Starting the Conversation.

The Incubator has been a truly rich, inspiring experience for me. Thank you to everyone who contributed to making this such a supportive community.

After starting out with an idea for a project, scrapping that idea, and needing time to discover and embrace the possibilities that have been right in front of me from the start, I’ve decided to carry the work of the Incubator forward by- as the title of this post suggests :)- starting the conversation about CPA in Detroit.

This means engaging with my network in a new way. It means opening up about my disappointment over the missed opportunities that I see for business support organizations to promote alternative models of business development- models that prioritize community-wealth building.  It means inviting people to explore with me what it could look like to use the CPA model here as one tool or practice among others that can collectively form broader movement to promote a more equitable local economy.

My next steps for this work are to:

Know my stuff.

I still have plenty to learn about what CPA is, how it operates today, the nuts and bolts. Since I wasn’t focused on CPA for half of my time in the Incubator, I pretty much gave myself a pass to not have to dig in too deep on understanding the mechanics of it or understanding the nuance in terms of how it is being imagined and reimagined for implementation in other cities.

In addition to reading through the materials that have been so generously provided, I also want to talk to people in the cohort about their specific CPA aspirations. To what extent are they hoping to tweak the model to match the unique needs/interests of their communities? To what extent are they looking to copy and paste the model as is?

Action Steps:

  • Read through the CPA materials, watch the videos (November 30, 2019)
  • Check in with folks from the cohort who are actually thinking through how to best bring the model to life in their context will be an important action step (December 7, 2019)
  • Check in with Felipe for feedback on the talking points for my one on ones and convening. (December 14, 2019)

Have one on ones.

I’ve brainstormed a list of people in my entrepreneurship network (and/or people in their networks) with whom I’d like to start. The goal of the one on ones from my perspective is to gain a deeper understanding of people’s current work (understanding the landscape), gauge people’s interest in doing business differently/ creating a more equitable economy, and, if it makes sense, to invite them to participate in the larger convening.

I think one of the biggest gains from these meetings will be to come out of them with an understanding of what different efforts in different pockets of the city are aimed at community wealth building, coop development, or economic justice.

Action Steps:

  • Schedule/have one on ones with the 20 people on my list. (January 30, 2020)
  • Keep track of my notes from each meeting!

Host a convening of like minds.

The goals of the meeting, as I see them now, will be to 1) provide space for invitees to network and learn about each other’s work and 2) use CPA as the ‘hook’ or the thing that brings them together for learning, reflecting, and engaging with one another around an idea.

There’s already energy in pockets of Detroit around efforts to build a more just, equitable economy. How can that energy be harnessed and amplified by bringing people together to network and build connections, and also to explore what CPA could look like in Detroit.

Action Steps:

  • Host the convening (February 28, 2019)

Follow up + next steps

The results of the one on ones and the convening will dictate next steps. I will share those with the group.

Getting Beyond “Business as Usual”

Yes, this post is tardy. I don’t have any apologies to offer. I will say, though, that analysis paralysis is real and that sometimes the best way to get started with something is to just start :).

As I mentioned in my intro video as well as in my first post, as part of my day job, I manage a network of business support organizations (BSOs), all nonprofits and CDFIs that serve small business owners in Detroit. The network was convened as part of a broader, philanthropy-led initiative to promote entrepreneurship in the Detroit region. The initiative emphasizes creating more on-ramps and supports for minority and women owned entrepreneurs to participate; “Inclusion” or “an inclusive economy” are terms often used in messaging around the initiative.

Of course the elites at the helm of these foundations are the best equipped to define what it means to foster an inclusive economy and the roadmap for getting there….(for a critical analysis of this idea, see this).

Anyway, the network that I manage is made up of BSOs who tend to serve entrepreneurs with fewer resources and supports. They come together through committees and quarterly gatherings to connect around their work and also galvanize around higher-level issues impacting Detroit’s entrepreneurs at more of a systemic level like creating greater access to capital and more equitable access to commercial real estate.

As I’ve mentioned, in my view, the broader initiative and many members of the BSO network are focused on making “business as usual” accessible to more people. This work is not about transforming the fundamentals of the economy, how we do business or economic development. It’s about making sure that aspiring and current women and minority owned business owners have the supports needed to gain a seat at a broken table.

What does this look like in practice? I once moderated a panel in which an entrepreneur stated that he was frustrated that when he approached multiple BSOs about wanting to scale up manufacturing of his product, they wanted to help him get set up to have the manufacturing done oversees. The entrepreneur, however is a proud Detroiter, who very much wants to use his business to invest in the community. He wants to use space in Detroit and hire Detroiters to manufacture his goods.

The idea of “community wealth building” is certainly not a priority for the .001%ers at the helm of these organizations (who probably have to represent the interests of founders and boards who are probably the .000001%ers). It’s also not an articulated priority for members of the BSO network, which is more perplexing.

For this exercise, I’ll try to get inside of their heads.

Why isn’t “community wealth building” (here: practices which prioritize investment in local institutions, local people, local spaces) a top priority for members of the network?

  1. Philosophy/Belief: The goal of a business is to be profitable. At my organization, we view our work as helping entrepreneurs launch businesses that can be profitable and sustainable. There are organizations at the periphery of the network who talk about co-ops and things like that, but that’s not our focus.
  2. Funding: The funder led initiative has funded my organization for the past 5 years to provide xyz technical assistance to entrepreneurs. They’ve become a large part of our funding portfolio, such that we don’t have funding to do other entrepreneurship programs that are not related to the initiative. How, then, am I supposed to have time and capacity to talk to entrepreneurs about structuring their businesses so that they’re paying a living wage, etc.? I’m in the same boat as many people from peer organizations within the network. Most of us rely on the initiative for a large chunk of our annual budgets. Also, I can’t help but notice that none of the organizations that participate in the network who come from organizations that talk about community wealth or co-ops receive funding from the initiative. If the funder isn’t interested and my organization doesn’t have the time or expertise to work with entrepreneurs  to get them to understand why it’s important and how they can structure their businesses  from a community wealth building lens, why would I bring the topic up in our committees or gatherings?
  3. Priorities: When we set the annual priorities that the network will work on collaboratively, we start by sharing the most consistent or pressing needs that we hear from entrepreneurs in our day to day work. At my organization, we encounter entrepreneurs who want to achieve profitability or increase their profits. We talk to entrepreneurs all the time who were unsuccessful in accessing loans to build their businesses. We hear every day from them about how they’re sales would be better if they just had better marketing to reach more customers. What we don’t see as much is business owners (or aspiring business owners) coming to us because they want to know how to most effectively reinvest the wealth being generated through their businesses into the communities they serve or into their workers. We spend out time covering the basics that businesses need to be sustainable; “community wealth building”, therefore, is low on our priority list.

This exercise was helpful. Given this reality, I wonder whether/to what extent the organizations that DO prioritize investing locally, investing in workers, etc. can come together to create their own network and either attract funding from like-minded funders or pool their resources to start pushing their own agenda.

RS – Thank you for your questions and insights, Jessica and Michelle! Ironically, when I wrote this post, I didn’t think about what this could mean for me personally, as in, I didn’t write it with the intention of acting. I started the Incubator thinking of it as an escape/breath of fresh air from the dynamics of my day job, not a way to get better insight into how I could rethink my work. When I read “to help these BSO’s join you on this journey” and questions related to approaches that I might take (talking to the program officer, talking one on one to the BSOs), I started to see that I could possibly have a role in trying to shift the dynamic, rather than just complaining on the side lines. As it happens, I have a pretty good rapport with our program officer and he’s definitely someone with whom I could have a conversation about this. I think the biggest hurdle to making any movement in terms of trying to leverage this platform that I manage to advance an agenda from any side (i.e.working with BSOs who are grantees, the community wealth building advocates on the fringe, the funder) has been me mentally having put that part of my work in a box labeled with things like “missed opportunity”, “case study: what’s wrong with the nonprofit sector”, “to the extent possible, avoid thinking about this”. Maybe it is time for me to get in the game and try to create the change that I want to see! 

The Power of Coaching: From a Dead End Idea to a New Perspective

Part One: An Idea at a Dead End 

Janai joined the CPA Incubator 4 weeks ago full of hope that this would be her chance to dedicate time and effort to think through an idea that she’d been carrying with her for months. More specifically, she’d been carrying this idea around ever since she read this inspiring editorial in Riverwise Magazine.

Could she build an energy company to model good practice in the energy industry? More broadly, could she build an energy company to demonstrate an alternative, values-driven model for running a business at scale?

Because she knew that business as usual meant creating businesses that do not prioritize the things that she and many other progressive-minded folks think they should:  using business as a tool to invest in communities and generate wealth for the many, at the same time minimizing the impact on the environment so that it can continue to sustain life.

As she started working through prompts and talking to folks about her idea, she was  inspired by the positive feedback she received about her “why”. She was also unsettled by some of the insightful, challenging, and important questions that she received about her “how”.

She had no choice but to reasonably conclude that she was not the right person to build an energy company – be it a company that generates power, manufactures parts in a larger supply chain for clean energy infrastructure, or something else. After all, without the technical know-how, she’d be best positioned to support the driver but not be the driver of that effort.

The idea that Janai started with was clearly at a dead end.

At this point, she was already behind on her homework. She had enough stuff in her life to do and she had no “what” to do for the Incubator. Finally, the entire dilemma had triggered long-held insecurities to resurface, prompting her to get all existential and stuff in her thinking.

Part Two: The Decision

The question was clear: Should she drop out of the Incubator? If she wasn’t going to do the business plan because she knew she couldn’t build the business, and if she wasn’t going to build the business because she hadn’t created a business plan for it, wouldn’t it be better to redirect her time and effort away from the Incubator towards something else?

Part Three: New Avenues Opened through Coaching

Janai opened up to her group about what she was grappling with during the week 4 call when they had their PIES check in. The group decided to use her decision as a case study for the decision making methodology from the prompt.

Whether they knew it or not, they followed these instructions from the prompt to a “t”:

“Take turns asking questions and invest in the powerful work of helping each other grow through coaching. Help one another dig deep into your decisions with impact, strategy, meaning and possibility. Use questions that open doors, uncover and create new avenues. Hold up a mirror to one another, to make sure that your solutions and decisions are solving the right problems or designing the future that you truly seek.” 

Janai’s major takeaways from the group coaching all relate to reframing her perspective:

  • There are more than two options on the table. When Janai framed the issue to the group, she stated that she saw her options as 1) Starting over with finding a new, yet-to-be determined idea for her Incubator project or 2) Leave the Incubator and focus on other things. As Juan Fransisco observed, there’s a third option, though: Continue to participate in the Incubator, deferring the outcome/implementation until later. In other words, Janai could continue to use the Incubator as a space to learn, share, and explore ideas. The ultimate end product of completing a business plan for a “what” could come later, if at all.
  • What’s the commitment? Carrie’s questions helped Janai understand that she was conflating multiple issues. Through conversation, it became clear that Janai had been equating her project, creating a business plan for starting an energy company, with a commitment to starting an energy company. However, as Carrie noted, completing the Incubator is not a commitment to start a business; Janai could choose to see it as a learning opportunity, which may or may not result in building a “what”.
  • Break apart the big, scary thing. Through conversation with the group, it also became clear that Janai’s questions about whether she belonged in the Incubator were the way she was framing leadership. Wasn’t the Incubator for leaders, people who were going to be out in front, building stuff? Was she a leader? As Michelle wisely noted, it’s ok to just put one foot in front of the other, deciding that I don’t have to decide in one go whether I’m a leader or not. Also, as Juan Fransisco noted, being a leader isn’t a static thing; people show up in different roles in different spaces. This is not a yes/no question. (*There were also insightful observations made about challenging dominant notions of leadership and individualism :)).
  • FOMO is real. While Janai stated that sunk costs were not a factor in her decision-making process, she expressed that FOMO was an important factor holding her back from leaving. The time that she’d already spent in the Incubator with #TeamMonday had been priceless. She anticipated that she would miss journeying with them, if she left the Incubator.

Part Four: Decision Reached

Janai  decided to remain in the Incubator. The questions and observations of her group members caused her to shift her perspective. And, as noted above, FOMO is real.

In the absence of her original “what”, Janai has decided to focus on the CPA model and what that could look like in Detroit. For better or for worse, this means she has lots of readings to catch up on. Thankfully, she’s part of a cohort of others to whom she can turn with questions along the way.


From What to Why to What

Note: In an effort to not be late this week, I’m publishing my initial thoughts (almost) on time. I look forward to reflecting more on these initial thoughts in light of your feedback and the clarity that time often brings. 

It felt good to write last week’s post. It forced me to think about my goals, articulate them, and think about a plan of action for bringing them to life. Finally, I had to wrangle ideas that had been floating around in my mind for months and try to make sense of them!

In response to my post, I was presented with questions that really gave me pause:

“What type of energy company would you like to start? Is this a company that generates power, manufactures infrastructure for clean energy projects, etc.? Sky’s the limit, so what feels right?” (Thanks, Ale 😉

My answer then, and even now is, “I don’t know”.

I went into the Incubator with the idea in mind that I wanted to start an energy company to model good practice in the energy industry. But, to be honest, the idea of starting an energy company is big, intimidating, and procrastination-provoking for me. I don’t have a background in the energy sector or business; right now, I’m not even in a position to say what’s feasible in terms of starting the business.

But today’s reading from the alternative prompt ” What is it for” helped shift my focus from my daunting, nebulous “what” to a new way to think about my “why”. This in turn, has helped me move a step closer to determining what my what should look like.

In “Who-and What- Will Customer’s Become”, Michael Schrage posits that innovative companies are those that have a vision of the customers it wants to create. Rather than focusing on simply marketing its products to people who may need or want them,  an innovative company asks how its products will rebrand or reposition its customers.

This means shifting focus from asking how a company can meet the needs of customers today with its products to how a company can create the customer it wants to meet the needs of in the future.

Schrage points to Apple as an example of an innovative company. He talks about how Apple, driven by Steve Jobs’ passion for design and quality, became a company that focused on creating customers that share that passion. They set a bar that customers adopted as their own.

It’s interesting to me that Apple places so much emphasis on design aesthetic and technological innovation while placing so little emphasis on ensuring that the supply chain for its products reflects a commitment to ethical (by Western standards) labor practices, environmental stewardship, or investing profits in communities where people make and/or purchase Apple products.

Anyway, I realized by reading the article that I, too, have a bar that I’m looking to set for customers to adopt. This brings me back to my why. My customer feels good about themselves when they demonstrate a commitment to environmental stewardship, investment in communities that they serve, and creating quality jobs for local people. They are critical of Big Industry and want to be a part of shifting resources towards local enterprise and are conscious of their impact in the world.

I still have some work to do to drill down on the company’s customer even further. I’m hopeful that the exercise will lead me to a better understanding of whether the customer is a company (i.e. figuring out how this company could intersect with existing supply chains) or a community (i.e. figuring out how this company could generate power for businesses and or people).

RS: Am I cut out for this? Am I really committed to this?





Two Goals Towards One End: Fostering New Models of Doing Business in Detroit

Goal#1: Create a business plan for an energy company  

Before I get to goal #1, my goal #0.5 is to assess the feasibility of starting an energy company that could grow to scale. I need to have an informed idea of what it would take before I can decide whether I feel that I’m willing and/or able to go any further.

So then, based on the results of the initial assessment, I will determine whether my goal of developing a formal business plan for the venture is worth pursuing (i.e. whether it would be worth the investment additional time, research, and resources to prepare a formal business plan).

As I mentioned in my video, I have very mixed feelings about my day job. I’m not sure that this is the space to go into details about why and how the systems that frame the context of my work with nonprofit business support providers and CDFIs are fundamentally broken, but in short, I will say that our work does little to fundamentally challenge the reality that many of the women and minority-owned businesses that we serve are not profitable, cannot grow to scale, lack access to capital and real estate, do not set up their businesses in ways that promote community wealth building, etc.

Through my work, I am complicit in abetting and perpetuating the broken systems and status quo manifested in the outcomes that I just described. My motivation for wanting to start an energy company-and, as a first step, achieve this goal- is that I feel deeply that it’s not enough to say that I wish for an alternative; I have to build the alternative and/or support others who are building it.

To be honest, I would LOVE to ride someone else’s coattails on this. But where is that someone with a vision and commitment to trying this to be found?

In the absence of having identified him/her yet, I can only take it upon myself to satisfy 1) my curiosity about whether this is feasible and 2) my desire to create the reality which I wish to see.

Me. I can easily be held back by “what ifs” or “I can’ts”. However, I feel that this 6-week incubator is the perfect opportunity to put my doubt, fear, analysis paralysis and all of the other junk that tends to hold me back aside to allow my values, imagination, curiosity, and intuition to lead me towards my goals.

Time. It takes time- sacrificing one of the most valuable and seemingly scarce goods that I have- to do the necessary research to draft the first informal assessment and even more to do the formal business plan. Am I committed enough to silence my fears and doubts and sacrifice time to do the work?

Skills and Knowledge Required

  • Confidence!
  • Knowledge of existing models for such ventures and of other possibilities that deviate from what’s been done before
  • An understanding of the technology and how one builds/manages an energy company. What is the required infrastructure? Knowledge? Technology? What is the potential profitability and sustainability of such a venture?
  • Long term: the ability to motivate others to join me as partners and investors

People & Groups
People and groups who could help me along the way towards this goal are:

  • My CPA cohort members
  • My friends Ale and Yannick
  • The network of local TA and resource providers that I manage through my day job

Plan of Action

  • Clearly outline the components that I need to cover in my feasibility assessment
  • Create a list of people that I need to talk to + reach out to them (Jonathan, Carrie, and Felipe are already on the list )
  • Create a list of books/articles that I need to read for research purposes
  • Identify which TA providers in my network would be most helpful to coach me along through the process, depending on the results of the feasibility analysis

Deadline for Achievement

  • The deadline for the initial feasibility assessment is in 5 weeks (the end of this program).
  • The deadline for the formal business plan, should it come to that is… maybe Spring 2020? It will depend on which TA provider I need to work with.

Goal#2: Plant Seeds of Interest about the CPA Model

My goal is to transform expectations around how and why businesses operate. For me, that looks like aiming to model a different way of doing business at scale by actually building a business (as in, goal #1). It also looks like talking with other socially-minded folks to consider how they can use business as a vehicle to advance their missions in ways that are more financially sustainable than grants and donations.

In practice, this goal looks like me having conversations with x number of community activists, people in my network through work, and/or influencers about CPA’s model and maybe other models.

I get to plant seeds of interest and inspire leaders to do something without actually having to take the lead on doing the something myself.

See above.

Skills & Knowledge Required

  • Charisma to motivate others
  • How to make my message compelling
  • Who are the right people to reach out to?

People & Groups

  • Folks from organizations in my network such as the Center for Community- Based Enterprise, Wayne State University’s Social Enterprise Certificate program, etc.
  • My co-worker Jamii

Plan of Action

  • Refine my list of 3-5 people with whom I’d like to share the information
  • Gather enough information to actually make a useful presentation/give substantive information and insights
  • Seek out speaking opportunities and/or invite the people on my list to coffee, etc.

Deadline for Achievement

  • Within the month following the end of the Incubator, I want to have scheduled my coffees and applied to speaking opportunities to share the information that I’ve gained.