I came for a paycheck, but I stayed for impact

Brett Jones, Executive Vice President, Evergreen Cooperatives Corporation, Cleveland, Ohio

Article | Cleveland, Ohio | 28 March 2022
Brett Jones, Senior Vice President of Fund for Employee Ownership and Evergreen Business Services, helps to create wealth building opportunities in seven targeted Cleveland neighbourhoods with low household incomes. His passion and skills for business along with his desire to economically empower communities has driven his work. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
Started in 2009, the Evergreen Cooperatives Corporation located in Cleveland, Ohio is a portfolio of worker owned companies that were created to enhance wealth building opportunities for residents living in seven neighborhoods in Cleveland known as the Greater University Circle.

“Those target neighborhoods have a median household income of about $18,500, which is hardly enough,” says Brett Jones, the Executive Vice President of Evergreen Cooperatives Corporation. “And so the anchor institutions – the Cleveland Clinic University Hospitals and Case Western Reserve University – were convened by the Clinton Foundation and agreed that the low income per household was a problem they needed to collectively solve.”

Agreeing to spend their money on local businesses, the anchor institutions decided that in order to maximize economic impact, they would form companies that would be owned by the residents of the neighborhoods who are employees of the businesses. For many people in these communities it was a liberating concept that meant hard work would now allow them to be owners and share fairly in the profits.

“That’s how the whole worker cooperatives came about,” Jones reveals. “And where you have anchor institutions working specifically, with neighbourhood-owned worker cooperatives to create economic impact and wealth building opportunities, that’s known as the Cleveland Model, and that's kind of how the Evergreen Cooperatives were born,” he explains.

Some of the companies in the cooperative include Evergreen Cooperative Laundry- whose clients include hotels, hospitals and nursing homes, Evergreen Energy Solutions- focused on solar and renewable energy, and Green City growers who grow fresh and high quality pesticide free produce in their greenhouse facility.
Green City Growers is part of the Evergreen Cooperative of Cleveland and produces nutritious, pesticide-free produce year-round right in the city of Cleveland. This state-of-the art greenhouse provides hundreds of jobs that grow and deliver millions of heads of lettuce, specialty greens, herbs and micro-greens every year. ILO Photos/ John Isaac

“The companies are unrelated but are in the Evergreen family. Each cooperative is its own legal entity, and the employees that work at that particular cooperative own that entity,” he clarifies.

Jones who was born and raised in Cleveland, went to school for International Relations and then received his Master’s in Business Administration, and also took part in the Fulbright program as a fellow in South Africa. His combined passions and interests led him to take on the work he does with Evergreen, a path he says he didn’t really envision for himself.

“I came here in 2012, but this wasn’t my intended career path or vision for myself,” Brett directly admits. “I didn’t come from the world of economic justice, or anything like that. Quite frankly I’m a business guy. But I do think I have been bit by the social impact bug and I can honestly say that this is the most rewarding work I have ever done!” he exclaims with enthusiasm. “And looking at it now, it does put me on the path I want which is getting to be a real businessman and maximize shareholder value but for a different stakeholder set.”

He explains that the inflection point for him where his work made sense was when he got the chance to use his entrepreneurial skills and acumen, as well as meeting the people impacted.

“Being able to be really entrepreneurial, work on maximizing profit and then meeting the people who would benefit from the profit, developing relationships with them and understanding exactly how that profit would impact them, made me realize that the better I do my job, the better the quality of life they will have. I love business and to think that my work could benefit such a broad swath of people is just incredible.”

The Evergreen Cooperative Laundry is one of a handful of commercial laundry services based in the City of Cleveland. This employee-owned facility provides cost-effective services through industry-leading green innovations that lay claim to leading hotels, hospitals and nursing homes as their clients. ILO Photos/ John Isaac
Apart from providing economic justice, quality jobs and ownership opportunities, the cooperative also provides opportunities for employee home ownership and training in financial literacy, which are all part of the goal to promote economic stability, empowerment and freedom.

“Making sure that people have clean, safe and affordable housing is important because people deserve that and are able to focus better on work and be more productive,” Brett underscores. “Our mission is to transform lives and neighbourhoods and a part of that is keeping people in place by giving them affordable housing which will translate into them and their communities thriving.”

When asked what keeps him motivated to work hard in making the cooperatives successful, generate economic opportunity, and empower communities, as well as what triggered the shift in his path, Brett pauses for a brief moment and responds with a smile.

“You know I don’t really know. I came for a paycheck and then I stayed for the impact.” With this passion and motivation there is no doubt that Brett will continue to drive the success of the companies in the cooperative, as well as the success of the people of Cleveland who are charting a new, rewarding course for themselves and their families.