WAGES Creates Clean, Green Livelihoods; Looking to Scale

Read Evelin's story wagescooperatives.org/stories

Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security, also known as WAGES, builds worker-owned businesses with the goal of creating “healthy, dignified jobs for low-income women.”  I’m intrigued by WAGES because it is one of very few models I’ve encountered that truly meets the people-planet-profit trifecta of a triple bottom line business.  Entrepreneurs, take note.

Launched in 1995, WAGES is a “small but mighty” non-profit, as executive director Hilary Abell describes it.  With eight staff members, WAGES launches and supports women-owned cooperative housecleaning businesses.   It’s launched five to date and each one is run with utmost consideration to the worker-owners’ health, utilizing exclusively eco-friendly non-toxic cleaning products.  And all profit goes straight back to the workers.   Lo and behold, women working in WAGES co-ops are doubling and tripling their incomes. They earn an average of $13/hour, $4 more per hour than before joining, and most have full work schedules and health insurance.   WAGES’ studies have found that household income rises 70% for women who join.  In one example, workers received an average of $1900 in year-end profit sharing.

Up until now WAGES has launched one co-op every few years, and rolled any best practices up in the launch of the next one.  And it seems to have gotten pretty good at it.  For example, often in housecleaning businesses, a central problem is utilization and getting enough clients to make ends meet.  WAGES knows how many clients are needed to occupy one woman’s time and can staff up accordingly.   And WAGES handles the marketing – this year a partnership with Seventh Generation has really helped boost marketing.  Last year it launched a San Francisco co-op amidst a dismal economy, and it grew 30% faster than the previous co-op.  This is an outstanding result for any business operating last year – let alone this one.

Revenue for all five co-ops is $2.8 million, and the worker-owners currently number 85 women, with 11 non-member staff. New members will be joining next month. This is all great, but imagine the potential on a larger scale.  Given the increasing success, WAGES is looking to scale more quickly. Scaling social enterprise has become somewhat of a holy grail, at least in certain San Francisco circles.  In my minimal experience with grant-making through Full Circle Fund, I’ve noticed many cases of a model that works well in one or a few locations needing help scaling.  But I don’t know too many examples of successful growth.

Do any readers have advice for WAGES or relevant experience to share as it ramps up its operations from serving ~100 women today to 1,000 and beyond?

Amie runs Cobblestone Solutions, LLC, a consultancy focusing on business development, marketing, communications and strategy for mission driven companies. Previously, Amie served as Director of Business Development for Viv (a Bay Area environmental start-up), Program Manager for Social Venture Technology Group (a boutique consulting firm focused on measuring social and environmental impact), and Associate Consultant at Bain & Co (a global management consulting firm). She is particularly interested in innovations that reduce waste, altering consumer behavior for good, and leveraging the power of business to solve the climate crisis. You can read more from her on her blog, on GreenBiz.com, and on JustMeans.

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