2018 Innovation Fund

For this year’s Innovation Fund, The Workers Lab asked innovators to address one of three key areas: improvements to workforce development; building worker power; and responding to job automation. After an unprecedented response from 334 organizations in 13 countries and 34 U.S. states, we are thrilled to announce our three winners: Cooperation Jackson - Community Production Cooperative, The Hood Incubator, and Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation.

Each winner will receive $150,000 along with mentorship, training, and convening support. Please meet our winners below and stay tuned for details about our next call for applications.

Meet our 2018 Innovation Fund Winners

Cooperation Jackson - Community Production Cooperative

The U.S. South has long been the canary in the coal mine for opportunity, mobility, and power for U.S. workers.  It has the highest poverty rate and lowest union density in America and is the testing ground for policies that disenfranchise Black people, suppress wages, and penalize workers who want to organize to make things better. We can see this in states like Mississippi, which has the highest concentration of Black people in the U.S. South and is also the poorest state in the Union--almost a quarter of the state lives below the poverty line. The state exemplifies the ways in which white supremacy is tethered to inequality and a lack of economic opportunity.  

Cooperation Jackson is an emerging vehicle for sustainable community development, economic democracy, and community ownership. Their vision is to develop a cooperative network based in Jackson, Mississippi that will consist of interconnected and interdependent institutions. These include an emerging federation of local worker cooperatives, a developing cooperative incubator, and a cooperative education and training center. Cooperation Jackson’s basic theory of change is centered on the position that organizing and empowering the structurally under- and unemployed sectors of the working class, particularly from Black and Latino communities, to build worker-organized and -owned cooperatives will catalyze the democratization of our economy and society, overall.

The Workers Lab is excited to support a critical part of building out this network of worker-owned cooperatives by investing in the creation of a Fabrication Laboratory (Fab Lab). Fab Labs are small-scale workshops that offer communities the opportunity to locally and cost-effectively fabricate local goods for local consumption. They usually contain a set of tools that community members can use to manufacture everything from smart technologies to architectural models.

Cooperation Jackson will use their support from The Workers Lab to launch a Fab (Fabrication)  Academy training center. They will focus on providing education centered on bridging the growing fabrication divide between Jackson’s underserved communities, the State of Mississippi, and South as a whole. By doing this, they hope to prepare each of these communities for the modern job market, which is rapidly moving towards increased automation, big data, and artificial intelligence. No other such organizations or projects currently exist in Jackson, MS.

There are few Fab Labs, MakerSpaces, or digital manufacturing enterprises in the South, so being one of the first will give Cooperation Jackson a competitive edge. This, along with Cooperation Jackson’s relations with governmental institutions and civil society organizations in Jackson that can be leveraged as markets, gives us a tremendous advantage over competing manufacturing centers throughout the country.

The Hood Incubator

Thanks to the rise of the legal cannabis industry since 2013, states across the U.S. have experienced a cultural shift and economic boom. From Colorado to California, the production, manufacturing, and sale of medical and recreational cannabis has impacted the lives of workers and economies in ways that many, including those in labor and community organizing, could never have anticipated. For example, between 2014-17 the state of Colorado brought in $506 million in tax revenue from the industry, and in the first year of legalization, nearly 18,000 full-time jobs were created across the state. Cannabis is a lucrative industry: by early 2017, the total economic impact of the industry in the state was projected at $2.4 billion dollars. Unfortunately, the opportunity and gains in the industry have not been made available in equitable ways. Today, cannabis is a thriving, $8 billion legal industry nationally, yet Black people make up less than 5% of founders and business owners.

As state after state seeks to legalize the recreational use of cannabis, The Workers Lab wants to support leaders of color who are ensuring workers in the growing industry have power across the supply chain and that the economic gains in the industry benefit those who have borne the burden of criminalization. We believe this partnership will help us deepen our understanding of the industry and identify ways to build power with the wide range of workers--from security guards to agricultural workers--in the industry.

The Hood Incubator is a national 501(c)(3) organization committed to building economic and political power for Black communities. They work to increase participation of Black communities in the legal cannabis industry. Through their three core areas of work–community organizing, policy advocacy, and economic development–they are creating a healthy and sustainable ecosystem of industry access, resources, and support that allows Black communities to benefit from the rising cannabis industry. In 2017, The Hood Incubator built a membership of nearly 2,000 people nationwide. They have supported 10 entrepreneurs of color through their Cannabis Business Accelerator program--the first people of color-focused cannabis accelerator in the nation. They have also launched a cannabis industry apprenticeship program to build the pipeline of living wage, locally-based jobs available to communities of color.

Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation

Cooperatives are re-emerging nationally as an important business model focused on sharing businesses’ wealth and ownership with the working people that allow them to thrive. Cooperatives not only allow workers to economically prosper, but also imbue businesses with a set of democratic practices that ensure that workers can shape the place they spend the majority of their time: work.  

Like establishing any business, a co-op’s start-up phase is hard. This is especially true for those businesses seeking to sell their goods or labor to other established businesses. At The Workers Lab, we have been exploring the ways in which this business model can support workers in traditionally low-wage industries to reclaim a pathway to prosperity, mobility, and power. One critical feature of scalable and sustainable cooperatives is establishing an anchor client that is also an employer of choice. In this model, workers organize into a cooperative and sell their collective labor, establish business standards, and create pathways of mobility with a single employer, also known as the employer of choice, who offers the greatest set of benefits to the worker cooperative.    

With The Workers Lab’s support, Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation will act as an employer of choice to a newly established Worker Owned Construction Enterprise in order to redistribute the wealth of the industry while addressing the critical housing shortage facing the Lakota people on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.  In 2014, Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation launched a workforce training program to train young adults in construction skills and place them into the workforce or full-time education. Many of these young people are interested in construction and some will have an opportunity to obtain a job in the company upon successful completion of the program.

In March 2018, Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation will launch their Cooperative Construction Company. This Lakota worker owned construction company is in a unique position in the market because many tribes have Tribal Employment Rights Ordinances in place. These require a Native American worker quota on projects, many non Native contractors struggle to meet this requirement. Thikaga Construction will create an opportunity for more jobs for Native people and give them ownership opportunities that create real pathways out of poverty.  The Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation has positioned itself as the employer of choice for this cooperative. The cooperative will have its first 11-month contract upon incorporation. The housing that will be constructed by the cooperative will be made affordable to the Lakota people and promises to be a model to address the housing and employment concerns on reservations across the U.S. Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation’s Social Enterprise Initiative will continue to build, create, and incubate worker owned enterprises like Thikaga Construction because they believe it is a path forward for building community wealth and a more equitable nation.

About the Innovation Fund

Our Innovation Fund fuels new approaches for building worker power by breaking down the barrier of access to capital. Our flexible funding empowers innovators and worker organizers to experiment, test, and ultimately create, scalable, and self-sustaining solutions to improve workforce development, build worker power, and respond to job automation.