An interview with Lift Economy Founder Shawn Berry
By Andy Douglas
Shawn Berry lives in upstate New York and runs LIFT Economy, a worker-owned consulting business that helps workers start or transition to worker-owned, cooperative, and collaborative businesses. The LIFT Economy website notes that LIFT is an impact consulting firm whose mission is to create, model, and share a racially just, regenerative, and locally self-reliant economy that works for the benefit of all life. Before that, Berry worked with a furniture-making cooperative in San Francisco, California. As a long-time student of the Progressive Utilization Theory, he is well-positioned to shed light on the unique qualities of cooperatives, a mainstay of the Prout economy.
AD – Please tell me where you’re from, how you got interested in starting your own cooperative, and how that unfolded.
SB – I was born and raised in Rochester, New York, and went to college at the State University of New York at Geneseo. I was just doing what I was told, the normal American thing – go to college, get a job. I wound up studying physics, which was interesting. After graduating, I received a job offer, but I found out it was tied to weapons development. I didn’t think of myself as an activist or a moralist or anything at that time, but when I found this out I was shocked. Like, why would you think that’s OK?
I moved to San Francisco on a whim and through a series of events ended up working at a furniture manufacturing workshop. The owner was having trouble with the business, and he approached me and another young man, and said, ‘Why don’t you guys run the workshop?
As we started operating – it was a long growth curve, we weren’t really trained – I found out about Prout and learned about cooperatives. I kind of recognized, “Oh, that’s how we’re running our business.” We were doing things in a cooperative, collective manner without naming it that way. And we were also looking at traditional business systems and saying that they didn’t make sense for us.
The Bay Area has a robust network of cooperatives called Nobawc, the Network of Bay Area Worker Coops. There was a big movement there in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and it’s still active today. These people were very welcoming, and offered skill shares and workshops and gatherings and conferences. They’d ask, ‘How do you guys do your books? Come on over and we’ll show you.’
AD – This doesn’t sound like the kind of ethos you’d encounter in a more competitive working environment.
SB – You can’t call up another company and ask them almost anything. It would be considered a breach of understanding. Most companies are non-cooperative. They’re like, ‘We’re out to get you, this is a competitive thing. If we’re doing our job well, you won’t be doing this anymore.’
At some point I realized I wasn’t going to be building furniture the rest of my life. There was a parallel in Sarkar’s teachings, this idea that there’s a higher leverage point of service on the intellectual level, on a systems level. You could do service by digging a ditch, which is great, but there might be higher impact service if you change somebody’s mindframe and that changes their life. And so I moved from the idea of working with my hands to thinking about networks and movements. I started Lift Economy.
These days there is a big transition to worker-owned businesses, because the baby boomer business owners are all retiring. It’s called “the silver tsunami.” It’s about creating a secession plan, and empowering the workers. So this is something we’ve been able to work with.
AD – Could you articulate more about why it’s a good idea for someone to join a co-op? What does it do for them?
SB – I’ll preface this by saying it’s not the right thing for everybody at every moment. But on the advantage side, there’s an engagement that’s really important for human fulfillment and satisfaction. The US workforce is famously disengaged, 70% disengaged. If you look at internet traffic during the day, everyone gets to work, there’s this huge spike in people surfing the internet, then people go to lunch, it drops off, then they come back and send a few emails, then in middle of the afternoon there’s a huge spike again. You get this peak during the work hours.
AD – Co-ops are an argument for productivity.
SB – If you’re a worker-owner and you like your job, and you’re empowered to control some of the ways you’re doing it, your workspace, the people you’re working with, you’re incentivized. In that environment, I’m not going to come to work and stare at the internet all day, and then go home and do something interesting with my life. You can actually bring together your gifts for humanity. You’re creating value, you’re meeting needs. Having a business that meets basic needs is really important.
One of the toxic elements of modern capitalism is this idea that ‘Hey, I’m giving you money for something, and then we’re even, fair and square, I don’t owe you anything.’ And that’s poison for communities. Because we need each other.
Traditional communities are just gifting into the middle the whole time, they’re not keeping a ledger. The nuclear family is the vestige of this. I don’t have a ledger going of how many sandwiches I made my daughter and what she owes me. In traditional communities, I shoot a deer, I bring it back, it’s for everybody, everybody feasts. It’s not like, ‘Oh, this is just for me. Sorry you’re hungry.’
AD – There’s a sense of communal responsibility.
SB – Yeah, and there are these abundant yields that come from it. Good company, creativity, even being able to play music while we’re working. That’s part of the work, too. That richness, that fullness. So it’s not like ‘Oh, I have to go to work.’ It’s like, ‘Whoa, what are we doing today?’ It’s got to be beautiful.
AD – I like what you’re saying about the need for sparking the soul of workers in a collective business. What about remuneration? Is that increased generally in co-ops?
SB – Yeah, co-ops in general pay their workers above what they would get paid in the industry. In my woodworking co-op, all workers got paid more than they would in other shops. We got paid less than the owner of another shop, but worker co-ops tend to take better care of their community, with better benefits and pay. They tend to source locally, have better supply chain practices, through relationships, and they tend to be ecological. There’s not going to be some poison in the stream out back, because that’s where they live.
AD – Health insurance?
SB – It depends. There’s something called the price parity paradox. Co-ops, social enterprises, this movement of organizations trying to create benefit, they operate at a higher cost basis. They’re going to pay higher wages, and use Fair Trade ingredients. So every decision that they’re making in how they run their organization costs more than their competitor who’s not doing those things. But there’s a market pressure to be within a range that’s viable, and that’s the paradox.
With the exploitative businesses, there are all these externalities. They can offer this deflated price, setting the market at a certain standard. Food should not be as cheap as it is, because it should reflect the full harm that may have been created in its production. Or Department of Agriculture subsidies for all the monocrop stuff. If gas was not massively subsidized, the cost of fuel would be that much higher. If we took the Pentagon budget and added that to the price of a gallon of gas, it would be astronomical. But we don’t have gas at the pump without the Pentagon waging terror on the world.
AD – It sounds like we’re talking about raising the consciousness of the public to appreciate these things – paying a little more so that you’re not exploiting the worker. How do we move toward a society which is supportive of a more cooperative-based economy?
SB – It’s hard. It’s emergent. One of my core observations is there’s nothing like a lived, embodied experience. It’s very different from reading a book, or watching a video. In my co-op, one of our favorite things was having someone come in for a tour. They can meet the woodworker working on their piece, a woodworker who is an owner, who sits on the board of directors, who speaks with them. First of all, you would never go in and talk to a floor worker at another factory, it wouldn’t be allowed. Now you’re talking to a worker who’s very articulate, someone on the board, and the team is eating lunch together, as a family, with a chef who serves them fresh food. What is going on here? There’s no reference point in American culture for that.
If you’re a worker and you join a co-op, you’d be welcome to say, ‘Hey, should we move these tools around, that might be more efficient, what do you think?’ In a co-op, we want your intelligence, we want a collaborative decision process. This changes people’s lives. My work has been about how do we create those opportunities for people to have those direct lived experiences of economic democracy?
Of course, I have seen people come out jaded from working at co-ops, ‘I’m not doing another meeting,’ that happens. But it’s a reaction to poor meeting facilitation, or poor organizational structure. I’ve been at a meeting of the board and someone is talking about the type of toilet paper we have. No. We cannot be talking about that, we delegate that decision, someone can comment on it on their own time. You can kill me too if I’m going to have to sit through that.
But there’s also this reaction to business-as-usual. Someone says, ‘Hey, I’m going to start a biofuel coop, and no, we don’t do budgets. We don’t do strategic planning, we don’t do organizational charts.’ And I’m like, ‘Ahh, no, we need you guys to be successful.’
AD – I lived in a housing coop in the ‘80s in Austin, TX, very much influenced by hippie values, do your own thing. There weren’t many skills in terms of facilitation, how to run a meeting. It was ragged. People burned out, people clashed with each other. So maybe we’re moving into a much more professionalized era.
SB – I think it has to be. Are you familiar with integral theory, Ken Wilbur? This idea that there are different levels of development. You don’t want to bypass levels, you want to include and integrate. As we transcend modern capitalism, we need to also harvest and use everything that’s made it so effective. Look at what humans have been able to do, building bridges and buildings and spaceships, absolutely incredible. So let’s not throw out all the things that empower that action, but let’s have it all guided by values. Does it fit a future humanity that works for everybody? If not, then it’s not in the consideration set. But we certainly need to project manage, and have differentiated roles and responsibilities. Having those business-as- usual things governed by the vision and values that would nurture people in the community.
AD – And you see that transition toward a new economy happening?
SB – Yeah, robustly. The thing that’s missing is complete wholeness in any one area. You can’t say, ‘Just go to New York City, it is Shangri-la, everything is figured out.’ That’s not true, there’re amazing things, and horrible things. Or, ‘Hey, just go to the social democracies of northern Europe.’ There are some things that are good, but some things that aren’t there, either. We don’t have this model of some place where it’s all done and all ready. But what we do have are solutions in every sector. There’s a creative imagining of the future going on where all those little disintegrated solutions are whole and in one place.
AD – What are the key points in shifting to being a worker-owned business?
SB – First and foremost it first has to be a functioning, profitable business.
With a little bit of resources, a good business has self-evident value. That’s why people purchase things. If I give you a little bit of this, I get that. Then you have the good problem of a lot of orders. But if you’re not actually creating self-evident value, there’s something else that has to happen. It’s got to work or there’s nothing to sell.
AD – What about startup funding?
SB – Certainly there’s a need for startup resources, whether government, or self-funded, or sweat equity. In this country (US), you can’t get a loan if you need it. If I have cash or property that will secure a loan, then I can get it. If the bank doesn’t get it back, they’re going to take that stuff. So that’s high risk. We advocate for what’s called ‘lean start-up.’ Can you test something, at small cost, on a small scale, to validate the value proposition? For a food business, instead of buying a factory and restaurants and then seeing if anyone likes the food, do it in your home kitchen and pop up at the farmers’ market and see if anyone likes it.
These small tests give important feedback. When you get a strong signal, there’s no mistake. Unfortunately, a lot of people are persisting, even though they’re not getting that strong feedback. It’s a founder’s syndrome kind of thing. ‘The world needs this, because I think so, and I’m just going to do it, whether I get the feedback or not.’ And there’s this kind of long plateau, and then eventual burnout and frustration.
AD – It sounds like education is an important component, especially for people who have no experience taking on a co-op. They’re taking on new roles, they have to understand the business side of things.
SB – Most of the teams we work with are not co-ops implicitly. But the smaller the group, the more it tends to be highly affiliative and collaborative by nature. In our MBA course, we orient around principles of ‘next economy’ organizations. So instead of saying, you have to be a cooperative, we’re saying, it would be great if you incorporate democratic decision-making and inclusive ownership. Again, you can have those elements in a company that’s privately held. But you’re still getting the benefit of engaging the intelligence of the people on the team. That’s one of the real benefits. Humans are incredibly intelligent. If you’re not empowering me to have agency and control over my sphere of expertise and influence, then you’re making a stupid organization.
Things are still underfunded. All of this [co-op] stuff is not really seen as a real option. Even in green or sustainable MBA programs which have proliferated in the last decade, I still only know of one grad level course that talks about cooperatives. They’re not even on the table as an option. In the rest of the world, there are huge co-op networks. Here, it’s hard to go out to financial networks and say, ‘Hey, you should fund this co-op buyout.’ ‘Co-op who? You mean the grocery store?’ It’s a limited awareness of co-ops being a viable option.
AD – Is that also maybe because this country has a hyper-capitalist culture?
SB – Yeah, the hyper-individualism that goes with white supremacist capitalism. If there were any collective nature, you wouldn’t have such horrible treatment of other people. The shadow, the mental illness you create by elevating the individual above the collective. There’s a both/and with individual and collective that’s important, but just lifting up the individual is super-toxic.
AD – So many things are connected with this hyper-individualism. The gun problem, mental health issues.
SB – The society has been atomized, everyone thinking of themselves as an individual, and communities are not taking care of each other. But we can’t survive as isolated units. The good news is I don’t think the change is too far away.
AD – The founder of Prout, P R Sarkar, emphasized the importance of morality in cooperatives. Do you see the importance of those kind of values? Maybe they’re expressed in a more accessible way in a typical cooperative.
SB – I agree, it has to be there. We call out vision and values as the guiding elements to navigate by. If the vision isn’t creating mutual benefit, if some groups are harmed by it, that doesn’t work. There is a basic morality, vs the vision of the conservative trope of America First, preserving the elite power structure. That vision is a vision of mental illness. Hoarding is a mental illness, it doesn’t fulfill those individuals. Are those wealthy people happy and fulfilled? That system is actually not working for anybody.
AD – I can imagine that having a job, or having work – because your work is more than your job – having work that allows you to embrace your deepest human values, needs, aspirations – how powerful that must be.
SB – Yes, another way to say it is, if you’re expected to do your personal growth and development outside of business, that doesn’t make any sense. You bring it into the center of your business and say, I’m going to grow and evolve as a human being while I’m living my life, doing this job. Of course, then that higher cost basis becomes even higher. We have to do coaching, and mediation, and therapy and communication training, that’s all part of our job.
The thing is, what if the exploitation economy had to account for all the externalities? This vision is actually much more efficient. And it’s happening. There’s a massive investment in renewables despite the heel-dragging of the fossil fuel giants. All that is happening on a massive scale now.
AD – And that is an impetus you see toward a new economy?
SB – This is the thing, it’s like, the exploitation economy is hitting the gas pedal going over the cliff. That’s not going to work out. But in the meantime, can we build the life boats that are going to meet needs? Part of the recipe is small-scale. Just in this community, what’s my little food shed, what kind of crops can we grow, how do we store them, how do we share them? How do we get our energy, through micro-grids, renewables? You know, nobody is coming to save us, there won’t be this realization like, ‘Oh, we were wrong, and everyone should share, and here are these cooperative networks of infrastructure and funding.’ No, we just have to build from the ground up. And it’s happening. It’s just not going to be in the Wall Street Journal, or these big media platforms. Because first of all, they can’t imagine that there’s anything there, and then there are no stock market earnings, or anything that they value. But again, like I was saying with the Silver Tsunami, those small and medium-sized businesses, they actually are the backbone of America, in terms of the amount of revenue, the number of workers. There’s way more employment and value being created than the big multinationals.
AD – What inspires you?
SB -The solutions. The people who are doing the thing that is the solution, rather than thinking there is no other way. They’re like, we’re just doing it, here we go! The fact that I get to work with all these teams that are inspired about what their particular solution is. I do occasionally watch the news and get really sad – watching Tyrese Nichols’ family burying him this morning – crying into my breakfast, that’s hard, but then I get to work with teams that are fully committed to doing something beautiful as a solution. That’s what lights me up, engagement with the solutions.