Carmen Rojas: Building a 21st-century economy that works for working people



New Revivalists is a series from ImpactAlpha and Village Capital profiling the people, places and policies reviving entrepreneurship — and the American Dream.

New Revivalist: Carmen Rojas, CEO of The Workers Lab, a lab for 21st-century workers solutions
Place: Oakland, CA
Mission: Rojas and The Workers Lab are helping workers transform low-wage industries and redefine work in the 21st century.

Follow: @crojasphd

In Texas, Carmen Rojas worked to reform building permit rules, driving training and fair wages for construction workers. In New York City, Rojas helped set procurement standards linked to job quality. In Boston, Rojas is helping retiring small-business owners sell their companies to their employees.

Workers in the U.S. have power beyond collective bargaining, says Rojas, the founder of The Worker’s Lab in Oakland. The daughter of Latin American immigrants, Rojas is bringing an entrepreneur’s mindset to building business models to redistribute wealth, increase wages and expand benefits.

“How do we leverage public dollars to incentivize private action?” asked Rojas in an interview with ImpactAlpha.

21st-century workers face shrinking safety nets, a shift away from W-2 employment toward a “gig economy,” and increased automation. Rojas and The Workers Lab support more than 50 entrepreneurs, community organizations, technologists, and advocacy campaigns nationwide, helping workers transform low-wage industries and redefine work in the 21st century.

ImpactAlpha: What is the origin of your work?

Rojas: It’s a very personal story. I grew up in San Jose, a child of Latin American immigrants. If my parents had immigrated 15 or 20 years later, our lives would be very different. I benefited from the economy’s ability to deliver on a promise to working people that they can provide for their families and not make impossible choices. I am the first person in my family to graduate high school, attend college, and get a Ph.D.

[I become interested in] supporting social movements and enabling people to live better lives. I was really curious about the ways institutions might be perpetuating or calcifying income inequality. I saw a mismatch between the amounts of money that were being spent to solve entrenched social and economic problems, compared to the amount of money that was being given on the investment or endowment side to revenue-generating solutions.

ImpactAlpha: Tell us about The Workers Lab tagline, “Building Power for Working People”?

Rojas: Core to our DNA — mainly in partnership with the Services Employees International Union — is finding new models that allow working people to have access to increased wages, transparency around workplace conditions, benefits, mobility, and choices that don’t require false compromises like, “Either I work 80 hours a week or I’m not able to feed my family.”

For us, building power for working people means empowering nonprofit organizations and entrepreneurs to create new models to redistribute wealth, to increase wages, and expand benefits. Partnering with both for-profit and non-profits, and supporting their work through capital is both really critical in the worker’s rights space.

There is an abundance of policy advocacy organizations, but frankly, not enough organizations working on the other side of the coin.

ImpactAlpha: Describe The Workers Lab model.

Rojas: The Worker’s Lab supports solutions in three ways. Experimentation through our Innovation Fund, which provides grants and low- to no-interest loans. Validation through our design sprints and business canvas program. And finally, scale through three-year investment commitments of up to $1 million in independent business models with an ability to transform lives across an industry or place. One current project we’re working on is the California Harvesters, the nation’s first agricultural worker’s labor co-op, where workers are 5% owners of the farm they work on.

ImpactAlpha: What stakeholders are critical to The Workers Lab’s success?

Rojas: First, labor movement leaders. Especially leaders looking beyond collective bargaining power as a sole path to improve worker conditions and who recognize the importance of building a field.

Second, investor partners. Tim O’Reilly from O’Reilly Media is a fantastic thought partner on the disconnection between investment capital and working people.

Third, philanthropic leaders. The Marguerite Casey Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Prudential Foundation are tremendous partners in thinking about grantmaking vs. investment strategies.

Finally, our partners on the ground. From the Workers Defense Project in Texas, an immigrant workers rights organization that’s addressing the fact that a U.S. construction worker is killed on the job every nine hours, to B Lab which utilized their B assessment to help New York City set procurement standards linked to job quality.

ImpactAlpha: What challenges and opportunities do you see for working people in the 21st century?

Rojas: My three concerns are the rapidly shrinking safety nets in our country; the shift away from W-2 employment; and an approach towards job automation as a zero-sum game. Let’s understand new jobs and make sure that the new job is a better job than the one those workers have today.

Opportunities include seamlessly supporting workers despite their employment classification, BlackRock’s recent announcement to the private sector, using public dollars to incentivize private action, and leveraging $13 billion dollars spent on workforce development each year.

We’re really interested in investing in co-operative and support co-op conversations. How do we leverage public dollars to incentivize private action? We’re working with Center for Economic Democracy in Boston to see how we can enable existing small business owners who want to retire to sell the business to their workers instead of another sole proprietor.

In the vein of living in abundance, I’m in love with the possibility of leaders of color running for office, and what their visions can bring to our country in the future.

Carmen’s recommended reads:

  • Financial Diaries: How American Families Cope in a World of Uncertainty, by Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider
  • Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir
  • When They Call You a Terrorist, by Patrisse Khan-Cullors
  • More from the New Revivalists:

 

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