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Incubating Co-ops: Cincinnati is on the leading edge

When workers own their business, productivity jumps. And this is the key Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative is banking on as they work to grow cooperatives in our region. 
Image by Our Harvest Co-op
 Image by Our Harvest Co-Op.

CINCINNATI (April 20, 2016) — When workers own their business, productivity jumps. And this is the key Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative (CUCI) is banking on as they work to grow cooperatives in our region. 

A cooperative, or a co-op, is an ownership structure where workers own the business, and it is a very successful outside the United States. 

CUCI was formed in 2012 after the Great Recession hit, as a way to bring that success to the United States by increasing jobs, improving training, and creating sustainable businesses that look beyond just profit margins.  

CUCI has taken the Mondragon model from Spain and brought this approach here to the Tristate region. “Cincinnati is on the leading edge of the movement of co-ops in the United States,” said Kristen Barker, executive director of CUCI, at a recent donor education event in at The Greater Cincinnati Foundation. 

CUCI believes the answer lies in creating worker-owned businesses which are competitive enterprises, foster social and economic justice, and empower worker dignity by creating jobs in businesses accountable to both their workers and the communities where they operate.

An important tenant for CUCI-incubated businesses is reducing the barriers to employment, where everyone’s skills, experience and education levels are put to good use. “Your attitude and ability to do the work is the most important factor (in being a valuable employee),” Barker said. “Absolutely everyone impacts the bottom line.”

The first co-op the nonprofit CUCI incubated was Our Harvest Co-op on a College Hill farm. Before they started, they accessed the agricultural business locally and found only .002 percent of Hamilton County farms produced vegetables. Growing local produce seemed a viable business option.  

Our Harvest sells to individuals, restaurants and other businesses. One special partnership is with New Jerusalem Baptist Church, turning this faith-based community into a healthy food access point.

“As we increase the amount we grown in the winter, the more we can employ all year round,” said Kristin Gangwer, CEO of Our Harvest. The co-op employees between 11-17 people and was recently able to grow all year and employ more workers throughout the year. 

Zeke Coleman, a worker-owner with Our Harvest, spoke about his commitment to the organization. “I never got that experience in building a business before working here.” He also enjoys being able to help the community eat better. “I learned about sowing and weeding and it opened my eyes about eating healthy. The healthy food we provide helps us and our customers get the fiber and nutrients we need.” 

The Greater Cincinnati Foundation and its donors have invested $50,000 in CUCI since its inception to provide economic opportunity through job creation

CUCI has incubated other co-ops, including the Apple Street Northside Market and Renting Partnerships

Special thanks to our speakers Kristen Barker, Kristin Gangwer, and Zeke Coleman for sharing their expertise with our donors. 

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About The Greater Cincinnati Foundation 

One of the nation’s leading community foundations, The Greater Cincinnati Foundation helps people make the most of their giving to build a better community. We believe in the power of philanthropy to change the lives of people and communities. As a community foundation, GCF creates a prosperous Greater Cincinnati by investing in thriving people and vibrant places. An effective steward of the community’s charitable resources since 1963, the Foundation inspires philanthropy in eight counties in Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana. At the end of 2015, GCF had net assets of $533 million.