are moving me in a very hopeful direction. I am extremely thankful to have so many incredible women in my life (the people with whom I’ve connected in association with my goals this week are all women) and I recover so much strength from spending time with them.

5 thoughts on “Putting Intersecting Identities to Work”

  1. Ale this is so rich! Thank you for sharing these dreams, and your plan to guide them, nurture them as they grow. I love your vision for PizzaPlex as a template for the type of place you want to work at and own. That seems to me a very clear source of inspiration that will give you the emotional resources to meet your goal.

    I’m wondering if there is space for an intermediate goal of striving for workplace democracy. You mentioned that converting ownership to workers today would mean granting them a liability, rather than an asset, so I understand the financial reason to not convert to worker-ownership legally. But with worker-ownership often comes democratic decision making at the work place. That can happen even before ownership transfers to workers. It may also help cultivate more innovation and efficiency from front-line workers. How does workplace democracy fit into your vision for building a business you’d like to work at, even before ownership changes hands?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jonathan! I thought your question was very important to address since the concept of workplace democracy is central to our mission and journey towards “formal” worker ownership. Indeed, we have incorporated workplace democracy and decision-making in how we run the business since it was founded. We are a team of eight people (plus my husband and I) and the team makes decisions in consultation with each other, with open access to financials, and ability to adapt/change/re-write own job descriptions based on the needs of the business. The fact that you asked this question (and another similar question from Felipe on Slack) challenges me to do a better job of explaining my definition of ownership when the topic comes up. I do not only see this as reference to financial ownership, but owning responsibility, accountability to others and our selves, and to our mission/society and community members/the environment, etc. When I describe our worker ownership journey in the post, I mean the very formal exercise of updating legal documents, and, importantly, distributing profits. We are working on growing the business to get there collectively! Thank you so much for asking.

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  2. Ale. Kudos for the vulnerability. Your opening lines were what impacted me most:
    “I’ve been avoiding the hard questions, and certainly avoiding the necessary reflection”

    “the weight of accumulating beliefs that don’t serve me are slowing me down”

    “This incubator is my confrontation with my biggest fear: fear of conflict. In this case, an absurd conflict, which is a conflict with myself.”

    Do these goals you’ve set for yourself help you with this conflict?
    How might you show up to conversations with other entrepreneurs / investors/ experts (for your “network”) — or others / friends / peers in this cohort — more vulnerably to give yourself space to confront this fear of conflict?

    Is there another goal you’d like to set for yourself here? Perhaps a more personally important one?

    “how might I let my intersecting identities guide me to fulfilling work, and not overwhelm me?”
    “establishing a small nurturing network first”

    Do you have 2-3 women you can turn to right now?
    Who has been most nurturing to you in the past few years?

    I have a couple ideas of coaches I’ve met through SURJ and folks from Resource Generation who I bet would be very interested in meeting you. Let me know if you’d like to brainstorm names sometime.

    “A social enterprise needs to be a conventionally successful business to achieve its mission.”

    What’s the biggest obstacle to your conventional success? Is it more sales? What are the 3 biggest small things you could do (or delegate or brainstorm with somebody else and agitate them so that they take ownership/responsibility for) that could get more customers in the door next week, next month?
    What if that was repeated week after week for 4 weeks? And then that person made it a habit?
    Would # of pizzas sold continue to grow? Average amount per customer increase? Gross Revenue per week increase — even as we head into winter?

    When do most conventional shops make most of their money? How do they get most of their business?
    Have you ever talked to a Pizza franchising person about the business?
    https://mybigcheesepizza.com/franchising/
    What metrics do they look for in a potential franchisee? How can they tell if a business is going to have success?
    I’ll be curious to hear more about your response to next week’s prompt on “edges” and edgecraft…
    Thanks so much for being here. I’m really excited you’re bringing your full self to this.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ale! This is passionate and fiery and I love it. One thing that struck me is that you started out by talking about the need for self-reflection (I saw you comment on my post about this, too! Nice!) but then neither of your two goals you outlined directly relate to that. I think having a separate goal category around this question of self-reflection, of taking real time to work through these questions you have, can be really valuable. Just from reading your post it seems to me that your strong sense of these many identities, including and maybe especially the inner conflict, serve as strong motivators for your work. And you’re doing amazing, amazing work! And you also said a couple times that you’re tired. That makes sense! There’s never an easy/right time to commit to doing more reflective work. Especially when you’re doing as much as you are, there will always be something more urgent. This incubator as a set amount of time each week could be a great time to dive into some of those questions you have. I hope you bring some of this to our Monday call!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Alessandra, thank you for your willingness to be vulnerable.

    I am particularly excited about your willingness to “Establish a network of women investors and investees”. A group of people and I developed a cooperative investment club in Denver. We currently have 69 members investing in cooperatives and have learned a lot from the process. One of the most valuable elements was having a core group of people who believed in the work and were willing to invest the time and effort. Who can you count on today to establish the network? Do you have any other partners in this work?

    Regarding your identified obstacle of establishing feasibility and relevance, have you considered asking what type of investment is needed? Is it financial? If so, are the women-owned businesses capital ready? Is it skills development? If so, what assets or skills are already available? What’s missing? If there are other organizations or initiatives, why is there still a need? Answering this question can help identify your value proposition.

    Regarding your plan of action to convert PizzaPlex to a worker-owned company, have you considered breaking it up to small steps that can help you achieve your goal? Of the entire process what can be accomplished in the next month or two?

    I’m looking forward to hearing about your progress!

    Liked by 1 person

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