This article is an expansion of a talk and workshop Kate Strathmann presented as part of the What Work’s Networks conference on Money & The New Economy in June 2020.
Let’s start with money itself.
Money is an inert substance, part of the collective imaginary invented by humans. It moves by the actions, channels, and energies of people in relationships. And we imprint on money our own ideas about power, values & value, and worth.
Businesses are entities that exist to make money. Often in the context monetary exchange, meaning, we exchange money for goods or services.
In our capitalist system, one of the characteristics of money is that it flows along lines of power. At the same time, power also flows where money goes. These two characteristics reinforce each other, and this is how we get to billionaires in the U.S. adding over $485 billion in wealth since the pandemic began, while we’re the country is experiencing record levels of unemployment. At the same time, since the economic crisis a decade ago, the racial wealth gap has only widened. This is by design.
If you listen to what the Movement for Black Lives and movement is demanding at this moment, many of the demands are economic, which is not an accident. Defunding the police is a strategy as much about taking money from the police as it is taking power and redistributing power.
Businesses, as money-making entities, then can be a tool and a container for redistribution and reparations, and a space to practice and implement tools for economic justice. In the microcosm of our business and with the ecosystems we inhabit, we can work to redistribute wealth away from dominant power structures.
The way that money moves around and through us and our businesses is a reflection of our values. Massive individual wealth creation is a reflection of a certain set of values. So are worker cooperatives where profit is distributed equitably amongst all workers.
The People Are A River.
A good friend reminded me of the phrase “The People are a River” recently, and I love water as a metaphor for how we channel and direct money in our businesses. Did you ever play in the mud or a sandbox as a kid, pouring water into the holes and riverbanks you created? This is the work we’re doing in our businesses: creating channels and riverbanks for resources to flow.
When we work to create a more economically just world through our businesses, we are also swimming upstream; this means that many of the actions will feel conflicted at times, and will stir about a lot of silt and shit at the bottom of the river (to push the metaphor further). Our buttons, money stories and beliefs, and the internalized wounds and scars we hold around our relationships to money and power will get pushed and prodded.
If we think of those billionaires like a dam stopping all the water from flowing downstream, parching all life downstream, as individual businesses, we’re making tiny cracks with small hammers to let the river begin to trickle out. By which I mean you don’t have to solve every economic injustice through your business (actually, you can’t!). However if we all make the tiny cracks, we’ll be ready when the dam breaks.
There is not one list of everything to do to create a perfectly just business. However, we can look at a collective of practices, actions, and commitments that move us in the direction of economic justice. You can’t do all of the things! There are pitfalls and pros and cons to many of the practices and actions that businesses take.
There is education & analysis required, as well as personal work required. I’ve seen a lot of giant platform folks implement some of these practices in ways that cause harm, because it’s clear there’s little personal work or systems analysis happening alongside.
While the framework I’m putting forth is about channels for redistributing money, ultimately we’re also redistributing power; so know that loss of power is not only a risk of some of these choices, but that is also the intention.
You Can’t Do It All.
I want to say a bit more about how this plays out in specific business models, constraints, and why you can’t do it all: I taught a workshop recently on creative financing — sliding scale models, scholarships, etc… — and there was an excellent discussion at the end with some of the retail business owners in attendance. One of the owners has a very high quality ice cream business, in which they’ve made commitments to a more ethical supply chain and ethically sourced ingredients; and also to how they compensate and treat employees.
In that kind of model, the price of a scoop of ice cream is relatively high or inaccessible to many. Now, they may be able to implement some other strategies — donations, pay it forward, etc… — but making their ice cream cheaper is not going to be one of them. That gallon tub of cheap ice cream that costs the same as the high quality scoop is subsidized by cheap labor and environmental harm (via the supply chain. The dairy inputs to make cheap ice cream are not organic or from small, environmentally-conscious farms. )
Creating more equitable business models does not just mean making things cheaper and lowering the barrier to access for customers and clients. Sometimes that is the right path, sometimes it’s not.
Where to start.
What values anchor your business? How do you express those values through your business?
There are sets of values that will lead you in the direction of power and individual wealth hoarding. There are also values that will lead you in the direction of an equitable distribution of resources; of dismantling white supremacy; of investing in an ethical supply chain and away from extraction & environmental harm.
Some companies will have specific values and commitments, like combating climate change, that will guide them, while others may have a more general value of equity. Values alignment is how we move in the direction of economic justice, against the constraints and pressure of our economic system.
What’s your business model?
Similar to the ice cream example, there are certain experiments and structures that lend themselves to certain models and types of businesses.
In a product based business, especially one with a manufacturing component, supply chain is probably where you will start.
Courses, workshops, and single one-on-one lend themselves to pay what you wish, sliding scale, and scholarship models.
Scholarships and awards work well for offerings that are a heavier lift — where the difference on a scale might not effect the accessibility enough — for example, on a $3000 program, having a $2000 lower scale probably won’t be a functional price point either for you or who you may be trying to reach.
Larger 1:1 consulting often looks like funded work and partnerships with organizations that can re-grant and fund work.
Whose labor is involved?
In solo service based business, there’s more flexibility, because the cost of your labor can be more elastic.
In Wanderwell, we don’t really do any kind of sliding scale or creative financing, beyond payment plans for large projects, for our bookkeeping services. My team, who are responsible for delivery of these services, need to be paid, and so I’m trading on concrete margins if I’m discounting — that money has to come from somewhere else. I’m not going to cut their pay, which means it’s coming from somewhere in the buckets of taxes, profit, operations, or the slice that contributes to my salary. We were able to work with our clients when Covid hit to reduce fees and financially support via relief funding
Back to ice cream, there is frequently a see-saw effect frequently with pricing and labor. Taking care of your people should usually come first. I’ve seen examples, especially in the past few weeks, where there is an obvious disconnect between leadership — donating large amounts of money to Black Lives Matter and other movement organizations — while their employees are awaiting support and compensation from Covid-related layoffs and reductions. Optics shouldn’t come before equity.
Put your own oxygen mask on.
Businesses do need to function and succeed to create impact and change. A flailing business model can’t do much in the way of economic justice. Especially with small businesses, there can be an impulse to care for others before oneself — either on a business level or an individual owner level. The directive to put your oxygen mask on first assumes that there’s someone to support second. Just as we all need oxygen to breath, our businesses all need money to operate. Ensuring the flow of money through a business means that we can do more good, experiment more, impact more.