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by Adrienne Gehan

Everyone knows that New York City—at 8.6 million residents—is the  largest city U.S. But few recognize that far more Americans—approximately 23 million—are employee owners.

What makes employee-owned companies so difficult to see? One reason is that employee ownership spans multiple sectors and industries—manufacturing, retail, healthcare, hospitality, construction, and so on. It’s also spread out geographically. Even some employees of EO companies may clock in each day without understanding their stake in the business.

Seeing this lack of visibility, Thomas Dudley, Kramer Sharp and Isabel Ajuria launched Certified Employee-Owned, a program designed to make employee ownership visible to customers, employees, other businesses, and the wider community. The goal: a future where the benefits of employee ownership are widely recognized and EO is seen as one of the defining aspects of a great business.

“As a PhD student at Stanford Business School, I got interested in how employee-owned companies could become more recognizable,” says Dudley. “Looking at programs like Great Place to Work and B Lab, I saw the power of combining the reach of people who share a value behind a common mark and a common set of messages. Certification is a proven model to start a drumbeat of support that will attract people to our community.”

Since launching in September 2017 with 24 members, Certified EO has grown steadily. In March 2019, the organization welcomed its 100th member. It offers a variety of tools to help members communicate about employee ownership, including handouts, interactive tools, webinars, and 1-on-1 support.

“We think about employee ownership all day, every day, and nothing energizes us more than working with a member to support their engagement goals,” says Isabel Ajuria, director of membership and legal. “We try to design materials for our members that are relevant, informative, and fun.”

One “fun” part of adding new members is seeing how they display the Certified EO mark. Right now it adorns everything from handouts and trainings to EO committee member jackets. Litehouse Foods, a national manufacturer of refrigerated dressings, scaled it to display on the company’s processing plant—a sign employees can recognize as they come to work. WinCo Foods, a grocery chain with 126 stores, includes the mark on every grocery bag. Modern Times, a West Coast coffee roaster and brewery, prints it on their cans. Millions of consumers and thousands of workers have become more aware of employee ownership through our members’ strategic efforts.

Staff members also realized that policymakers could play an important role in making employee ownership visible. Just this year, the organization launched its State Purchasing Preferences Initiative. Local leaders in both California and Texas saw that state procurement from EO companies was ultimately a community investment. If either state’s legislature approves a purchasing preference, it will create a first-of-its-kind victory for the EO community, providing a playbook for future efforts at state and local levels.

Finally, we’re committed to helping EO firms find new ways to connect. Our happy hour conference networking events have been a hit with both members and the broader EO community. We’re also developing new platforms for our members to connect across industries and state lines.

Adrienne Gehan is membership manager at Certified EO.