I am going to be honest with you – this Chapter Be story is a special one for me because it is involves two of my nearest and dearest. I hope my happiness for these two women shines through in this interview, as I’ve been lucky enough to know of their Chapter Be story from its very inception. I knew of the professional struggles that existed and heard the brainstorming that was happening before it was even a zygote of a business – so their successes seem extra sweet to me. I saw the ideas develop over time, during evenings with bottles of wine, so the fact that these ideas have now come to be is pure proof to me that where there is a will, there is a way.
Michele Lord and Susan Hill both made the decision to move from Brooklyn, NY back to their hometown of Richmond, VA in 2012. Susan moved in the winter of that year, and Michele in the fall. During those nine months in-between, the idea for the Richmond Food Co-op came to be, and by the time Michele arrived in Richmond they hit the ground running. After a lot of hard work, community building, board development and co-op education they are standing strong with 500 members – halfway to their goal of 1,000. Richmond does not have a food co-op, but the food-conscience community within the city is ripe for one.
The Richmond Food Co-op will be a member-owned full service grocery store providing affordable, local, sustainable and healthy food options. It will be 100% locally owned, 100% locally governed focused and 100% on supporting local farmers, economy and community. Recently, the Richmond Food Co-op was one of ten start-ups that was recognized across the country and received a $10,000 seed grant to help fund their start up costs. In order to match the funds they have launched an IndieGoGo campaign. The campaign ends next week on June 30, 2014 – so please take some time to read their inspiring Chapter Be story – donating not only would help get the co-op one step closer to opening its doors, but also supports those who make their dream a reality!
Tell me a little bit about your background and what you did before you started working on the Richmond Food Co-op.
Susan Hill: My interest in food began with a career in fashion. I worked as a model and that gave me many wonderful travel opportunities. I lived abroad and I got really used to shopping hyper-locally in Europe. In Paris I was always going to my local farmer’s market, and I would find a few things every day based on what I needed. I really saw how critically linked community, city planning and our local food systems are to each other. When I moved to New York I invested that same relationship with food and local eating into my life there. Food access just became a real interest of mine. I volunteered for organizations and always tried to work for them but when they wouldn’t hire me I would volunteer in whatever capacity I could to help with the issue of food access. After I left fashion I was in fund raising. Then I moved back to Richmond. I’m currently working in energy efficiency and that was another career change. Since being in Richmond, I do work for a non-profit organization that helps people with their home energy performance. The co-op has become a wonderful side project and a way for me to fully live my interest in improving our food access through this angle of a viable business that benefits many people.
Do you see a connection between the energy work you are doing and the Co-op? Do you see those as being very separate or do you see an intersection between those two at all?
SH: That’s a great question. I feel like I wear both hats every day. It’s fortunate to be working on this kind of start-up in Richmond where it is a small-knit community. The people are concerned with energy efficiency and concerned with the environment in general and that has obviously overlapped into what we eat and our food system. So, it’s been a wonderful cross-pollination. One anecdote was when I was in someone’s house giving them an energy evaluation and we spent an hour and a half together talking about their house and we were wrapping up and they said, “Okay, well, now we want to talk about the Food Co-op. We Googled you before you came over just to make sure, and we found out you were also involved with this Food Co-op we have heard about. Can you tell us more?” So, that happens a lot. It’s been a really great city to be able to work in both areas.
And, Michele, what were you doing before the Food Co-op?
Michele Lord: I came from an education background as well as youth programming, youth development, and volunteer management. I loved it for a while and then I started to love it less. At the same time I found that what I was actually doing every day was talking and reading about food. I found myself on both sides of things with planning out menus and dinners and then also on the social justice side of things. I was reading opinions and articles on the way we are connected to this much bigger thing with this action that we do every single day and the power and impact that can have on our health, on our bodies, on our local environments but also in this really large way as a society. We are what we consume – how we consume it says so much about our value system. All of this was kind of stirring for me at the same time. I was a part of the Park Slope Food Co-op for 5 years. Participating in this process of people jointly working for their own food in a way that made it more accessible and thinking about all of these pieces coming together, the stars kind of aligned into my realizing what I wanted to do. I wanted to return to Richmond and take this concept with me and start doing something of my own making. So, instead of working for people that I didn’t necessarily like in all of these broken systems, I’m trying to create a system that works better in this area that I have come to care so much about. One interesting thing is that I find myself talking more about community now almost more than food. So, for me that really brings in my background, but my passion and my soul are in this idea of how we can create positive change through this community model and then being able to do that in this new forum of what we eat matters and why.
Can you pinpoint the catalyst or the tipping point that made you say, “No more…I’m done!” Was there a certain moment or was it a compilation of many moments together that made you explore this Chapter Be?
ML: For me, I can’t believe that I lasted as long as I did in something that was really making me miserable. I kept trying to get out of it by going through the same channels. I kept applying to the same types of jobs and looking to sort of make a parallel move but in the same world. I think that probably during that time I was just devoting so much energy elsewhere and not recognizing it. But the way it came together was slowly. It just slowly seeped in until that was what I was doing with my days whether or not I realized it. I think Susan was also in a place where she was looking for change, so being together made it so much easier to do. I don’t know if I would have moved, started this, and changed without someone also being able to say, “Yes, I will be your partner, that sounding board, and that support system” in this ‘we are going through this together’ kind of way. I think that was the deciding factor for me. Susan moved back, I came and visited her, and we sat down and had a conversation about it. I went from “I’m 80% sure” to “I’m going to do this” and to then getting my ducks in a row and moving.
SH: I think one of the biggest things is you can’t wait for someone to give you permission. I have had entrepreneurs here that I respect tell me that. I kept looking around, like gosh there must be someone smarter and older and more capable then I am to come and fix this problem. There probably is that person but that is the thing because the person who is actually going to do it is you. I had been self-employed in fashion for so long, that I found a lot of unhappiness in a really structured work environment. I have come to realize that I am a little bit of a ‘wild pony’ – I need a little supervision to keep me accountable, but there has to be a large fence. Michele really does do a beautiful job of keeping us on track. This project would have never happened without her…ever. I was going to move to Richmond, and I probably would have wound up in energy efficiency. I was poking around in other food related areas, but the drive behind the Co-op is all her. I’ve just been so grateful for her energy. I think that really speaks to having the power of multiple people doing something together. It’s hard to do it alone. Who else do you turn around and bounce anything off of? Who is going to pick you up when you think, “Oh my gosh, this is too much!” Sometimes it is too much, so we lean on each other well in that way.
Do you think you would have done this on your own?
ML: I think I would have looked around a while more and in some way found a way to change, but I still needed somebody to do it with. Susan was moving in other directions and taking on other things, but just being able to dump out my brain was enough support.
SH: We’ve had wonderful support! We couldn’t have gotten where we are now without the Board of Directors and the 12 people on the steering committee who initially sat in that living room and planned the Co-op. It is obviously not just about us anymore. I think to start a business with that initial partnership and trust between two people who have know each other – because it is not like we were business partners first, we were friends first – was big. I’m proud of us because we navigated through that. Most people advise against that, right?! Or they say, you have to be careful, but with us it has worked out well.
Yes, that can be hard to marry a friendship with a business partnership!
ML: I think one of the interesting things in doing this and in not just having a “job” but in making the thing you care about be what you do all the time – means that it crosses into all parts of your life. For us, being friends first, it means wondering when we can slow down and stop talking about the Co-op and focus on our lives, too. The Co-op becomes so intertwined with our lives because it is not a job. It is a passion that is what fills my day and luckily is coming along in a way that is a business and beyond.
SH: It is difficult how it bleeds into your life. On the one hand we love that because we live it fully and you are living your passion, but I carry over co-op guilt every day of things I haven’t done. Sometimes I resent that I don’t have the time for other things that maybe I would have if I worked a traditional job with traditional hours. It’s nice, sometimes, to be able to turn it off.
What is a one way that you have created a boundary between your friendship and your business partnership? What piece of advice do you have on how to create boundaries and/or to sustain your friendship while starting a business?
SH: I think we have a benefit of starting a cooperative together in the sense that we are not out to say, run a boutique or restaurant. We are starting a business that is for everyone as a co-op. So, everyone has the same input into the business as we do.
ML: I think that being really aware that people have different communication styles and figuring out what that communication style is and being clear with each other when we are not getting exactly what we need from that person has really helped. Knowing that there will be times where you have to say, “Okay, this was just a business partner situation.” It’s not about demanding anything right now, but allowing the other person time to think through the situation in his or her own way. I think it is developing and understanding how people communicate with each other, which is what you need to do in the managing of any relationship in a work environment. It has this added element of knowing something about somebody that you didn’t before. So being clear that in a professional relationship, this is what you expect from the other people you are working with and being open to figuring out new things about somebody that you already know.
Yes, our professional selves can be very different than our personal selves! I’d imagine that there is a learning curve to discovering how your friend works if your friendship didn’t evolve from through a job. Throughout all of this, you guys started the Co-op from scratch. You mentioned earlier that you had a steering committee and you eventually formed a board. How did you know what the first step was in regards to getting this all started? It’s one thing to have an idea and another thing to actually have that idea come to fruition.
ML: A lot of research, research, research. Everybody was like, “How do you start a co-op?!” I was like, well, you contact everyone you possibly can think of, you read everything you could possibly read, and we are lucky in the sense that starting a cooperative means there is this framework that exists. There are basics to being a cooperative where you are amongst a community of people who have already done this and support the idea of it. I had a lot of good initial conversations with other co-ops that exist as well as with the Food Co-op Initiative, which is a non-profit that helps co-ops start up. So, there is a framework. We are doing something very new for this particular area of the country, so our co-op isn’t going to look like anyone else’s, but there is a community of people to learn from in order to know what ways this can be done or has been done. That was a starting point that I’m just so grateful for. It’s not trying to reinvent the wheel, it’s looking and seeing all of the different wheels that exist, and trying to figure out the wheel that we could create that was a little bit different but is round and turns. Also, just researching whom in Richmond knows and cares about food, as well as talking to people in other offshoots of that – like environmental groups, interest-based organizations and community groups. Then tapping into them and saying, “Here is what we are thinking. Do you think this would work? Do you have any feedback?” That is where the original steering committee came from. It was a series of phone calls, conversation, coffees, and then it came to a resounding, “Yes! This sounds great, and I would like to be a part of it.” So, having the idea, figuring out what the framework could look like and then just contacting anybody and everybody who seemed like they may have an interest in it and having a conversation about getting them involved.
How have you reached out to the community to make them aware that this is happening and tap into people in the Richmond community?
ML: It’s been a super grass roots effort, and it really started from initial relationships that we built with people who already had networks and tapping into those networks. It was also going to places where people who might care about this already are – going to the farmers’ markets and talking to different neighborhood organizations and growing it from this really organic place of, “Can we find the people who are interested in this idea?” One of the really great things that I heard and love as a framework for co-ops is that you are not selling memberships, you are inviting people to join you. You are sharing and educating about what the concept is and then it is just an invitation. That is really empowering because you don’t have to think of yourself as a salesperson but you are really developing a community of people.
It seems like you have done a really good job of finding power-partners – people who are not starting up their own co-ops but who are very much related to what you are doing within the community – and really utilizing those and then having them help you build that kind of community. New York has a couple Food Co-ops, but not many. Would you ever have stayed in New York and opened up a co-op there, or do you think a lot of what enticed you to do this was the idea of going back to Richmond, a community where you both grew up? Richmond is also smaller and perhaps a little more community oriented – does that make a difference?
ML: I don’t think I could have done it in New York. I think New York already has everything so it is hard to create something new in a place that doesn’t really need anything. Richmond needs a co-op. I think that in some ways it has been more challenging because people need to learn what it is. A big part of our job has been just explaining what it is. It’s hard to get people to join something when they don’t know, in practice, what it looks like. You are asking people to join an idea instead of something real. In some ways that is so hard, but, for me, that seems like the only way to really do anything meaningful and on your own. If everybody already gets it then it’s not your job to make it.
SH: I think it had to be Richmond. There is one degree of separation between everyone in Richmond – it’s wild! That has really been a benefit to us because it is incredibly easy to network here being that everyone knows each other and we can tap into familial roots and relationships. One of the big questions here is, “Where did you go to high school?” I’ve had people ask, “Are you from Richmond?” I say that I am and they are like, “Okay, good.” I think having the homegrown stamp on it is important to growing the business.
Sometimes you really do have to be willing to change your location to make your idea happen, and you guys are really good examples of that. There is something very beautiful about going back to where you are from and taking the wealth of knowledge you have gained since living there and sharing it with a community that you care a lot about. But…we all know it takes a lot of hard work and that it’s not all peaches, roses, and puppy dogs. What has one of your biggest struggles been in the process and how did you get through that?
SH: We haven’t gotten through it yet! We are still in our struggle to convince people to take a leap of faith with us. We are asking them to invest in something that is yet to be real. We have worked hard to create incentives around joining the co-op now such as with our relationships with local businesses that would honor the Food Co-op Membership for a discount at those places. To convince people to turn over some of their hard earned money and invest, literally, into something that has yet to be realized. Some people get it right away and some people it takes a few more touches. Some people won’t join until the store opens or after it has been open for 10 years. We are continuing to struggle on how to communicate this effectively and really educate people on what a co-op is and how they can benefit by something that is not yet here.
ML: Taking that even a step further, it is not only the idea of becoming members and growing our membership base, but the co-op is founded on this idea of self-responsibility and that doesn’t just mean the people who started it’s self-responsibility. Once you become a part of this, then it is all of our work. I have been working on it the longest but I don’t own it any more than somebody that joins today. For that, it is one of those really interesting situations where the community aspect of it makes this business so amazing and powerful of an idea. It also makes it really challenging because it’s not just mine, or Susan’s, or both of ours to say, “This is how we are going to do it. Let’s go straight ahead.” There is a community of voices that are involved, and we need to tap into those other resources that are a part of this community and count on other people to do other pieces of it as well. It is a huge operation that we are starting with very little in terms of traditional resources for starting a business.
Those are great examples of a struggle within the business. Have you had any personally?
ML: I have never doubted that this is going to happen. I am 100% certain that the co-op is going to open it’s doors, but the time that it takes to make it happen is challenging. To keep up the momentum. To keep up the pace of it. It is a very long process when you are asking a lot of people to give you a little, instead of just a few people who you need to cultivate relationships. It’s just a bigger effort and a more substantial ask that we are making. We keep saying it’s a marathon and not a sprint and yet it is a marathon that pretty much goes at a sprint pace. We’ve been two years at this pace and there is more to come.
SH: I mentioned earlier about the guilt. I think the hardest part is always feeling like I could be doing more – and then doing more and resenting it. There are sacrifices with your on-time and off-time. My first summer I was in Richmond, the co-op was in infancy and Michele was doing research from New York. I was shopping at the farmer’s market constantly and cooking these great meals. Once the co-op got up and running I had no time to cook and put into play all that I am advocating for. So, yeah, there are sacrifices but I think we both understand that there will eventually be a wonderful payoff for the whole city, for all of us.
Has there been a “happy accident” along the way? Something that happened that you had not have anticipated, but then in the long run wound up being a really positive thing in the process?
ML: At every point when we would start to feel a little bit frustrated or a little bit like it was taking more than we could give, we always got a new wave of energy. It has been interesting that when we lose key people, who are super-involved because their lives get busy and make them transition away from being able to give to the co-op in the same way, we get new bursts or a new group of people who come in excited to make this happen. I think that really helps to keep us focused and it has happened now a few times, so we can see it as a pattern. It’s now like, oh, okay, this one is moving away, but we always seem to find a burst of energy that helps to take us through to the next place.
SH: We really do try to stay open minded. I think that is what is hard – starting out with a vision and seeing an end point, but keeping the balance to being open to change and realizing that what you envisioned from day one, it’s not going to look like that at day one hundred. But then also being aware of when to stay on your path and not let naysayers throw you. We have been opposed and questioned on the location of the co-op. We initially got a lot of criticism about where it is, granted they are louder voices from a few people, but people question your vision. It’s like, “Why are you locating there?” or “There are other people living in Richmond who need a grocery store more than people who live in that part of town. Why aren’t you serving other people?” So, we’ve been asked hard questions, and I think the fortunate thing, thanks to Michele’s early research, was having a really strong sense of self, as it related to the business, from the beginning. We were able to navigate some of the early criticisms and still stay true to the vision. Our vision really hasn’t changed in two years. Nothing has dramatically shifted. There is this process of thinking over – is this something that I care SO much about that it is worth changing everything. Or is it one of those pieces where, maybe this isn’t what I thought but it’s a way that it could still find its way into being exactly what the purpose of this is.
Yes – knowing when to pivot and when to stay the course can be difficult. I hear a lot of entrepreneurs talk about their gut and that as an entrepreneur you learn how to hone the skill of listen to your gut feelings. When you originally started you had a timeline and that has changed along the way. I think that is a good example of how you have pivoted with what came up and tried to adapt to what the community needed.
ML: This is so personal for me. It’s my life, it’s my livelihood, it’s my baby, and yet, it’s not personal. It’s a business. So there are points where I have to stop and figure out whether I’m having an emotional reaction. Is it my emotional reaction or am I being a defender of the business? Navigating, finding that line, and knowing when it is me, that I cannot invest myself in every piece of it.
SH: Your point about the timeline is important. When we launched our membership drive on January 31, 2013 we didn’t know if the deluge members would come. We hoped they would. We thought we needed around 800-1,000 to open the store then. We didn’t know if this idea would catch on like wildfire and then we could move on with the site and really get rolling. Membership has been steady but it hasn’t been overnight. So, we have had to modify our expectations, but at the same point because it has taken longer than we thought it has given us time to make new relationships, deepen relationships, build a really thoughtful business. I think about some of the key people we are working with now and we didn’t meet them until a year in to all of this. So, all of that seems like it is all working out as it needed to.
That is a hard thing to trust sometimes. When it is so personal and something you want so badly, how do you trust that things are working exactly the way they are supposed to be without feeling like you aren’t moving as fast as you should or doing enough things. I think you can equate being an entrepreneur to being in school. You constantly feel like there is something you should be doing.
SH: It is. It’s got to keep growing, and it will as long as it’s there. There more it grows the more members we can get. Our next big benchmark is to perform our market study and a formal financial analysis. That will launch us into a member loan campaign, which is how you largely capitalize co-ops, and then finally bank financing. So, there are some big financial pieces on our plate in the months ahead.
In this process of creating your Chapter Be, what was the biggest risk for you and how did you know it was worth taking that risk?
ML: The biggest risk was not having an income, changing course and figuring out how to make it work all while changing cities. In some ways that actually almost helped because it created a totally blank slate in which to go. It occurred to me that the difference between people who do something and have it be successful, and the people who stay at their jobs that they are not happy with is just that they do it. That is the difference. You just have to do it. That was it. Having somebody who said, “Yes, this is a good idea and I will be in this with you,” as well as having a community where my family was where I had somewhere to come home to. Also just having the blank slate of seeing that this was a community that needs something, and I have seen what this thing is and I could do it here. I could make it work.
SH: I crafted my life in Richmond to allow for a flexible schedule so I could meet sometimes during a regular work week. I just wanted there to be room in my workday for projects like this that I care about. So, I have a few part-time jobs that I string together, and I consider the co-op to be one of those. Sometimes it doesn’t get priority because I have to get food on the table. A critical part of my life was just abandoning the security that sometimes comes with a full-time salary to make room for the things that I cared about.
At the end of the day it is all about choices and prioritizing – figuring out what is the most important, and making some compromises along the way. So…if there is someone right now sitting at a desk job that they absolutely hate, but they have an interest they are really passionate about, what would your advice to them be?
ML: Do a lot of research while you are still sitting at that desk! And then to get to the point, while you are never going to be 100% prepared, but where you feel you have put some pieces in order for yourself. You also need to know that if this doesn’t work out you can go and do something different or can go back into your old world. But there is something that you gain in doing this. I talked to a lot of people when I was thinking of doing this and it always came back to what you would gain in regard to your quality of life. Is your quality of life going to be that much greater? It is! The quality of my life is better. My income is drastically not better, yet, but it is still worth it. It is worth taking the risk. Just be a little prepared and thoughtful about how to take the risk is key, but taking the risk is what gets you to where you want to be. Right now I’m happy to be where I am, and I have other places to go to and it is all a part of the journey.
SH: I think getting outside of our little worry bubbles and asking, honestly, what is the worst that can happen? It’s all right to go out on a limb. It is the same thing I tell people when I want them to join the co-op. Are you going to keep sitting on the sidelines of life or are you going to step on the field and play. I think that is exactly it. We are all just real people trying to do our best. It is about exploring that and getting the wind knocked out of you and blowing your own mind. Why not? What else is the point of it all anyway if you don’t push yourself?
ML: You won’t get it all at once. I lived with my grandmother for a year! There are compromises that will occur.
Yes – you have to see those compromises as part of a bigger picture. It does not happen all at once, but there are steps you can make in order to get there.
SH: It is about managing expectations, too, and not expecting that the day you leave your desk job means you have it all figured out and you are instantly happy and everything has changed. Nothing happens overnight. Just being realistic, and not overemphasizing that there is this miraculous change. There are still struggles that happen in this new chapter, too, and keeping sight of that is important.
Notes of Reflection:
- Eyes on the prize. If you are able to set clear goals on where you want to be, articulate these goals to others and take time to assess if these goals have been met then you are one giant step closer to getting to where you want to be. From the very beginning Michele and Susan worked with a Steering Committee that helped them outline these goals and construct a plan for tackling getting a co-op started in their community. While a Steering Committee was something that was suggested to them by the Food Co-op Initiative, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t something that you can’t create for yourself, too. Hold focus groups or create a planning committee of like-minded people or others who are also passionate about what you are trying to do. Seek out advisors and people with more and diverse experience to be on this planning or steering committee with you.
- The power of community. It does indeed take a village sometimes! Susan and Michele were quite explicit in stating that at this point they are not on this road alone. The have built a community of 500 people around them that are owners in this business and mission. This means that they can call other people to help them based on their expertise – such as graphic design or finance advise. While not everyone’s business will be one with a co-op model, it doesn’t mean that you should look for ways to find people to support you in the process of starting your business. There is no way to know everything – so how can you reach out to others who know more than you? If cost is a concern, consider offering a trade of services or discounts in your product. Look outside of yourself to make things move forward.
- When you do create something around your passion, it isn’t a “job” but a way of life. That means that it can be hard to disconnect the personal from the business sometimes. How do you check yourself to make sure that you do not let your ego get in the way of the businesses growth? Michele was honest that sometimes she has to step back and realize whether or not something is a personal, emotional reaction or if she is defending the business. Make sure to have some checks-and-balances in place to try and distinguish between the two.
- Expectations grow and change as the business grows and changes. They had originally wanted 800 members within eight months – that didn’t happen but that didn’t mean that they stopped, packed up and went home. As Susan said – in the end this actually allowed them to meet more people, develop stronger relationships and deepen their message within the community. Personal and professional compromises will be a part of the journey and it helps to have the ability to manage your expectations along the way and see pivots as opportunities and not just hurdles or roadblocks.
- Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
- Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table by Ruth Reichl
- The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons & Recipes from a Delicious Revolution by Alice Waters
- Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
- Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
- Haroun & the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
- The Soul of Rumi: A New Collection of Ecstatic Poems by Coleman Barks
- We Were Flying to Chicago by Kevin Clouther
- Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward