Daniel Fireside on Funding the Revolution (Part One)
Daniel Fireside is the founder of Uncommon Capital Solutions, a board director at Namaste Solar, an advisor to the Main Street Phoenix Project, and Fundraising Coordinator for Downtown Crenshaw. He was the Capital Coordinator for Equal Exchange for just under eleven years, beginning in 2010.
You’ve got an interesting mix in your background, including your role in some co-ops with a political consciousness — Equal Exchange notably. Where did your politics come from?
When my mom was pregnant with me, my parents were hiding out Father Daniel Berrigan when he was a fugitive from the FBI for his anti-war activism. My personal political awakening began in the 1980s, with the Central American solidarity movement. I ended up spending quite a bit of time in Latin America — in Guatemala, in Peru, looking at structural issues with global inequality and questions of development.
These are sort of things I’ve been grappling with intellectually and then trying to be an active participant in. I went to grad school in international planning at Cornell where they allowed me to do research on coffee farmers in Guatemala, which was actually my big introduction to co-ops as a tool for economic justice.
During this time the global coffee price was at an historic low. It was insane, like pennies on the dollar, due to the collapse of a global coffee cartel that actually had the support of the consuming countries. It was probably the only commodity cartel that had participation of both consumers and producers, being very intentionally ideological — i.e., to ward off communism. It lasted from 1961, right after the Cuban revolution, to 1989. [ Ed. Note: the date of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the symbolic collapse of the U.S.S.R. ]
When that cartel ended, it was just a crazy market free-for-all and the coffee farmers were just cast aside.
So the free market arrived but it didn’t deliver freedom for the growers.
Right, and that was a puzzle to me. How can you have this product, an addictive plant-based stimulant — it can’t get better than that — with inelastic demand, where consumers are ready to pay a premium — and the farmers are getting poorer with every crop they pick?
So starting in 2001, I spent about two years researching and then interviewing hundreds of farmers. Actually, I talked to everybody in the coffee trade, from the farmers to the head of the Guatemalan Coffee Association, USAID people and tons of coffee executives.
I came away with this very deep appreciation for the role of co-ops after interviewing hundreds of farmers both who were in the system, in the fair trade cooperative system and those who were not. And the difference between how well the co-op farmers were doing and the others was very dramatic. They hadn’t needed to pull their kids out of school, for example. It wasn’t that they were living a life of luxury but they had a safety net which the government wasn’t providing. They were getting agricultural extension services, they were getting price supports.
So that experience led you to Equal Exchange?
I was actually at Dollars & Sense Magazine, working as an editor, when I heard that Equal Exchange had a job opening for this funny position as “Capital Coordinator.” I first met some folks there, including Rodney North, when I was doing my grad school research. Rodney was very generous with his time and ever since I’ve had this karmic debt. Every time a student calls me up asking for an interview, I feel obligated to help them out because Rodney was so kind to me.
Rob Everts [ Ed. Note: the company co-president at the time ] was on my hiring committee and apparently there was a good sized crowd of people applying. But I made it to the final round. And I was like, look, I obviously don’t have a background in private equity or high finance and things like that.
And Rob said, “Well, you know, we’ve had a lot of people come with that background but they have such blinders on that they can’t communicate to the people we want to engage with. The people we’ve had best luck with are the ones that can communicate what we’re doing and the why, and connect with the mission. And what we do with financing is so weird and off-beat that it’s better if we train you. And if you get it, you’ll be good. And if not, you know, well, it was worth a shot.” And I was there for just about eleven years.
And you became a co-op believer, right?
I became a real believer in the co-op model, having seen the impact it had on coffee farmers, but also as I began engaging with consumer, worker and producer co-ops around the country and seeing the two basic models of how to do business.
One model is this zero-sum game where everyone presses their advantage. The coffee company squeezing the farmers, getting the best coffee at the lowest price, while the farmers want to sell the worst coffee at the highest price. And the consumers want the best stuff at the lowest price. The company is squeezing the workers and the workers are stealing paperclips. And the whole system is designed to extract a whole lot of money for some invisible investors. So that’s one model, and it’s pretty effective at dumping a lot of stuff in the marketplace and making a small number of people very rich.
And the other model says, let’s start from the assumption that everyone who interacts with us should come away better off — that should be our goal, even if it won’t always work every time. But let’s try to structure that as the outcome.
And if what we’re doing isn’t working, let’s figure out how to do it better. We want to engage with customers, educate them, and empower workers.
We also engage with our outside investors, because you do need capital to grow businesses, but we’re not making that the driving force nor are we treating investors as just an ATM.
You started at Equal Exchange in 2010, in the aftermath of the 2008 collapse. What was that like?
I became very aware very quickly that EE had been having a hard time raising capital, because people didn’t know what kind of company it was. They were like, is this a charity? OK, I’ll write you a check for $50,000. And I would try to say, no, it’s an investment and we just offer low returns, you don’t get a seat on the board, you know, and so on.
And then people would say, Oh, an investment. Well then, for $10,000, I’d like a special class of stock with guaranteed returns and a seat on the board. And we’re like, wait, you were just about to give me the money before! But some people couldn’t get their heads out of that framework.
With the financial crisis at that time, people saw their portfolios and 401k’s cut in half while the scoundrels made off like bandits. But Equal Exchange actually had decent performance during these years, keeping their target return of 5% to investors. Even with the crisis, people wrote to us saying, you guys helped us keep our kid in college.
I think there was this awakening that their investment in EE was not about paying higher returns — that’s not the goal. But it was the steadiness of it — I call it reality based investing, which is not based on what some algorithm was going to value the company at five years from now. It was about how the company is prepared to deal with the next year.
What else did you learn about raising money at EE?
Eventually I sort of figured out the right message and that there was this growing ecosystem, not just of companies that are co-ops but there’s investors, investment advisors, accountants, lawyers, regulators. And you need this whole ecosystem to really grasp what’s going on and put all the pieces together.
I saw that ecosystem changing right before my eyes. I used to joke that if you were a co-op looking for capital, within two phone calls or less you would get to me.
I was hearing from people saying, “I want to raise money without selling my soul.” Which was really cool, because I wasn’t an expert in it before. But suddenly, I had this knowledge of how to work it, this sort of secret thing.
And this kind of investment is complicated because of the securities laws, which are all designed to stop the last scandal. It’s always about grandma in the nursing home. You know, we don’t mind if grandma spends all her money on lottery tickets or Volkswagen stock but heaven forbid she invests $1,000 in Equal Exchange.
So I was working around the edges of that so that we were not just limited to accredited investors, millionaires, basically, but thinking of different ways to reach out to other folks.