Since 1995, the Bay Area non-profit organization Prospera (formerly known as WAGES) has been empowering low-wage earning Latina women to work together to start their own companies. HipLatina interviewed Kelsea McDonough, Development Director at Prospera, to find out more about what this innovative non-profit does, and how Hip Latinas everywhere can get involved.
Hip Latina: What is a worker co-op?
Kelsea McDonough: We partner with low-income Latina women to build worker co-ops, which are local, democratically run businesses, owned by their members. Because every member of a worker co-op controls the business democratically, worker-owners are able to share profits, set their own policies, and determine the benefits provided. This often translates to asset-building opportunities and benefit packages that are well above industry standards.
HL: Why was this model chosen to help lift workers out of poverty?
KM: Co-ops provide so much more than a job. They provide the opportunity for aspiring, determined entrepreneurs in low-income communities to overcome barriers to family economic success. With increased control over their work-schedules, members of co-ops can better organize their lives around family needs. Co-ops also keep money and jobs local, and empower community members to build a more just and equitable local economy. Especially in immigrant communities that face discrimination in the workplace, obstacles to acquiring capital, and the struggle of assimilating to a new culture, co-ops offer a fitting solution.
HL: How have Prospera’s co-ops impacted communities?
KM: Since Prospera was founded in 1995 (as WAGES – Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security), we have incubated five successful worker co-ops, each collectively owned by immigrant Latinas. We have proudly watched these five businesses complete our multi-year program and graduate from incubation to become mature co-ops. Each one now operates independently.
The worker-owners of Prospera co-ops double and triple their incomes, build financial assets that are 22 times their initial investments, and become financially savvy business owners through skills training and work experience. Their personal and professional growth fuels social transformation: we have seen these women send their children to college, leave unstable jobs, and escape domestic violence situations. Worker-owned co-ops create waves of empowerment that begin with groups of entrepreneurs and move to transform entire communities.
HL: Is there one success story you’ve found particularly inspiring?
KM: Lupita and her husband arrived in the US as newlyweds with the hope of a better life and dreams of building a home for their young family. Lupita began working at an orange packing facility, but the earnings were not stable and she wasn’t able to support her family. They were struggling and she was desperate to find an alternative that met their needs.
Lupita found Prospera, and together with a group of eight dedicated immigrant Latinas, developed and launched Eco-Care Professional Housecleaning in 2001. As they began their work as house cleaners, Lupita and the other founding members also took advantage of coaching and project-based learning opportunities provided by Prospera, honing their business skills. She now speaks English, interacts with clients, and uses QuickBooks and other computer programs—all things she never thought possible.
Because of her efforts, Lupita has doubled her income since becoming a co-op member. Reflecting on how far she has come, she says, “I feel like I have accomplished a great deal and I am very proud and content. I am so thankful for this co-op and this opportunity to grow and learn and help my family.” For Lupita, the best part of co-owning a cooperative business is the “apoyo mutuo” – or mutual support – that members show to one another.
The supportive community and stable job that the co-op provides have enabled her to give her four children the steady support they need. Lupita is proud to see her children succeed in their education; her second son was the first in their family to go to college, successfully receiving a degree in Psychology from UC San Diego. In her words, “There is just no comparison. To be supported by a stable job with good pay and benefits is a dream.”
We are inspired by Kelsea’s story—if you are, too, visit Prospera’s website to see how you can make a difference with their latest co-op project.