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Walking On to Localism

by Deborah Frieze on July 9, 2012

I am starting a new project. It is another learning journey, one that I’ve been poking around the edges of for a few years now. This time, I’ll be exploring the U.S. and Canada, instead of the Global South. But it’s still about Walk Outs who Walk On.

Let me start with a preview and explain the rest after. Here is a photo-film that I created with my dear friend and colleague, photographer Dan Séguin. The narrator is Paul Saginaw, the iconoclastic co-founder of Zingerman’s, a popular deli and community of food-related businesses in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

[Click below to watch the Zingerman’s video]

When we interviewed Paul, he opened the conversation with a statement so radical that in another time and place, he would have been placed on that same infamous 1950 list as my great-grandmother was for her Communist organizing. He said:

“Business shouldn’t exist in order to create wealth. It should exist in order to give people better lives.”

Shocking though that may be to our profit-maximization-trained ears, it may be the dream that most of us carry in our hearts—that the products and services we’re busily employed creating somehow make a contribution to one another’s well-being. There is a concept of having enough, Paul says, and when you walk out of the notion of accumulating wealth, you can walk on to create something of excellence, to support friends and neighbors in manifesting their dreams and to strengthen the quality of community life where you live.

This brings me to one of the topics Meg Wheatley and I wrote about in Walk Out Walk OnScaling Up. When I was in business school, “scaling up” was how most of us thought about growth. We understood it to mean adding more parts where the parts all look the same. And we assumed that most systems were ripe for replication, that one size could fit all. It hadn’t occurred to me at the time that this approach was problematic—especially in the context of communities.

Paul Saginaw understood growth differently. “We were never going to grow by replication,” he says emphatically. “We would never open up a franchise or have a chain of company-owned delicatessens.” Zingerman’s purpose is to sell food in a way that supports livelihood and well-being for people living in the Ann Arbor area. It is not to “scale up and have this liquid event,” as he explains in the photo-film.

Instead, Zingerman’s found another way to grow—by growing deep. That meant creating new businesses within Ann Arbor that would become customers and suppliers of the deli—and giving employees a chance to step into ownership. Over the past 20 years, eight additional businesses have been launched, supplying the deli with bread, cheese, ice cream, coffee, candy and more.

Paul Saginaw and the Zingerman’s community have walked out of the limiting belief that the purpose of business is to maximize shareholder returns. “We were never interested in maximizing profit,” Paul says. “We certainly believed that profit was necessary; it’s the cost of doing business. But what we wanted to do was build an extraordinary organization that was going to provide meaningful work and dignity and a sense of community to everyone that was part of it.”

This is one inspiring example of what it looks like to Walk On in the world of business in the U.S. Stay tuned—I’ll be sharing more Walk Out stories over the coming months.

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