Co-ops are cool: an internship reflection


Jake Brown

Adriana Eldred leans on one of VEC’s EVs.

As I searched last spring for a college internship, let’s just say an electric co-op (gasp!) was not on the top of my list.
I pictured working in cool marketing firms with bean bag chairs in conference rooms, napping pods and slides down to the cafeteria – and yet, here I am, writing a piece called “co-ops are cool.”

Like many young, inexperienced people trying to become socially engaged in society, I wanted to have a big impact, fast. I had my heart so set on flashiness and flair that I was losing sight of the bigger picture.
And so far, in my humble cubicle in Vermont Electric Co-op’s Johnson offices (no bean bag chairs), I’ve learned a lot about cooperatives. Among other things, I’ve discovered that co-ops can be a huge driver for positive change, and a model my equally-as-socially-engaged peers may be overlooking.

So far in just the few months I’ve interned, I’ve written press releases highlighting the good work the VEC Community Fund for has done for the communities we serve; I’ve been coordinating meet-and-greets with VEC’s new CEO to connect her to our members all across our territory; and I’ve helped to launch Vermont Electric’s new Instagram account in order to engage younger members.

Like me, most people my age don’t know much – if anything – about being involved in a co-op, and yet they are involved in social justice marches, fund raisers, social movements, and a lot more. Many people with the intention of making the world a better place are skipping over the place it matters most: home. Organizations rooted in the community – like co-ops – are a great place to start.

Being in the online, social-media era can distort how people view the validity of their success and how they measure their impact, when in reality, likes and shares are not determining factors. Many young people live by the motto, “pics or it didn’t happen,” and while it’s a great way to inspire others, it’s not about how many views you acquire; it’s about the quality of your effect. Being a part of a co-op means joining like-minded people who are focused on the same goal as you, and just because it’s not #instaworthy doesn’t mean you’re not making an impact.

And while many people stereotype co-ops as folksy, small scale endeavors, it’s simply not the case. VEC is the second-largest utility in the state of Vermont, serving around 32,000 people. Nationally, there are plenty of big brands that are member-owned. Ace Hardware, Carpet One, Welch’s, Ocean Spray, True Value, Cabot Creamery, and many other national entities are all co-operatives. Think about all of the influence these brands have to ensure they are producing what their members want.

Cooperatives can also have massive influence on economic wellbeing. According to the Small Business Administration, dollars that are spent locally stay in the community at least three times longer than dollars spent at stores owned outside the community.

Because co-ops are member-owned, their primary goal is to compensate their members, without the reliance of stakeholders and investors, finds a Forbes article. Money won’t just be collected and retained by a small group of people, but spread throughout the economy. “Worker cooperatives spread the wealth among a larger group of people, so that each person will be able to spend more to strengthen our economy,” says author Cameron Keng writing in Forbes. Keng estimates that if Apple were a co-operative, the profits made last year would give every single one of its 74,000 employees a $403,000 dividend on top of their current salaries.

The heart of the co-op philosophy is that members are the owners of the organization. Just think about the influence you could have by joining a cooperative or starting one to do something you’ve unsuccessfully attempted on your own in the past.

I encourage people my age who haven’t taken the time to consider how a co-op can help them, to evaluate how you’ve been affected by one. Whether it be through the tools you use, food you eat, clothes you wear, or the electricity you use to charge your phone, a co-op may well be behind it.

So, yes – I think co-ops are pretty cool.