Eating cheese and building markets to make a better world

Driving past the deer and cows grazing through the rich Marin County landscape on an overcast Friday, everyone at REDF headed out to celebrate the holidays and the big changes we’ve been through in 2010.  With stomachs growling we approached our destination – the iconic Cowgirl Creamery – and prepared to sample the goods and recharge for what promises to be a fast-paced year with at least a few hairpin turns as our 2011-2015 California-wide expansion kicks into high gear.

Greeting us at the door, Michael, Cowgirl’s cheerful store manager who left a career in high tech for the joys of cheese, turned our attention to the huge vat of curds three skilled workers were stirring and making into compact globes of fresh Red Hawk.

He described the bold business strategies of two of the Bay Area’s shining star entrepreneurs – Sue Conley and Peggy Smith – who had previous stints as founder of Bette’s Oceanview Diner in Berkeley (Sue) and leading chef at Chez Panisse (Peggy).

Smitten by the local dairy farms and farmers of Marin, Sue set out to find a way to market their milk – whose price had remained flat for years.  Partnering with Peggy, they built and helped grow a web of businesses and organizations.  Today they make and market cheeses so good that they routinely receive top awards from the American Cheese Society.

But they didn’t just build a business, they built the complex ecosystems of a market.  They wanted to make a profit and help Marin’s farmland and farmers thrive.  As a result, Marin’s now-successful dairies have gone organic at a far higher rate than anywhere in the US, and the size of the market for artisanal cheese that they pioneered has grown exponentially.

OK I will admit I am especially proud of them because I first met Sue at San Francisco City College’s Hotel and Restaurant Management program where we were students in the late 1970’s.  She hired me as a prep cook when she opened Bette’s Diner, and I roomed with her and Peggy back then.  Now Sue takes time out of her wildly busy schedule to advise REDF on businesses we hope to help our portfolio start up in 2011, and connects us to other people she’s met in the business.

It’s also their story that resonates with REDF.  We have a big dream like Sue and Peggy’s.

Our dream is to contribute to and grow the ecosystem of a marketplace that employs people who would otherwise be shut out, living in the streets, and dealing with violence, crime and incarceration.  This marketplace will offer work and supports so that people advance and thrive with the pride that comes from contributing at work, and to family, and the community.

We have some of the building blocks and partners in place, and now we are assembling the businesses, financing and buyers to make our dream a reality.

We are learning from the strategies of people like Sue and Peggy, taking notes on what’s been done by the Fair Trade movement, local business investors like Inner City Advisors and Pacific Community Ventures, and the AbilityOne/NISH system that employs 45,000 people with severe disabilities around the country.

We are energized by companies like Safeway that have stepped up to purchase services from companies like New Door Ventures – an alumni of REDF’s portfolio, and the investments made by Caltrans and the California Department of Corrections to replicate the Center for Employment Opportunities model for employing parolees that will start in Oakland in 2011.

We celebrate the 2,000 + people who have gone to work since 2008, and the REDF portfolio companies (including REDF alumnae with thriving enterprises) that have employed them.

We are amazed by the dozens of applications from outstanding nonprofit social enterprises around the state for REDF’s new portfolio.  We wish we could take five times as many as the 7-9 we anticipate for 2011.

At the end of our incredible day sampling the fare at Cowgirl, I headed over to San Francisco to join hundreds of people packed into St. Boniface – one of the City’s most beautiful churches – to celebrate the life of Kelly Cullen who tragically died at age 57 after dedicating his life to creating housing and jobs, schools and services for the poor, homeless and immigrant people who live in the Tenderloin.  Urged by San Francisco businessman and philanthropist Lou Giraudo, we roared and applauded for Kelly’s life, and for his suggestion that the way to honor it is to carry on the work.

That’s just what REDF’s plans to do – in partnership with you.  Please check out www.redf.org/takeaction to find out what you can do.