Giving employees a share: transformative conversations that build community resilience and sustainability

by Lizah Makombore

June 22, 2023

The Vermont Employee Ownership Center held its 21st annual conference in the Davis Center at the University of Vermont on June 1. It featured a keynote by Derek Peebles, Director of Public Policy & Advocacy for Inclusive Economy at the American Sustainable Business Network, and four rounds of workshops covering a range of topics and offering opportunities for professional development, networking, and collaboration.

The event brought together 267 diverse conference participants, a record for the VEOC. Some businesses participated in showcasing their business profiles and services via a vendor store exhibition. Conference participants included Vermont residents, and a few came from neighboring states. These included representatives from employee-owned companies, local economic development partners, cooperative financiers, legal firms, and other business service providers.

Derek Peebles kicked off the event with the plenary session presentation. The thought-provoking plenary session holds the potential to inspire both current employee-owned companies and future ones toward resiliency. A call was made for attendees to move from traditional problem driven community development approaches to an “Asset Based Community Development” (ABCD) method. They were also challenged to embrace an abundance mindset which prioritizes identifying community assets instead of putting problems at the forefront. Peebles explained that the problems-focused conversation is emotionally draining and, in some cases, amplifies conflicts between owners and employees. According to Peebles it’s important to “explore new ways to leverage community assets, empower local workforce and foster sustainable growth through employee ownership.”

Peebles spent the rest of the plenary presentation explaining the methodology that can be used to shift from a problem-based employee ownership philosophy to the inclusive and asset-based one. The following are short descriptions of the six transformational conversations that Peebles encouraged the conference participants to engage in:

1. Invitation conversation –  Conference attendees, especially business owners, were encouraged to invite employees to talk about future employee ownership imaginaries. Peebles encouraged the community at large to “recognize and champion local employee-owned enterprises and appreciate that the success of employee-owned businesses is inextricably linked to the development of an inclusive and sustainable local economy”. 

2. Possibility conversations – These include transparent conversations between  business owners and employees prior to conversion as well as beyond it. All participants at the table were instructed to engage in open discussions about equitable wealth distribution, increased job security, increased productivity, shared risks, and rewards to name a few of these pertinent discussion points. In this conservation lies the power to enhance  and amplify employee engagement and build local economy resilience.

3. Ownership conversation – the focus of this conversation is accountability and taking responsibility . Peebles called for situational leadership that requires employees to recognize the local economy is linked with the health of human wellbeing. Everyone in the employee ownership ecosystem must recognize that to build strong businesses in the future there is a need for shared wealth and equitable distribution of wealth for all. 

4. Space conversation-  This conversation allows diverse parties to the employee ownership discourse to be able to take space as well as make space for each other. Space is created to enable all participants to express doubts and fears openly, free from judgment. It also allows for the space for more egalitarian decision making and assists in addressing the dynamics of economic power. 

5. Commitment conversation – The commitment  conversation insists all participants commit to the future. The broader community in this conservation is expected to foster sustainable growth through supporting employee-owned businesses. 

6. Gifts conversation –  This conservation focuses on all gifts that are brought to the table. The conversation shifts the participants from focusing on profiles of deficiency to profiles of capacities that allows all who are sitting at the table to fully participate in the transition journey and ultimately leads to resilience of the local economy. 

Peebles ended by calling on all attendees to engage in these transformational conversations and not to shy away from them but instead take courage always and engage in these. He alluded that this methodology and approach are to be considered as more than a business strategy but a philosophy and must be adopted also as a way of life. Lastly, some use cases of employee-owned business models were given which include the likes of Gardener Supply, King Arthur, and PC Construction and many other worker cooperatives and ESOPs. 

As for the four workshop sessions, the attendee chose 4 choices out of the sessions that were running throughout the conference not counting the lunchtime side events and other self-organized networking spaces. These sessions were facilitated by both industry experts and conference attendees . Lecturing style, interactive sessions facilitated by roundtable spaces and many other formats were available, for example role playing sessions. For more information regarding these session, visit the 2023 conference page. You may also view recordings of select sessions, including the keynote, here.

The day wrapped up well and ended with an after-conference party at Switchback Brewery, Burlington.  Conference participants were happy to wind down the day with a drink of choice and some music. Most out of town folks enjoyed the Vermont sunset on this hot summer day whilst reflecting and forging future employee-owned business transformational conversations.  As an intern at VEOC and first-time attendee my one takeaway from this conference is that to build community resilience and sustainability companies must consider employee ownership as a viable business approach.