A new generation is gearing up, both locally and nationally, to bring the cooperative model of business into the digital economy to ensure sustained growth and shared prosperity.

Close to about 200 co-op activists, students, legal experts, business owners and leaders came together Wednesday at the University of Colorado to discuss strategies to build a better Colorado, finding common interests for different sectors of the economy to work together harnessing modern technology and expertise. The one-day conference was organized by the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility at CU's Leeds School of Business and the College of Media, Communication and Information.

The core principles of the cooperative movement, which include shared responsibility and equitable distribution of the fruits of labor, helped the U.S. transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy in the early 20th century. In the 1930s, rural electric co-ops helped provide electricity to areas not served by electric companies. Co-ops solved the problems communities faced then, and they are ready to solve more problems as the nature of work has changed in the face of accelerated innovation and inequality, said keynote speaker Doug O'Brien, president and CEO of National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International.


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There are about 65,000 cooperative establishments in the United States , he said. The need is educate people about the power and potential of co-ops, and for that co-ops need to develop replicable and scalable models with the help of legal, technical and financial experts "to figure out what works," O'Brien said.

Entrepreneurs today can use the core ideas of co-ops to promote a more inclusive economy, where working for profit is aligned with a sense of purpose, and accountability is to members rather than outside investors, said Nathan Schneider, assistant professor of media studies at CU who helped organize the conference.

Shared ownership fosters innovative collaboration, he said.

"It's really the time to bring it together," he said, adding there isn't enough awareness about the potential power of co-ops to change the direction of the economy.

Shared ownership of the means of production also helps reduce business risk, said Boulder attorney Jason Wiener. "When we provide access, we provide greater opportunities for wealth creation," he said.

Cooperatives need an organizational structure and framework to help them raise money and run like any other business, Wiener said. He especially works with mission-oriented businesses, and said he believes cooperatives, including nonprofits, can create viable business models.

But it's not just about collecting people, said Howard Brodsky, chairman of Cooperatives for a Better World in Manchester, N.H. It's more about working together to get leverage, Brodsky said citing the example of Carpet One, a cooperative for family-owned flooring businesses, he helped create with his friends more than 30 years ago. Carpet One ensured members got competitive prices and guarantees from buyers and insurers that helped them compete against big-box retailers.

Hardly about 10 percent of people in the United States understand the concept of a cooperative, Brodsky said. "It's about doing business with one another and to do what's right for the community," he said.

Boulder business owner Bob McDonald agrees. As a member of Carpet One, he shares his profits with his nine employees, and is personally vested in their career advancements and growth. The concept of a cooperative is all about sharing with the community and making it better, he said.

Pratik Joshi: 303-684-5310, pjoshi@dailycamera.com