Employee Ownership Then and Now — a 10 Year Look Back

Ten years ago today, Project Equity officially launched! We are marking our first decade with a year-long celebration, including a series of reflections and activities. If you are reading this, you are part of our journey, and we hope you will celebrate with us. 

At Project Equity, we spend most of our time focused on the details of helping businesses transition to employee ownership (EO), raising awareness of EO, engaging diverse stakeholders, crafting partnerships, and so much more. It is rich and exciting work, and we are honored to do it! This 10th anniversary gives us an opportunity to step back, reflect and recommit ourselves to the exciting work yet to come. 

Our first reflection is a look back over the past 10 years. Employee ownership then and now!

Our economy and our culture have changed in significant ways since 2014, and so has the employee ownership movement. Together, as a field, we have achieved a lot: we increased the visibility of EO many times over, built incredible momentum in the public and private sectors and changed a lot of lives. 

How do you remember 2014? Here are some of our recollections.

In 2014, our economy had officially recovered from the Great Recession, but unemployment stood at 5.6% (well above the 3.9% recorded in February 2024), and communities were still reeling from the subprime mortgage crisis and the loss of family wealth that many Black and Brown families had held in their foreclosed homes. Conversations about the “future of work” were just beginning, and the oldest baby boomers were just hitting retirement age. With “10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day” (as we have often said over the years), this Silver Tsunami was primarily framed around its impact on health care. 

Culturally, the oldest members of Generation Z were just hitting adulthood in 2014 and starting to vote and show their interests as citizens and consumers. Meanwhile, Millennials were becoming a big part of the workforce (the biggest by 2016), and we were starting to sense how these generations’ values and sensibilities could help fuel growth in employee ownership.

The employee ownership field at this time was quite siloed, but poised for growth. There were a handful of national organizations (several more, including Project Equity, were being birthed or incubated around 2014), along with a number of regional and local efforts. The two best-known forms of employee ownership (ESOPs and worker cooperatives) each had their practitioners and advocates, but they rarely intersected or collaborated. The first modern Employee Ownership Trust (EOT) in the United States was formed in 2014, though EOTs were already increasingly popular in the UK and other parts of Europe. And the concept of actively promoting coops and EOTs as succession options for business owners was new. Overall, the “big tent” messaging of broad-based employee ownership, encompassing all of these forms, had not yet taken hold.

As for Project Equity, our co-founders had been “dreaming and scheming” for a couple of years and managed to secure two sources of funding for our official launch. On April 1st, 2014, Hilary and Alison began working part-time. Major activities in that first year included our own feasibility study for different strategies to scale employee ownership (which led us to pursue EO transitions), a worker coop academy pilot project with partners based out of Oakland, and articulating our organizational mission and values for the first time. We birthed a “national” organization and focused on achieving proof of concept in the Bay Area.

Fast forward to 2024. 

Our economy has been through another tailspin, and the very nature of work itself has changed for many. We’ve all seen small businesses close in our communities due to pandemic stresses, owner retirement or both, as well as a surge in private equity buyouts of companies. Total private equity deal activity in the U.S. ballooned from 4363 deals in 2014 to 7346 deals in 2024 —a 68% increase. 

In terms of small businesses and jobs, we hit “Peak 65” in 2024 with more than 11,000 younger boomers turning 65 every day, and jobs appear to be plenty, with surprisingly low post-pandemic unemployment. While we no longer have a jobs crisis, there is no denying that we are still mired in a good jobs crisis. Project Equity and other EO advocates are part of a growing movement for quality jobs.

Culturally, workers’ expectations and desires have evolved. Employees today want agency, transparency and feedback. So it’s only natural that interest in employee ownership is on the rise. Ten years ago, the Silver Tsunami and succession planning were our primary pitch for EO, but the pandemic-fueled trends of “the great resignation” and “quiet quitting” dramatized the importance of employee satisfaction, engagement and retention, all well-documented benefits of EO.

Today’s business founders are increasingly considering shared entrepreneurship and exits to community. While the hero entrepreneur is still a strong part of our national psyche, it is no longer the only model for entrepreneurship. 

The employee ownership field has grown immensely. The number of worker cooperatives has tripled since 2014! EOTs, which burst onto the scene in the late 2010s, are becoming increasingly popular, and 100s of new ESOPs have continued to form every year. In fact, ESOPs have become popular targets for acquisition because of their strong performance, causing the total numbers of ESOP-owned companies to stay fairly steady, while workers benefiting from ESOPs continue to grow in numbers. What we like to call “big tent EO” has largely been embraced as a way to serve all businesses and workers.

Helping to fuel this growth, the ecosystem of actors promoting EO has become increasingly diverse and multi-faceted. There are now many practitioners and educators like Project Equity working at a regional or national level. In fact, nearly half of U.S. states have nonprofit state employee ownership centers, and dozens of local and statewide organizations are developing worker cooperatives around the country. Public sector engagement has also been strong. For example, Project Equity (just one of several EO organizations working with local governments) has had contracts with 10 cities and counties and partnered with many more. And at least 11 states have passed pro-EO legislation since 2014. We are making headway in bringing small business retention and EO into the mainstream of economic development!

Other signs of progress include: increased media coverage (we know of over 40,000 mentions last year); launching the first ever coordinated campaign to reach business owners before they even think to google Employee Ownership; and a significant increase in technical assistance capacity and capital available to finance cooperative and EOT transitions.

Finally, we have been delighted to be part of an increasing trend to center racial equity in employee ownership. This includes understanding the impact EO is already having in communities of color and focusing strategies on reaching Black and Brown workers whether through EO transitions programs, as our Black Employee Ownership Initiative does, or through startup cooperatives.

Project Equity today is thirty people strong and largely a virtual organization. We have worked with partners across the country and nationally; we have educated some 15,000 people about EO over the past 10 years; and we support 30-40 companies each year with technical assistance for their EO transition journeys

In our upcoming blog posts, we’ll share some of what we have learned over the past decade and what we’re excited about moving forward. Please consider sharing your own reflections with us on social media (look for our #10YearsOfEO hashtag).

 
2014
2024
Recent economic crisis
Great Recession
COVID-19 pandemic
Unemployment
5.3%
3.9%
Silver Tsunami
Oldest baby boomers turn 65 at rate of 10,000 per day
“Peak 65”: younger boomers turn 65 at the rate of 11,000 every day
GenX (40M+ workers) just surpassed baby boomers
Millennials (49M+ workers), with zoomers meeting boomers (~17M workers each)
Entrepreneurship mindset
Hero entrepreneur on a pedestal
Shared entrepreneurship on the rise
Continuous learning, in person contact (boomers) Self-reliance, work-life balance (GenX)
Transparency, career opportunities (Millennials) Privacy, feedback, social causes (GenZ/zoomers)
Popular song
Happy (Pharrell Williams)
Texas Hold ‘Em (Beyonce)
Employee Ownership in the media
5 mentions of Project Equity from 2013 to 2014 (EO mentions unknown)
More than 40,000 mentions of EO and 62 of Project Equity in 2023
Project Equity
Launched on April 1 with two co-founders and a pilot project in the SF Bay Area
Celebrates 10 years on April 1 with 30 staff and programs around the country
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