Unsung Hero Spotlight: Zen Trenholm

Zen Trenholm

To you, what is an ecosystem builder?

I see my role as an ecosystem builder similar to that of a gardener. I tend the soil to make sure it has the right building blocks to support a thriving, diverse, and resilient local community. But I also plant some very specific seeds, bring in fertilizer, keep an eye on the weather conditions — I think there is a very active component to building ecosystems too. At the Democracy at Work Institute I run our SEED (Shared Equity in Economic Development) program, working with city governments and their community partners to foster the conditions to grow employee-owned businesses in their communities. The “seed” we’re planting is employee ownership as part of a strong local business ecosystem. A big part of what I do is show that employee-owned business is not an exotic greenhouse flower, it’s a native plant, but it needs some specific conditions to grow. So I help cities figure out what they need to bring into their ecosystems to catalyze and support employee-owned businesses and I provide on-going support to ensure local institutions are partnered with the city on this work. We’re using business to build community resilience. Together, we work to develop an off-ramp for business owners seeking to retire by selling the business to their employees. Recently, we’re also helping build an on-ramp for those locked out of the job market by helping them start businesses on their own terms. I think the job of an ecosystem builder is to support communities by helping them see the opportunities and strengthening and connecting what’s already there so that the ecosystem can grow and thrive on its own.

What motivates you as an ecosystem builder?

I am motivated by the vision and commitment of the local public servants and private sector champions who are SEED Fellows. Every day I work with cities and communities who care deeply about the widening racial wealth gap, the closure of their small businesses, and the need for stable income and asset creation opportunities specifically for people of color, recent immigrants, and low-­wage workforces. I believe cities can play a vital role in creating conditions for equitable and shared prosperity and so I get to help equip them with the tools, resources, and partnerships to make this possible. I love seeing the pieces come together. For instance, even though we’re working mostly at the city level in Durham and Philadelphia, we also helped build capacity in state-level employee ownership centers in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, specifically to do outreach to minority and women business owners. That brings a whole new dimension and set of resources to their work. I’ve really learned that what you water grows. With the economy as it is and a long road towards recovery ahead of us, I’m inspired by how our cities and communities are working to equitably rebuild and I’m honored to be walking that road with them.

What is your biggest frustration as an ecosystem builder?

In the SEED Fellowship, I work closely with leaders from eight U.S. cities to build more equitable economies. One way we do that is by preserving their minority-owned legacy businesses from closing due to owner retirement by helping transition it to the employees. This keeps the doors open and transforms the workers into owners, creating opportunities for building assets through business ownership. But it’s not enough to just help transition the business to employee ownership. In our work with cities like San Francisco which are struggling to maintain housing and commercial affordability, we recommended that legacy business preservation be partnered with strategies that keep the cost of commercial rent low and stable. Otherwise, if the businesses we help transition ultimately have to relocate because it’s too expensive to operate, or if their staff can’t afford to live in the city, we haven’t achieved the primary goal of keeping strong businesses in our communities. Every problem is connected to others and it can be frustrating to work through those layers of complexity to generate a long term solution for the city.

What ecosystem building skill/knowledge do you want to gain?

Wow, there are so many! Particularly now due to the COVID-19 recession, policy work has increasingly become a necessary part of how we respond to the economic crisis. In my work with cities, I have to be thinking about and helping shape federal and state policy support to make it easier for cities and towns to deploy employee ownership to save the businesses we can and provide access to work for those often barred from it. Even the term “policy” has so many facets: it doesn’t stop with passing a law. There’s advocacy, advising, drafting legislation, regulation, implementation, communication, assessment. And each city is different. So I am developing and would like to continue to develop a more sophisticated understanding about the life cycle of local policy.

Employee ownership is also just one tool for building the thriving small businesses that make our cities equitable to live, work, and grow in. Cities are facing an affordability crisis that business alone won’t solve. So we need to think creatively about how to join multiple tools in multi-pronged strategies. In our current work with cities, this often takes the shape of broadening our focus to consider strategies such as commercial property affordability measures and access to credit for prospective entrepreneurs, and even connecting to transit and housing issues. I want to better understand other tools that build equitable communities, particularly commercial and community land trusts, community development financial institutions, and affordable housing development. It’s not enough to own a business, people need to know they won’t be priced out of their neighborhoods and uprooted.

What are the most important things that need to happen to advance the field of ecosystem building?

Ecosystem builders need to be fluent in multiple tools and strategies in order to be effective in solving complex problems. I don’t see ecosystem building as one field — I think all fields should have an understanding of ecosystem approaches — but I think there’s an opportunity there to connect various fields together to realize the full promise and potential of our cities. At its core, ecosystem building is interdisciplinary. Just like a gardener, you can’t only be proficient in using a rake or knowledgeable about one kind of plant, you need to be able to use multiple tools and continuously learn about different plants and how they work together in order to create a thriving garden. There’s no one solution to address our nation’s historic and systemic inequities. Ecosystem builders need to be fluent in multiple tools such as policy, public/private finance, data and market research. They also need to be familiar with multiple strategies such as transit-oriented development, affordable housing, small business development, growth, and preservation. It will take all the tools in the toolbox working in new combinations to ensure that as we rebuild and recover, we don’t return to a fragile, inequitable economy that keeps workers under-paid and precarious.

Pay it forward: Who else deserves recognition for their ecosystem building efforts?

There’s quite a few I would like to highlight:

  • Latresa McLawhorn Ryan, Executive Director of the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative (AWBI)
  • Jamila Medley, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance (PACA)
  • Kirk Vartan, worker-owner and co-founder of A Slice of New York and steering committee member of the Worker Owned Recovery California (WORC) coalition – based in California
  • Rob Brown, Director, Business Ownership Solutions (BOS), Cooperative Development Institute – based in Maine

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Jeff Bennett

Editorial Director at Ecosystem Builder Hub https://jeff-bennett.medium.com/

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