Founders and Founding Principles – Equal Exchange was started by Jonathan Rosenthal, Michael Rozyne and me. The three of us were all working at a food coop warehouse from the early 80′s before Equal’s founding in 1986. Working together in that environment that functioned in the food system but was active in trying to change the food system fed our souls and gave us vital experience. We got to buy and sell produce, cheese, and grains. Because that warehouse was doing cutting edge work buying from farmers coops we learned how to trade like this. And we made all kinds of mistakes. Over ordering. Under ordering. Buying from farms that were too big for us, or from farms that were too small, or were poorly organized.
We were direct marketing local products, often produce, to all kinds of consumers who were organized in pre-order/self organized clubs and cooperative storefronts We got to learn about marketing, customer service, co-op democracy,and building a movement while moving a product. Those lessons were grafted into the core operating DNA of Equal Exchange.
Co-directors, Rob Everts & Rink Dickinson
The first strand of the DNA was to take risk and learn. And we knew to do that meant to experience ongoing failure. Everything about Equal Exchange was a risk by definition. Our starting product – Cafe Nica Nicaraguan coffee was from an embargoed country. Our entire concept was to sell fair trade coffee and food which in 1986 meant we were marketing a concept that simply didn’t exist. But beyond that we didn’t know how to raise money, how to incorporate, how to create financial statements or really how to launch Equal Exchange. But we did know how to support and challenge each other. We shared this work with each other and opened the door for others but tried to keep a high bar. We believed new members needed to be given authority to make decisions but only if that was earned through responsibly admitting failure, sharing failure, and hence creating genuine learning. In a very real way that learning was the product we were trying to create. That learning was also critical to try to hold together the other two key somewhat contradictory strands of core operating DNA.
The second strand of the DNA was democracy. The co-op warehouse we worked at before Equal Exchange was collectively run by consensus by employees who were not owners of the co-op and had no governance control of the co-op. Instead, ownership (which was weak) and control were, in theory, held by consumers in the buying clubs and stores to whom we sold. Jonathan, Michael and I loved the democracy experimentation, at times loved consensus, and strongly objected to the employees being absent in ownership, governance and control. Instead of running from democracy and creating a private company, we ran towards democracy and created a worker co-op dedicated to the goal of supporting small farmers. It was a pretty crazy dream and I feel fortunate every day to get to do this work. It is not easy trying to even understand how to build a market-based organization that is democratic. We fail on a regular basis as we walk down this path. But we stay on that path.
The third strand of the DNA was strong management. We believed that the only way we had a chance to succeed was to hustle, make decisions, screw up, and get back up and do it again. To do this, meant that management needed to be empowered and backed up. The seeming contradiction is to build democracy while building strong management. Holding these things together are people and the need for an outstanding hiring process and the need for a high degree of trust. That trust is still there at Equal Exchange today but not as a static easy guaranteed trust. It is earned and lost and re-earned everyday as we all go through the stresses and strains of supporting small farmers, increasing sales, taking care of customers, and wearing the multiple hats of owners, workers, and perhaps managers or board members as well.