Share Exchange: Incubating the Local Economy

The Share Exchange in Santa Rosa, California is a unique nexus of projects under one roof, created to jumpstart the new economy in San Francisco's North Bay region. If you've ever dreamed of starting a space to spark new collaborations and incubate new projects for community benefit, then read on. Shareable interviewed the founder of Share Exchange, Kelley Rajala, two and half years after opening to find out how their local economy experiments were progressing.

What is the purpose of the Share Exchange?

Economic localization – we are trying to do lots of different things that support local and regional economy. We are focused on North Bay Made to identify products made in the six county North Bay region. We are inspired by the Evergreen cooperative model in Ohio, developing import substitution and worker coops around things that the community actually needs like food and energy. We want job creation in a meaningful, down to earth way.

We have four components of the project currently:

  • A retail store to showcase great locally made products from Sonoma and soon the greater North Bay.
  • Coworking space
  • A small business incubator to get producers into the marketplace and grow their company thereby creating local jobs.
  • Education and events on localization, community-building and entrepreneurship.

How did it start?

I started a local BALLE network for Sonoma County and worked on it for 5-6 years, but I wanted to get deeper into localization. Focusing on locally made was the next step and then broadening into the rest of the North Bay. While others are chasing high tech companies, we wanted focus on what our community needs – that's common sense local economic development.

How is it owned and managed?

It's a complex organizational structure, because we've have a hard time fitting our work into one conventional organizational structure. There are three entities:

1) A worker-owned coop in development that currently functions like a member coop (members pay one time set up fee, like a buy in for a coop) and members participate, volunteer and get a higher commission on their sales for that work. We love coops and democratic control with member participation and want to expand worker cooperative enterprise in the North Bay.

2) In January, we were approved as a flexible purpose corporation in California (1 of 6 in the state) that has a nonprofit-oriented mission to incubate local companies that provide sustainable import substitution and market and sell goods for them. It’s a corporation though with no shareholders controlling it for profit.

3) A nonprofit, fiscally sponsored by Community Ventures of Oakland to apply for grants and do public education, training, local economy analysis and mapping.

What impact has it had on the local community and economy?

330 local artisans sell through the store that wouldn’t have been able to grow their business. There's no place for them to sell on a small scale on a regular basis, like a grocery store, especially outside areas they have contact. They couldn’t afford to have store on their own. Through our co-working space and small business incubation program, we’ve supported entrepreneurs that just had an idea to get the next step of launching and growing until they can be independent businesses.

Do you see specific benefits of shared physical space?

A virtual network is important, but face to face interaction is necessary for rebuilding community relationships. For selling or bartering local goods, physical space is going to be important for creating a sustainable local economy. Physical interaction can’t be replaced through online networks. According to ecopsychology, people need to actually be in nature and experience it. I believe it's also important for people to have real face to face interaction and shared experiences to bond.

What are your biggest challenges?

The public has a hard time grasping such a comprehensive endeavor. We work on a long term vision and most people think short-term. Members of the chambers of commerce, the economic development community and city officials don’t seem to get it and so don't support our work, since we don’t produce high wage jobs directly. Our support and inspiration comes from BALLE and Transition Towns.

Our organization is very complex and because we are so collaborative, we have unique challenges of getting people on the same page, being flexible and adaptive to make sure everyone is happy. Even though we don't use consensus, we take feedback seriously.

What are some success stories?

A member started a bilingual tutoring company in our coworking space and now has a fantastic company with its own office, computer lab and a mobile classroom. One of our makers is getting her goods sold in grocery stores and now doesn't have to worry about getting a “real job”. We helped her get a big account so she could follow her passion.

What are your future plans?

We are developing a collaborative approach and revenue stream for value-aligned organizations in other counties that want to open marketplaces like North Bay Made and have space. Funding will be based on annual license fees (depending on size of business) to use branding for each county. The license fees will be split between an incubation fund for the county, the affiliate organization, and the Share Exchange.

We'd love to get to the place where we are helping other communities start local economy community centers. We see in the future a whole network of local economy centers to support infrastructure for rebuilding sustainable, local business. Local economy centers are physical spaces where the public can learn about the new economy and practice it. It's where the new economy becomes more than just an idea, it's where the new economy comes to life.

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