Quick Stats

Start of Board Term: 2024

CW Membership: Organizational, with CoBank

Favorite Co-op Principle: Principle 7 – Concern for Community

Landed in Co-ops Because: Saw the need for business succession!

Vision for Cooperative Advocacy: Robust cross-sector enabling environments

 

What brought you into a career in cooperatives?

I think the first time I really started working with co-ops was when I was in the Senate. We had heard a lot about small businesses closing because there was not a succession plan in place, so we were looking at legislation that would help promote succession and prevent closure. What would the best methods to do so be? How could we incentivize broad-based ownership? Co-ops and Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) came to the forefront. That was how I started dipping my toes into the co-op world. And then I decided to jump in! I grew up in Wisconsin, so I was probably around co-ops all the time and didn’t even know it. It feels very natural – I run into great Wisconsinites everywhere I go in the co-op world. Now I work at a co-op – CoBank! We are part of the Farm Credit System. We get to work with co-ops both inside the Farm Credit System, as well as our partners outside the system. It’s been a career rich with co-ops!

You were working in the Senate. What was the impetus for jumping to the National Cooperative Business Association?

I loved working in the Senate. I had a great boss. There was not a ton of upward mobility because I had a great boss and people weren’t leaving! I was in a more junior position and ready for a new challenge after seeing my boss through the reelection campaign. I had been working with co-ops through that legislative process. There happened to be a job opening at NCBA-CLUSA and I jumped right on it. It felt right, it worked, and was a great experience from start to finish! I knew at the time, “this is it!”

And just for the record, you didn’t get stuck in the interview at NCBA-CLUSA for your interview, did you?

Oh my gosh, no! But I saw that in Kirstie’s Director Profile! I think my interview was in a different building than when Kirstie started. So, thankfully, by the time I was there, there were different elevators!

If you were a kitchen utensil, what would you be and why?

I’m going to go a little bit off script and say a Dutch oven. I think it should qualify as a utensil because it thrives in a lot of different environments – stove top, the oven, you can use it as a serving dish. It is the chameleon of kitchen utensils! That is something I try to be in my career and am hopefully succeeding at least a little bit in that.

What is your favorite cooperative principle and why?

I feel like this is the obvious one, but I’d say Principle 7 has to be my favorite! Shortly after I started with NCBA, the pandemic started. I saw firsthand how much co-ops were stepping up for their communities in huge and small ways that were thoughtful for every member of the community. That continues to stick with me. In my current role at CoBank, I get to help with our corporate social responsibility efforts. One program we offer is called Sharing Success. We match contributions to nonprofits in our customers’ communities, where they are putting their dollars. You get to see the wide range of activities, and the wide need. This includes things like making sure volunteer fire departments have the equipment they need to keep people safe, or donating to food banks, or helping kids get bicycles and live healthier lives. It’s a great reminder of how community-oriented co-ops and the people who make up the co-ops are.

What’s your favorite Cooperative Value?

Social Responsibility! This is essentially about community engagement, including with leaders in the community. It can include registering community members to vote, or engaging with elected officials. This is aligned with Principle 5, I suppose. Make sure you are engaging with the leaders of your community, that your community knows what your co-op is, and all the great things your co-op brings – to the economy, to families, and to individuals.

This is your first year on the CW board. What made you want to serve in this capacity?

It’s just such great people! I have, for years, been so in awe of the hard work that the cooperative development centers put into the communities they work with, to the co-ops they work with. Oftentimes they go without recognition. I am eager to be more a part of this organization and, if nothing else, be a cheerleader for the people doing good work and help them tell the story.

Can you tell us about your work with CoBank?

I’m on CoBank’s Government Affairs team based in Washington, DC. We advocate for policies and work with agencies that relate to the Farm Credit System. That ranges widely from Farm Credit System specific authorities to things that are just essential for rural communities, the communities where we work and where our customers live. That can be workforce development, broadband, strong local food systems, farmers markets, to name a few. We advocate for a wide range of things that are good for our local communities. In my role, I also support our Corporate Social Responsibility efforts.  I get to work on the contributions we make to nonprofits each year. I support the work that one of my colleagues leads on the Co-op Start program. This helps new co-ops in the agriculture and food space, start up, grow or innovate. It also supports the cooperative development centers that are providing that technical assistance too.

That’s a lot of work!

Luckily, I have a great team here. It’s a very fun team too. It balances the hard work and the serious work, so we are still having some fun while we do the work. 

Your career has really focused on policy and advocacy for cooperatives. What, in your mind, is the #1 legislative hurdle for co-ops today?

That’s a hard question! I’m going to ignore it a little bit and say the enabling environment is not equal for all types of coops and that is a challenge. I think the biggest challenge looks different for every sector. The reason that electric co-ops, agricultural co-ops, credit unions, and mutuals have really gone to scale is because there is a robust enabling environment at the state and/or federal level to support those businesses. The Farm Credit System is a financial arm, one option for farmers and electric co-ops to start and grow and innovate.  That doesn’t exist for every sector. Some places may have more challenges accessing technical assistance, some financing, some education. The enabling environment is unequal across sectors, and I think that’s a big challenge. 

What advice do you have for the movement in advocating for itself? What’s effective?

I think there are some universal truths here. It’s wonderful – and you’ve probably heard me say this before – I think we work with a remarkably humble group of people. That makes them wonderful people, and it would benefit the advocacy to lose some of the humility and maybe be a little bit more boastful about how important and impactful the work is. Everyone – from the co-op developers to the food co-ops to the credit union tellers who are working with individual member-owners to line workers at electric co-ops – the impact that they have on individual lives and communities is something they do every day. So it kind of seems ubiquitous, but the work is so impactful and is done with so much care. Those are the stories that people should be shouting from the rooftops. They’re what make co-ops so unique, so important, and integral to our economy and to society.

If you could wave a magic wand and see one thing change for the co-op sector, what would it be?

Greater collaboration would be what I would like to see. There’s so much diversity in all of the cooperative businesses that make up the US and international economy. That’s what’s valuable. There’s so much to learn. Large co-ops have things to learn from small co-ops and small co-ops have things to learn from large co-ops. There are practices across sectors that could be valuable exchanges. There’s so much power in the information sharing, that I was there was more of it! Cross sector exchanges. 

Do you feel like you’ve seen any particularly well done or impactful collaborations?

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the role of NCBA-CLUSA. They do a great job of bringing different groups to the table. At the IMPACT conference, they’ve had cohorts come through Cooperative Development Foundation’s Cooperative Leaders and Scholars program. They bring in purchasing co-ops that operate in different sectors but use the same model. They cultivate CEO collaborations. They do a great job of bringing people to the table and building off of the commonality of our cooperative foundation and using that as an opportunity for learning exchange. But that’s just one example from the education standpoint. There are so many existing partnerships, whether that’s within or across sectors, or based on geographic proximity, that really strengthen local economies. And there are more and more partnerships starting and growing every day.

Anything else you want the readers of Cooperation Weekly to know?

Well, yes. I saw one of the other interviews where you asked about their favorite co-op, so we’re going to pretend like you asked that to me as well. I’m very lucky to live in Washington, DC where we have a few cool hardware stores that are very accessible. I appreciate the way they’ve helped my home. We have the DC Credit Union, which has done so much to reach into the community. And, unique to DC, we have many of the trade associations located right here. We see so much of the advocacy that’s happening across the sectors up close and have the gathering opportunities right in Washington! Lots of exciting things happening here!