All the infrastructure you read about here at Concrete Progress—solar panels, permeable pavement, food trucks—depends on another infrastructure: the flow of money through the nation’s financial system. The big banks and multinational corporations that make up so much of our economy are not the kind of subject I talk about here, but money doesn’t need to be controlled by giants. In Southern California, a part of the country renowned for flash and materialism, an organization called Slow Money is reimagining the economy in an effort to focus resources on local businesses, foods, and communities. This spring I got a chance to talk with Brent Collins, executive director of Slow Money SoCal. —Peter Brewitt
The concept of slow money can mean different things to different people. What does it mean to you?
Here in California, Slow Money is a network of local chapters that hold gatherings intended to catalyze funding for an array of food-related businesses. Chapters also promote awareness of the importance of local, sustainable food systems, and act as a forum for connecting entrepreneurs, farmers, investors, philanthropists, and other stakeholders with each other.
More and more people are concerned with the problems caused by corporate agriculture and Wall Street, many of which are related to food, the economy, and the environment. Slow Money chapters provide a countervailing alternative; they serve as a hub for constructing homegrown solutions that make sense locally.
In the case of Southern California, which has a population of 22 million people representing a mosaic of communities, we organized a leadership council representing decentralized teams located in San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, and the Inland Empire. This small, centralized group drives activities across all metro areas—and local teams then drive local activities.
How did you get involved?
Several years ago, I left a financial services company I co-founded in order to help my son, who was diagnosed with high-functioning autism. Working in financial services opened my eyes to a horribly imbalanced system, controlled by too-big-to-fail entities that make unacceptable social and environmental trade-offs—and they’re unable to self-correct due to their pursuit of short-term profits.
In the effort to help my son, I wanted to understand why the rate of autism was skyrocketing. Mainstream solutions reflected an abject lack of interest in root causes, and so I came to the age-old conclusion: “Let thy food be thy medicine.” I began researching food and its delicate relationship with our health, our happiness, and our planet.
By chance, someone gave me a copy of a book called Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money, by Woody Tasch. It seemed to me a deeply discerning look at the intersection of two pillars of our society: food and finance. And I was floored by the idea that solutions to our most serious issues could come directly from individuals and communities. No formal Slow Money chapter had taken root in Southern California, so we decided to launch one.
Slow Money SoCal connects investors with local food entrepreneurs, providing financial sustenance for homegrown regional economies.
Every chapter of Slow Money looks a little different. What kinds of programs and events does Slow Money SoCal offer?
Our gatherings are always an eclectic mix: investors, farmers, thought leaders, artisans, foodies, and more. The evening starts with local artisans sharing samples of their foods while people network, and local musicians sometimes perform. Hosted in a variety of venues, attendees nosh on heirloom wheat breads, organic meats, mead, wine, chocolates, spices, spreads—the variety is endless and constantly changing.
Presentations usually follow, and the keynote speakers cover a wide range of topics. Past events have included “Farm to Toast with Local Heirloom Wheat,” “The Farm Bill,” and “How to Create a Stronger Local Food System.” Attendees are guaranteed to learn something new, meet someone they didn’t know, and leave with a taste of innovation happening in their own local food system.
Much of this is in service of catalyzing funding for local food enterprise. That outcome is usually built on personal relationships, so we provide an effective way to both find potential investments and learn of ways investments can be structured. We do not make recommendations for investment, but we do provide the social hub that supports that intention. This allows other organizations with shared interests—like local investment clubs or cooperative artisan hubs—to connect with artisans and businesses that are positioned to grow.
SlowMoney SoCal is about reimagining the future for Southern California. When you envision your impact on your community in 2024, what do you see?
As our chapter helps people recognize new kinds of return on local investment, and as they hopefully come to consider it a preferable alternative to Wall Street, an amazing transformation can begin. Cities will have the ability to achieve a level of self-determination, diversity, and economic potency that was previously drained by giant corporate models. The local economic system will be more responsive to local stakeholders, including businesses, investors, health advocates, agri-preneurs, and the environment. Food security will increase as a result of greater reliance on local food sources, and health will improve for the same reason.
A strong middle-class society can begin to re-establish itself in step with businesses that, instead of funneling short-term profits to rich Wall Street tycoons, invest in the long-term, providing healthy, sustainable returns to the communities in which they’re situated.
We featured Woody Tasch, one of the founders of the Slow Money movement and the author of Inquiries Into the Nature of Slow Money, a few years ago at the Orion blog—check it out here. Slow Money’s National Gathering is in Louisville, Kentucky, November 10 – 12; learn more here.
It makes so much sense to put your money to work locally. If you send it to Wall St, whether you make money or lose it, you’ll never see it have an actual tangible positive impact. And local food systems are probably the most positive things we could all work to develop…
Normally, investing outside of Wall St is limited to accredited investors (those with more than $1m net worth, etc). SlowMoney SoCal’s new partnership with micro-finance leader Kiva Zip lets anyone make loans starting with as little as $5! We have loan clubs we work with that use this as a way to get to know the business and then be positioned to make follow-on investments as the business grows – very smart and effective. These kind of innovations let communities change the way they support and develop the local food system. Very exciting changes and new possibilities are now happening, but are still below the radar of mainstream media.