top of page

Mini-cast 83: Sneak Peak with Hilary Abell

Hilary Abell is a co-founder of Project Equity, a national non-profit devoted to expanding employee ownership in all of its forms. Hilary joins Bret Keisling and shares how she came to be an EO advocate in this excerpt from an upcoming podcast.


Mini-cast 83 Transcript

Announcer: 00:03 Welcome to the ESOP Mini-cast, a great way to wrap up the week.

Bret Keisling: 00:14 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 ownership.

Earlier this week on Episode 112 of the primary ESOP/EO Podcast, we featured an interview with Project Equity co-founder Alison Lingane and next week on Episode 113 we're going to present a full interview with co-founder Hilary Abell. Today, we're going to give you a sneak peek at Hilary Abell and share her origin story about how she became a passionate advocate for employee ownership.

Bret Keisling: 00:53 One of the things that I find very interesting about many of the folks involved in employee ownership is none of us at this point grew up thinking we'd be involved in employee ownership. We all come to it from different paths. Hilary is like many people where she started as an employee owner and realized it addressed many of the great societal challenges that she finds important. So what started as a career in her twenties as an employee owner has blossomed into full blown advocacy for employee ownership in all of its forms. I hope next week you'll join us for the full conversation with Hilary Abell. Again, it will be Episode 113 of the EO/ESOP Podcast. But meanwhile, here's a look at Hilary's origin story as it relates to employee ownership.

Bret Keisling: 01:53 You went to some sort of guidance counselor in sixth grade and they said you were destined to be an employee ownership advocate? And your life has played out perfectly...

Hilary Abell: 01:59 [Laughter.] Of course!

Bret Keisling: 02:03 Why don't you tell us how'd you find yourself with Project Equity?

Hilary Abell: 02:06 It has been a really interesting journey and has been the culmination of work I've done over many years, but I was not expecting to become an employee ownership advocate and practitioner. In fact, it was the experience of being an employee owner that turned me on to it. And that was, gosh, almost 30 years ago now. Not quite. But when I was in my early and mid twenties, I had the wonderful experience of being a worker owner at a company called Equal Exchange. And I landed there not because I was planning to go into business and to sell coffee, which was part of what I did there, but rather because I was really interested in human rights. I had done some work with issues in Latin America and was very fascinated by that reason. And Equal Exchange was selling fair trade coffee from small farmer cooperatives in Latin America.

Hilary Abell: 02:58 So I ended up at Equal Exchange in my early twenties and had an incredible experience there, not only learning that business can be a tool for social change and business can make the world a better place and in fact without business doing that, there's no way we'll ever get to the society that I hope we can have. But I also was personally very empowered by the experience of being an employee owner. And part of that was getting elected to the board of directors by my peers and being able to help set business strategy even though I was someone who was new to the business world and was learning from my coworkers and leaders of the company as well as from outside board members who were not employee owners, but brought critical skill to the board.

Hilary Abell: 03:42 And in fact one of them was an early leader of what we now call the impact investor movement. She's a nun from the Adrian Dominican sisters who are some of the first to invest in companies that could make the world better. And another was an early leader of the triple bottom line business movement, that's Stonyfield Yogurt. So needless to say, I learned a lot from both of them. I loved learning about governance and setting business strategy.

Hilary Abell: 04:07 And then on the, on the sort of compensation and profit sharing side, you know, five years after being there, I moved on for personal reasons and had a nest egg from my, you know, my employee ownership stake in the company and it was paying off student debt and that kind of thing. So probably wouldn't have had that otherwise. So also experienced a little bit of that asset building and wealth building potential that is so important in employee ownership.

Hilary Abell: 04:32 You know, another part of it was that part of my job was selling coffee and another part of my job was what we called producer relations. And I got to visit farmer cooperatives that were made up of very small scale farmers, independent family farmers in several countries, Peru, Colombia and El Salvador. And these farmers were organized into cooperatives. It was a shared ownership model for small farmers. And because they were part of a cooperative, they were able to gain more control over the whole value chain that their coffee was part of. So, rather than selling to a middleman, who sells to another middleman, who sells to another middleman, and there's profit going into all those layers, leaving very little for the farmer, which was pretty, pretty typical in international commodities. And even, you know, even in farming in the U S in many cases, these farmers were able to sell through their own cooperative, which was a business that they co owned. And then through the fair trade model, they were able to sell directly to an international buyer, equal exchange and then to others. And what did they do with that profit?

Hilary Abell: 05:38 So I got to visit the farms, get to know some of the families and the leaders of these businesses. And what they were doing with that profit was, you know, number one, buying shoes and books for their kids so that their kids could be better educated. Number two, they were creating health clinics and other community development institutions. And number three, they were also improving their businesses. So they were doing things like building coffee processing plants. So not only could they export directly, but they could process their own coffee and get that part of the, of the value of their product as well.

Hilary Abell: 06:13 So not only did I love being an employee owner myself, but I also got to see how shared ownership in a farmer cooperative and the link between companies that all share ownership with their stakeholders. So with Equal Exchange connecting to the farmer cooperatives that the wealth that was generated by the work we all did was shared more broadly and it meant better communities for everybody. So that's what's kept me passionate about this many, many years later. And eventually led to my prior role and then to Project Equity.

Bret Keisling: 06:44 I want to give my thanks to Hilary Abell for coming on the podcast. Again, next week, Episode 113 you'll hear the full conversation with Hilary. And in Episode 112, which was released earlier this week, you'll hear the full conversation with Alison Lingane.

Bret Keisling: 07:00 Project Equity has identified very important issues related to employee ownership. Many of the issues that they discuss are important and well known within the employee ownership community. But as you'll hear in the full conversation with Hilary, Project Equity is connecting some dots between businesses, philanthropies, funding sources and governments that I haven't come across being connected in quite that way. So please join us next week for Episode 113 and meanwhile remember you can find all of our episodes in our archives at

Bret Keisling: 07:48 And finally we do appreciate likes and retweets and shares of all of our podcast information. We're very grateful as we approach 50,000 total listens since we've started with all the support we've got in the employee ownership community. So take a moment if you'd be so kind and like or follow us wherever you get your podcasts and if you can retweet our episodes. We'd appreciate your sharing our work in your circles.

Bret Keisling: 08:18 Thank you again for joining us. I look forward to having you back next week. And meanwhile, as we approach the Memorial Day weekend, 2020 in probably what will be the most unusual holiday weekend for any of us in the United States, just want you to know that we all at the podcast wants you to keep safe and do well. This is Bret Keisling. Have a good day.

Bitsy McCann: 08:42 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, 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, and I'm Bitsy McCann.

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.


bottom of page