161: The Power of Employee Ownership


Bret Keisling is joined by Abraham French, software developer and worker cooperative co-founder, who discusses how EO has transformed his views on business, community, and the power of ownership.


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Episode 161 Transcript


Bitsy McCann: [00:00:00] Welcome to The EO Podcast, where we amplify and celebrate all forms of employee ownership.

Bret Keisling: [00:00:00] Hello. My friends. Thank you for listening. My name is Bret Keisling and as it says on my business cards, I'm a passionate advocate for employee owners. As many of you know, I joined the Clubhouse app in March of 2021 and it's just been a great place to meet people. Some are already involved in employee ownership, some who know nothing about employee ownership, and I've just met some great people and had great conversations. And one of my favorites on Clubhouse is Abraham French, and we've had so many interesting conversations that I wanted to bring him on the podcast.


Abraham, say hello, and thank you for coming on.


Abraham French: [00:00:51] Thank you so much. I really appreciate being here and really glad to have you ask me to be here.


Bret Keisling: [00:00:55] Well, it's my pleasure. And do me a favor, give us a thumbnail sketch. I know you as the guy from Clubhouse. Why don't you tell our listeners a little bit about yourself and your connection to employee ownership?


Abraham French: [00:01:07] So I'm a software developer and I've been a software developer for decades now, years now, but currently with a security company, Appgate. But before I was in software, I actually worked at Whole Foods Market and definitely enjoyed that there. And a long time ago, I actually was a ballet dancer. And so I've done a variety of different things.


I have a wife, three kids, my oldest is 19, and I also have four goats and 11 chickens and I live in the city of Dallas. So, it's a fun time!


Bret Keisling: [00:01:40] That's one of the things that I've loved about our conversations when we have talked on the Clubhouse app and I'll hear a little bit noise and you're like, I'm feeding the chickens and you live in a city. So it is very, very cool.


Abraham. I know that you have not just a deep knowledge of cooperatives and employee ownership generally, but as broad a sense of the history as anyone I know. And in our conversations on Clubhouse, you have shared so many things that have helped with my development. For example, I've generally said ESOPs, co-ops, and collectives and, thanks to you, I'm now saying worker cooperatives, because there are more than one. There are four types and there are a lot of conversations you've done along those lines.


But one of the things that I found most fascinating is your talks about Mondragon and Mondragon has come up a little bit on our podcast with other guests, but we wanted to do this episode of lessons for Mondragon, and have you share the history and what we can learn from what's going on there.


Now before we get to Mondragon, we'd like to open all of our podcasts with having our guests share their EO A-ha Moment. That moment where it just struck them, that employee ownership could be transformative, not just a good idea. But really a game changer. Have you had an EO A-ha Moment you'd like to share with us?


Abraham French: [00:03:05] Yes. My first, I was my twenties, early twenties, and I was working for Whole Foods Market. It's not really my one, but it's the precursor. But in the nineties, we had this concept of when you joined you actually joined a team and then in that team, there was actually this process of -- it might take one or two months -- to actually have, you'd be voted on, basically had this like ability. So it was a chance of your peers to work with you. And if you're a great person to work with and all that, they were like, yes, and then they vote you on. And so, there was this culture of once a month, we would get together as a team and talk. And I would say like, at the time I was just, I was a vegetarian and I was at Whole Foods Market, riding my bike there every day. And it was just this place where I was like, if they didn't pay me, I would still love to work here. As time progressed on, I then left that and went and did other things.


And so then I find myself in 2018. It's a Saturday and I'm just scrolling through YouTube and it comes up with this video and this professor who's talking there and he's talking about Marxism and I'm just like, you know. Marxism, what is this? I am more left-leaning, more liberal, progressive, all that kind of stuff, but what is Marx? What is that? And he starts talking about how Marx actually wrote most of the stuff in English and actually lived in England. And actually it was way before Lenin ever with Russia and all these kinds of things. He's kind of like making it, simplifying it down for me. And I'm like, oh, okay. Well, that's interesting. Sure. And then he goes into kind of the types of socialism stuff, Professor Richard Wolff, and towards the end he's talking about both the failures of what's known as socialism and communism and of the critiques of capitalism and the Marxist critiques of it and how Marx actually had no governing strategy or ever thought in those terms.


And then he talks about in the workplace, there's this old style of it that we have not been working with. We've not been trying to do. And in there, there is this like ability for a type of corporation that is not a charity. It's not just a group of friends. It's sometimes even happens spontaneously of eight or ten guys in Silicon Valley will just quit their job working for the man, they hate it there, and they'll go off as developers and they'll all work equally in commune kind of thing, where they just kind of do this thing together.

But what is called is a worker cooperative and the power of it is that every worker is also the owner and it turns so many things on its head. And he started walking through this whole thing and I've been on startups. I've been in startups that were kind of like I came in a little later on, they were becoming an established business. I've worked at a large corporation before. And seeing just different types of it, seeing a lot of bureaucracies that went like really weird. But the ability to ask the person doing the work to also be the owner of the corporation is an immense liberation and also a huge responsibility.

And suddenly the worker is also the one taking the risk. Suddenly I'm doing something, working on something, and I also understand who it's being sold to in the marketplace and I feel a kind of a connection that you only get when you are like a sole proprietor and you're just working for yourself and you're doing something and you're the one who can decide where you're selling it and if the crafting is good enough, if the sales pitch is good enough or whatever that stuff is. But you can do it at scale.


And so there was this ability of like, this is Thursday afternoon. We're all basically taking off work to come together. And now we all have to talk through the marketplace and regulations and the financials and figure out what we're doing because we are in charge of this at scale with each other. And he talked about all the way, and we'll get into Mondragon here a little bit of them having 80,000 employees and how they do with this. But the vast majority worker cooperatives are not that big. And you can see this in little coffee shops that will pop up and all of a sudden, like they're all worker cooperatives and they're all having to decide like, hey, do we take the profits and do we invest in a better coffee machine? Because the old one's getting a little old. Do we invest in marketing? Do we pay ourselves out more? And suddenly you have this just equilibrium that happens of it and the connection.


And there are people who get involved in a worker cooperative and do that and all sudden they're running for city council and they're more involved in their own communities because they suddenly are not as alienated or disconnected from others.

And so that started me, like looking around talking to some of my friends. Of course, no one knew anything. I was looking around. I tried LinkedIn. I tried meetups. Just searching around and finding things. And so, my first A-ha Moment was watching this video and then was finding LinkedIn after me harassing people and people like only one guy was like, there's nothing in your profile is anything about worker cooperatives, like, but I'll go ahead and join up with you.


And so eventually I met a lady named Micky Metts and the worker cooperative that she's a part of. They are software developers who make websites and other things for people. And they have this, what's supposed to be a technical show and tell meeting once a week and she invited me to it. And yes, they do some sharing of technical information. But hearing and talk and hearing them, work through the sub. this thing was, it reminded me a little bit of being on the team at Whole Foods Market, but of course it was like the big corporation you're not involved with. But it's hearing people actually explaining why they're there because in a way that you don't get in corporate America.

And so, sorry, you looked for one, I gave you three.


Bret Keisling: [00:09:10] Abraham, if you don't mind to the extent that you're comfortable, I'd like to pause with Mondragon for a couple of moments. It's clear to our listeners that you got emotional at a couple of points on this. And we are doing, recording this by Zoom and the passion -- and as you know, it's on my business cards -- the passion is so evident. And I don't want to ask anything further at any point if you're uncomfortable.


Abraham French: [00:09:45] Sure.


Bret Keisling: [00:09:46] But, can you talk to me about the passion? The little bit that I know you and we've had conversations on Clubhouse. It transcends, this is a good place to work.


Abraham French: [00:09:59] Yeah.


Bret Keisling: [00:10:00] And I talk about work and I talk about community and you just talked about a little bit. But if you know what I'm saying, what is it in your wiring that you really, it just comes across that particularly worker cooperatives, but employee ownership generally.


Abraham French: [00:10:20] Yeah.


Bret Keisling: [00:10:20] What is driving such an emotional response from you?


Abraham French: [00:10:25] You know, it's the thing we do 40 hours a week or 50 hours or 60 hours a week, or whatever it is. And I've definitely been in the place where I've been doing three jobs and having to work through that. And worked as a software developer on, when I was first transitioning over, and was working software developer during the day and then one or two evenings I was at a Whole Foods Market and then I was also there on the weekends, having my wife and kids and all that. And even in this small company, it's like, they struggle so much with how much can we share. And even once I had some stocks, because it was a private company not the public. And so I was able to even attend the once a year, I get to go and for half an hour, they go through the EBITDA with me. [Laughter.] And so...


Bret Keisling: [00:11:15] And most of that time, Abraham, is explaining what EBITDA stands for.


Abraham French: [00:11:20] So they're going through that stuff. And it's like that. And I remember going through it like two years and they were kind of saying the numbers were the same, which is very odd because they had gone 40% growth the two years beforehand. And then all of a sudden, like it was flat. And it ended up that I was like in the third round of layoffs and that whole thing.


And so it's one of the things where you just didn't see it coming. You didn't see where this was going. And then in 2010, I was hired on by Mattress Giant, which doesn't exist anymore, but, doing software development for their corporate office and all that. I remember I was hired on and like, okay, three months contract to hire. The guy who hired me on knew within one month that he wanted me working there. I was knocking it out of the park. I was doing all this good work for them. But it was six months before they actually converted me over.


The next place I worked was TXU Energy, the electric company here and I h ad a lot of success there, but the disconnection of it, the I'm just showing up for work. I remember when I was in high school thinking that I did not want to work at some big, large corporation that you just get lost. And that just was never my intention to do that kind of thing. I did not have a theoretical background as to where that was from. I just knew I didn't want to be in a big bureaucracy. And in a sense, I found some at Whole Foods Market where we were being all connected in a certain way. But again, it was more like on the skirts and on the skirting, around the thing.


And there's some worker cooperatives down in Argentina and they were doing some presentations at this Garrick meeting and they talk about where, okay, well who's actually in charge with you all on this? One of the guys was like, I think it's George [laughter] who was actually like holding the role of president. But they all have their own responsibility. They were doing their thing. They said they met twice a year, they would do a retreat together and they would talk about like, okay, well, you know, who's getting married, who's having kids, who's moving. The kind of connections and things that in corporate America, we just don't do. Unless there's a very select handful of people that you're working with, that you that you share, like, hey, I think I'm moving, you know, or I am moving [laughter], or even I'm leaving, you know, that kind of stuff, or I'm getting married. And they're still in your little small office, maybe you might have some people celebrating it or going through with all that, but it's not company wide. And so hearing how they actually have this like connected life.


And also they had this really amazing thing because down there they have worker cooperatives and then they have a federation of worker cooperatives. It's not the only place that does it in the world, but they have some really good laws down in Argentina about this. And they were dealing with a customer in Canada. I have no idea why, but the Canadian customer needed more work done. And they try to spread out, they have like 12 people, and they try to keep themselves spread out so that they're never like wholly owned as a subsidiary of one company, like they, they try to keep their customers spread out. But there's a bunch of extra work there that they couldn't fulfill it. And so instead of like taking away from their other customers to try to support this one customer, they reach out to a whole other worker cooperative and say, hey, can you all come help them out, work with them. And you negotiate your own prices, you negotiate whatever level of work you're going to do with them. We're not going to get involved, but they need help. And they do that, knowing that they actually know those people. And they're both worker cooperatives in the same federation and it's kind of a paying it forward thing of that they know that if they're light on work and there's excess work from another one, they'll also get shared. And I have seen some things like that try to work out in corporate America, but you typically get to where someone who feels like they're getting played and there's a profit motivation that kind of overarches other things.


And we talk about people, planet, and then profits the three Ps, and there are B corporations and all that, and there's even not-for-profit businesses. But what I am fascinated about with the worker cooperatives is -- there's a guy, Michael Peck, that says that having the struggle in one person of I want the best return on investment for the business and I want the highest wage I can get paid for my time. And you have this struggle going on here and it's in one person and there's very few things like other than being a sole proprietor where you're kind of like off on your own. This is kind of the thing that I've found that, at least so far, that has gotten the closest to, hey, I can be connected to a community and we can all say that we're in the same boat and we can like, not, oh, pretend like we're owners and think as if we were the owners, what should we do?


We actually ARE the owners, whoa. That we actually are the ones making those decisions and the ones who have to roll up our sleeves and actually do the work. And as someone who's never been afraid of doing work in my life, that is so appealing. And worker cooperatives range the gambit of between conservatives and liberals, between all this and other things, all kinds of languages and stuff. But what happens is when you have the chance of my work will help somebody else and their work will help me and we will come together and decide what it is we're going to do together and how it is we're going to work together and where we are going as a community. Those are the kinds of things that like, where else do you get that? You might join a social club. You might join a church. Those are all good things.


But. the ability to actually be in a viable marketplace of making actual business decisions and the kinds of things that I avoided in college, the classes I avoided, because they just were like about finance or they were about the business stuff and it all seemed cold and alienating to me. It's like all of a sudden, like those are really important again, and now I have to do those things [laughter]. So, I'm rambling now....


Bret Keisling: [00:17:45] No, not at all. First of all, Abraham, I want to thank you for that. And it was very powerful and I'm going to probably do you a disservice, but something you said at the very end, I think, summed up and you said it strongly. But we actually are the owners and it's not, to me and knowing you a little bit, the magnitude and the emotion comes from, we actually own with all of the rights, all of the responsibilities and all of the obligations to community, to country, whatever it may be, that it is not, you know, we don't say "give them a sense of ownership."


I think what's driving you is the power behind ownership. And then you just see where that's transformative across the country or across our world. I should say.


Abraham French: [00:18:39] Yeah, ownership matters. I remember George W. Bush, someone I voted against every time and very different politics than me, but he talked about an ownership society, and there's lots of layers to that. And people didn't like it and all kinds of Cato Institute stuff. But there is actually something about having ownership. And you see this, even in some of the consumer cooperatives around, like some of the mobile home parks, where they get together and suddenly they've lived together for 10 years, some of these places, and suddenly they realize that their land under them, they don't own. They've been renters of that, but they've been owning their house, which now is 10 years old and very hard to move. And so they've joined together and formed a cooperative, a housing cooperative. And made a bid and they've been able to purchase from the owner in places. And there's actually groups that are going around the country now trying to help people do this.


And what they find is this amazing thing of like all of a sudden, there's all these things that need to be done to make the housing cooperative work. And suddenly people are volunteering because they understand they are the owners and if that's going to work and it requires them once a month to get together, at least, and then have little committees to do stuff and all of a sudden, they're now making sure that the water supply and they're now building the park to be used in general by everybody there. And you have the sense of community that suddenly takes off because they're the owners.

The power of ownership is something that, you know --I think it's horrific right now, but all the money being dumped into the housing market and people not being able to own their houses as easily as part of the American dream and that's causing all kinds of problems for people right now. Because the ability of people to get in and actually own their own homes and own their own land and own their own things makes a very big difference in your life as to what kind of stability.


And we see it in the housing. We all understand that happening there. Can you own the business? And owning that business that you work in and having some kind of knowledge of what the books are and how they look. And I'm okay with people getting paid different rates. There's some cooperatives it's four times the difference, sometimes it's six, sometimes eight, ten. There are some differences in there and people get paid different amounts. But being able to see where the money is going, how it's being used and that we are all in a shared fate. Which I learned back when I was at Whole Foods Market about shared fate. And we had this thing about profit sharing. And so depending on if we were doing well and we kept our costs down, other things, we got a bonus in our actual paychecks we'd get to see once a month. But the whole point of that was about shared fate. And that's something that I find just extremely powerful.

You know, one of the interesting things to me, Abraham, is the shared faith really comes up in a lot of different contexts in employee ownership. We're all in this together. You know, one of the phrases we use, we grow the pie. We share the pie. You know, we say that all the time.


But there's a broader, we're all in this together and the reason that struck me is for a year from March of 2020 until about March or April of 2021, I ended every single podcast with "our country's going through a really tough time together right now, and that's how we'll get through it, together." And that's in the context and not to go down the rabbit hole of the politics of COVID, but let me phrase it this way. I've done podcasts where I took the simple turn that if you were anti-mask, you're anti-employees. Don't walk into places and do that.


But the reality is that even for the people who were the most strident against masks and guidelines, et cetera, et cetera, we're still in this together. You know, the fact that there are different views, our fates are tied together, so I love that very much.


Bret Keisling: [00:22:43] Abraham, with that, we'll have you back next Tuesday and we'll do the full Lessons from Mondragon podcast. But thank you for sharing the power of employee ownership.


Abraham French: [00:22:54] Thank you so much. Appreciate it.


Bret Keisling: [00:22:57] With that we will wrap things up. Thank you so much for listening. This is Bret Keisling. Be well.

Bitsy McCann: [00:23:04] We'd love to hear from you! To contact us, find us on Facebook at KEISOP, LLC and on Twitter @ESOPPodcast. To reach Bret, with one "T", email Bret@KEISOP.com, on LinkedIn at Bret Keisling, and most actively on Twitter at @EO_Bret. Again, that's one "T". This podcast has been produced by The KEISOP Group, technical assistance provided by Third Circle, Inc. and BitsyPlus Design. Original music composed by Max Keisling, archival podcast material edited and produced by Brian Keisling.


Standard Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are my own and don't represent those of my own firms or the organizations to which I belong. Nothing in the podcast should be construed as guidance or advice of any kind in any field and the fact that I mentioned an organizational website or an advocate or a company on a podcast does not reflect an endorsement, but if you've heard your name or your group's name mentioned on this podcast, I'd love to have you come on and talk about it yourself.


A note on the transcript: This transcript was produced by Descript, an automated transcription service. While it has been reviewed by The EsOp Podcast, we can not guarantee the accuracy of the transcription. Please refer to the original audio when citing sources.