An MBA Program Aims to Train a New Generation of Co-op Leaders

Rebecca Torpie | November 16, 2015


Co-ops are on the rise. There are 30,000 cooperative businesses in the U.S., which generate over $500 billion in total revenue, pay out $25 billion in wages and benefits and employ nearly 1 million people. The International Cooperative Alliance has declared this the Decade of the Cooperative and has invited the world to make co-ops the leading business model by 2020.

That ambitious goal will require a new generation of co-op leaders. The problem is, the cooperative model barely registers at the nation’s business schools.

Pinchot University in Seattle wants to change that.

The private university, formerly known as the Bainbridge Graduate Institute for its satellite campus on Bainbridge Island in the Puget Sound, was the first school in the country to offer an MBA in Sustainable Business when it was founded in 2002. Building on that legacy, it is introducing a Certificate in Cooperative Management as an add-on to its sustainable MBA programs. The coursework will also be offered on a standalone basis for those who already have MBAs or are in leadership roles at co-ops.

The co-op program, which kicks off in January 2016, is a welcome addition to the B-school landscape, where cooperative programs are scarce. The only other business program in North America that concentrates on the cooperative business model is St. Mary’s University’s Sobey School of Business in Halifax, which offers a Masters in Cooperative Management through a highly esteemed, two-year degree.

“Our students are looking for alternative economic models that use community to redistribute wealth with more equality.”

The Pinchot program comes at a crucial moment for U.S. cooperatives. Interest in the cooperative model is growing as member-owned businesses are recognized for their economic and social benefits and as a desirable alternative to winner-take-all capitalism. Yet food co-ops and credit unions, in particular, are seeing a wave of seasoned general managers retiring or moving on from their posts, and there is a dearth of qualified leaders from within their own organizations to replace them. The Co-op Management Certificate “could be a great way to take the next step to new leadership,” says Pinchot University president Jill Bamburg.

She adds that the price—$4,920 for the 12-unit, one-year certificate program—is low enough that even smaller cooperatives can afford. The program is eligible for federal financial aid, and Pinchot is working with local associations to provide scholarship funding.




Bamburg says she personally became interested in co-ops as a social justice strategy to address income inequality. As the school explored the idea of a co-op program, they were inspired by Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives model, a collaborative that develops local entrepreneurial initiatives into thriving employee-owned businesses. Offering a way for more people to be trained to lead the democratic workplace and enterprises like Evergreen seemed like the next step.

The one-year certificate program will combine in-class meetings one Saturday per month in Seattle with weekly distance learning sessions. In addition, prospective students interested in a full-scale MBA program with a focus on Cooperative Management may earn the certificate as a set of elective offerings in Pinchot’s two-year MBA program. Those interested in taking individual courses may do so through Pinchot’s Professional Development arm.

Pinchot offers two MBA tracts that make it easy for working adults or those with long commutes. One meets weeknights at the Seattle campus, and the other meets one weekend a month on Bainbridge Island, with the remainder of the work done online. Students tend to hail from the West Coast, but Bamburg hopes the certificate program will expand the draw beyond the Pacific Northwest borders.

The co-op curriculum was developed with input from an advisory board of representatives from all sectors of cooperative business, academic and development circles, from Kent, Washington-based outdoor sporting retailer REI to representatives from local co-ops national worker co-op associations and consulting firms.

The coursework covers the gamut of cooperative need-to-know: intro to cooperatives, governance and finance, managing the co-op sector, and a capstone practicum project. International study tours next fall will be offered to either the celebrated Basque cooperative Mondragon, or to Emilia Romagna cooperatives in Italy.

A third segment of the certificate program focuses on leadership and democratic and participatory forms of management unique to co-ops. Pinchot is known for its leadership and personal development coursework, and Bamburg believes that will be a major attraction and differentiator of the Cooperative Management certificate.

The new program has met with enthusiasm. Kit Fordham, a second year Pinchot student pursuing an MBA in Sustainable Systems who also manages cooperative services for a housing cooperative in Minneapolis, says the cooperative world lacks professional business acumen and training. “People get into the movement through activism and thinking it’s a quaint business model,” he says. “The movement could use people who are really trained in business from the perspective of business models and professionalism.”

There’s widespread interest in the certificate among current MBA students, says Pinchot director of marketing Rick Dickinson, but Millennials in particular find the model appealing.  “Our students are looking for alternative economic models that use community to redistribute wealth with more equality.”

More information on the Certificate in Cooperative Management can be found here.

Rebecca Torpie is a consultant specialized in marketing and participation culture in food co-ops for CDS Consulting Co-op, a national network of independent consulting professionals who help cooperatives achieve growth, improve leadership, and better serve their members and community. She also serves on the board of Kensington Community Food Co-op, a start-up co-op in Philadelphia. 


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