The UMass Student-Run Businesses: A Community of Learning
By David A. Lambert

A Network of Cooperatives

The University of Massachusetts in Amherst is home to 24,000 students, and one of the most exciting and unique networks of cooperatives in the country. The UMass Center for Student Businesses is the hub of eight student-initiated and managed worker co-ops, some dating back a quarter of a century. A tour of the Student Union reveals Earthfoods Cafe, a cafeteria specializing in affordable vegetarian and vegan entrees, soups and desserts, and People’s Market, a whole foods store offering fairly traded, organic coffee, locally produced bagels and hummus and other healthy snacks. Students can buy tickets to concerts at TIX Unlimited, or get their bike tuned up at the Bike Co-op. Professors entrust the production of their course packets to Campus Design and Copy, an alternative to the University’s privatized textbook store. In the University’s living areas are several snack bars and sub shops that cater to busy students, including the Sylvan Snack Bar and Sweets N’ More. Students can attend all-you-can-eat pancake breakfasts at the Greeno Sub Shop.

All together, these student cooperatives provide jobs for one hundred and fifty undergraduates who also manage every detail of the businesses from advertising to bookkeeping, hiring to terminating, purchasing to mediating to evaluating—in addition to their academic obligations as full-time students. “You can train anyone to work at a sub shop,” says Greeno co-manager Lori Latimer, “but as members of a collective, our work isn’t done when we leave shift.” This is why the businesses tend to attract a certain profile of student. Center for Student Businesses (CSB) Director Katja Hahn D’Errico declares “Students involved in the student businesses are mostly highly-motivated, curious people who approach the world around them with a philosophy of wholeness and a sense of responsibility.”

A Community of Learning

The sense of responsibility Katja recognizes is exemplified in the hours per week that students spend on the daily operational aspects of the business, as well as in weekly All-Staff meetings, and committees. For instance, Lori spent several semesters on Greeno’s DotStar committee (the UMass student co-op version of human relations), charged with holding co-managers accountable for their positive and negative actions and dealing with motivational problems. Lori admits that for a while she “kinda became the Greeno Guidance Counselor.” She was also in charge of updating the business’ handbook. Other co-managers have similar workloads. Earthfoods co-manager Melissa Goodman in her first semester on the catering committee, exhibited sufficient leadership to be elected Organizational Specialist, in charge of developing the All-Staff agendas and recording the notes. She also joined the Steering Committee, which looks after the long-term goals. In Maeg Yosef’s four semesters at People’s Market she’s worked on the Diversity Awareness Committee (planning social justice workshops), Extensions (catering and outreach), COR (Steering), Hiring, Buying, and Bookkeeping.

Most co-managers agree that the distinction between academic work and the co-ops is rather arbitrary. Katja refers to the student businesses as co-curricular learning, and the Board of Student Businesses has sent representatives to the University’s Learning Communities Committee. Some workers are business students gaining practical experience. Some have majors unrelated to business, which yet are enhanced by the co-op experience. Melissa, a Women’s Studies major, is involved in the research on alternative methodologies. Also the cooperative model and consensus government of the businesses provide her “a base of knowledge to draw from.” The businesses have sparked topics for papers (“The Material Culture of the People’s Market,” “A Linguistic Anthropological Study of People’s Market.”), independent studies (that have produced manuals on diversity training and practical business skills), and even special concentration majors (like “Group Dynamics” and “Cooperative Management and Art”). Students who aren’t as drastically influenced still gain a lot from the experience of working as a co-manager. Katja points to several examples of students were too shy to speak up in All-Staff when they were hired, but who after a semester “had become ready to teach and mentor their peers, give presentations and could be counted on to speak up whenever they were needed.”

Working in a student-run business can also have a profound impact on a student’s future career. Among the students who graduated last semester, several are currently working in community-service jobs, or area co-operatives. Even those who eventually find themselves in more conventional sectors of the business world take with them the lessons they’ve learned for their time as a co-manager in a co-operative.

Honoring Our Roots

The student businesses were a product of the student movement that swept campuses in the 1970s. The earliest businesses, including Sylvan Snack Bar, People’s Market, and Earthfoods Cafe, have long fulfilled their missions as student-managed, low cost, and healthy alternatives to the campus dining commons. As students nationwide rallied for a larger role in the organizations that controlled student activities, many Campus Activities Offices opted to incorporate as institutions separate, and financially independent from the greater university. This never happened at UMass, and herein is one of the secrets of the staying power of the UMass student businesses. Since the Student Government Association provided seed money, and has remained ultimately fiscally responsible for the businesses, the University instituted a means of holding the co-ops accountable. The Economic Development Office, the forerunner of the current Center for Student Businesses (CSB), was created to hold the businesses financially accountable to the University, and to bring economic stability to faltering student enterprises through methods of facilitative leadership.

When Katja Hahn D’Errico stepped into the CSB nineteen years ago as director, the businesses were far from economic sustainability. (In Katja’s words, they were “piss-pot poor[ly]” managed.) Katja’s first mission was to weed-out the less-solvent businesses from the network in order to focus the center’s resources on saving those that remained. Several student co-ops (including a record store, a photo co-op, a sporting-goods co-op, an automotive mechanic collective), were lost, but the futures of the eight remaining co-ops were assured. Katja secured loans from the Student Government to pay off the debts of the businesses (all of which have long since been retired) and the UMass student businesses gained a fresh start.

Behind the Scenes

One innovation was the creation of a network of student consultants, undergraduates from UMass’ Isenberg School of Management who apply the financial expertise learned in classes to the co-op businesses. They guide the student co-managers (overwhelmingly humanities and social/behavioral science majors) through the nuances of financial statements, inventory logs and long-term business plans. The Center for Student Business also provides educational resources, including workshops in facilitative leadership, participatory management, group development, mediation, and social justice and diversity training. Also essential to the running of the CSB are Chris Olson, the Coordinator of Operations and Finance, an M.B.A. student, and Donna Vanasse, the Office Manager, although we’re considering a change of title to “Wonder woman.”

The collectives also benefit from the Board of Student Businesses, reestablished in 1994 as an inter-business support network and the link to the CSB, the Student Government and the greater University. The Board has two representatives from each business, and one each from the CSB and the Student Government. The Board operates like the student collectives in its collective governance, consensus decision-making, and system of committees, which include an Organizational Specialist, On- and Off-Campus Outreach committees, Fundraising, Steering, and a Business Historian. A convention is held every spring to maintain a vibrant relationship between current managers and alumni of the student businesses, University administrators, academic departments (including the School of Management and the Hotel, Restaurant, and Travel Administration Dept.), and the staff of the CSB. The largest fall semester project is fundraising and preparation for the NASCO (North American Students of Cooperation) Conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The NASCO Conference provides developmental workshops, and a chance to network with co-ops from across the United States and Canada. Each year up to twelve UMass students have returned from the conference, refreshed and inspired.

Future Challenges

Last semester UMass faced a round of severe budget cuts and the early retirement of dozens of talented professors and administrators. Sadly, Katja be retiring from her post as director of the businesses. Happily, the University has committed to hiring a new director, a sign that the University values the Center for Student Businesses, which is, as Katja puts it, “one of the jewels of the University system.” Obviously a task before the businesses is to help find someone who can replace the woman we have known as a major source of motivation, strength and learning. The student co-managers have this nasty habit of graduating, so it’s very difficult for us to grasp the greater picture of the businesses. Katja has always been the prescription that corrects our collective nearsightedness.

A second major task of the UMass student co-ops, and a problem of the larger co-op movement, is lack of racial and ethnic diversity. The businesses must be humble enough to do the outreach work, and campaign for a day when all people feel respected and welcome in our cooperatives. We must also reach out to the incoming administration of the University and ensure a long-term commitment to each other. Lastly, we must continue to evolve as a learning community, to revise and improve our consensus process, and to simultaneously embrace individual leadership and participatory management. As we’ve heard time and again from Katja, “Even co-ops need leadership. The ‘no bosses here’ mentality is a myth.”

Earthfoods Cafe recently celebrated its 25th Anniversary. I asked Melissa if she ever feels bogged down with the legacy from prior generations of co-managers. She replied that while she’s always aware of the co-op’s longevity, she knows that the key to sustaining the business is an open mind. “The idea is to be making constant progress toward creating a more sustainable and efficient business, and not be adverse to change.” Our outgoing director echoes this sentiment: “It’s always a work in progress, things can always improve.”

David Lambert is a co-manager at People’s Market. He can be reached at .

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