Roots to Renewal

Episode Three: Rising Tide Capital Co-founder Alfa Demmellash

May 04, 2021 Hawthorne Valley Season 1 Episode 3
Roots to Renewal
Episode Three: Rising Tide Capital Co-founder Alfa Demmellash
Show Notes Transcript

Sponsored by Tierra Farm. Music by Grammy Award winning artist Aaron Dessner.

In this episode, Martin Ping and Rising Tide Capital cofounder Alfa Demmellash discuss the notion of economy and what we need to do to reimagine it so that it can serve us, our communities, and our children, and their children’s children.  Alfa  was born and raised in Ethiopia. She came to the United States at the age of 12 with a keen interest in poverty alleviation and conflict resolution. Alfa graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 2003, where she majored in Government. Named as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2015, Alfa co-founded Rising Tide Capital in 2004 to empower underserved urban entrepreneurs in northern New Jersey to start and grow successful businesses.  

2:15 Rising Tide Capital (RTC) works with entrepreneurs who are starting and growing businesses and local communities. They're predominantly entrepreneurs of color and women. 90% are people of color; 70% are women.

4:00 RTC works with about 1,000 entrepreneurs in New Jersey alone a year…many of them are mom and pop businesses.

4:50 How are we thinking about the economy and setting things up for our children and our children’s children and so on?

5:15 We are navigating uncharted territory with the pandemic and it has brought up eye-opening questions around what is an economy that can actually serve us as humans, and serve our community and our places.

7:10 The perspective of taking the long view has enabled us to ask the more profound questions about what does it mean to have an economy? What is the purpose of an economy and what does it facilitate besides the production of goods and services? 

11:30 Alfa talks about her early childhood and education in Ethiopia and connects the dots to how she came to the US and became who she is today.

14:30 Importance of centering children as a strategy for long-term change-making.

15:45 New Jersey pandemic relief efforts and Alfa’s involvement with First Lady of New Jersey Tammy Murphy in crisis relief and long-term solutioning.

17:00 Alfa on the murder of George Floyd and the call for any morally oriented human to look at that and recognize the call to action…the callousness with which human life is treated, spells not such great tidings for all of us and the kind of world we're building.   

19:30 We have to get out of the path we've been on and turn around to look at the fields upon fields of opportunity. We have to look at the role of localized more resilient micro-grids of human creativity...

21:00 Martin and Alfa’s shared experience with the 50th anniversary of Earthrise image from space that changed our perspective of what it means to be one species on one planet.

24:20 Last Earthrise dinner took place on a plantation in Louisiana talking about race in America with owner of former plantation and individuals who were first descendants of slaves in Louisiana. These conversations seeded a community business academy launching in Alexandria, Louisiana.

25:45 The repair work that we need to do on the relational front on race in this country and the repair work we need to do to reimagine how our economy works, is deeply interrelated.

30:00 Alfa’s birthday wishes for Hawthorne Valley

www.risingtidecapital.org | future.risingtidecapital.org | earthrise50.org
hawthornevalley.org/donate

Heather Gibbons (00:14):

I'm Heather Gibbons, and this is Hawthorne. Valley's new podcast Roots to Renewal. As we mark our 50th anniversary this year, we thought podcasting would be a great way to share not just our story, but the stories of our friends and contemporaries from across the globe who dedicate their lives and purposeful pursuit of meeting the ecological, social and spiritual needs of our time. Roots to Renewal is made possible by the generous support of Tierra Farm, a family owned environmentally conscious manufacturer and distributor of organic dried fruits and nuts. Learn more at tierrafarm.org. In this episode, Martin Ping is joined by Alfa Demmellash, co-founder of Rising Tide Capital and Hawthorne Valley trustee. Alfa came to the United States at the age of 12 with a keen interest in poverty alleviation and conflict resolution. She went on to graduate cum laude from Harvard University in 2003, where she majored in government named a young global leader by the world economic forum in 2015 Alfa co-founded Rising Tide Capital in 2004 to empower underserved urban entrepreneurs in Northern New Jersey to start and grow successful businesses. She has received numerous awards and recognition for her work with Rising Tide Capital. In 2009, she was selected and profiled as a CNN hero and recognized by president Barack Obama during the speech at the White House. Alfa was named one of Forbes most powerful women changing the world with philanthropy in August 2012 and has been awarded honorary doctorates from St Peter's University and New Jersey City University. We are humbled and grateful that she took the time out of her incredibly busy schedule to sit down with us.

Martin Ping (01:55):

Dear Alfa, it is so nice to see you on the screen, and I want to start by just saying thank you very much for making time in your day. Uh, when I think of all of the busy people in the world, you are probably in about the top spot. So I wanted to start by asking you to say a little bit about Rising Tide Capital which you founded.

Alfa Demmellash (02:18):

Diving into Rising Tide Capital, 17 years ago, I co-founded the nonprofit with my now husband. Uh, and yes, we've been married all through these years, despite the challenges of founding and running a nonprofit. Rising Tide Capital works with entrepreneurs who are starting and growing businesses and local communities. Uh, they're predominantly entrepreneurs of color and women. 90% of those we work with are people of color. Uh, 70% are women. We're talking about single moms often who are usually working one, two, three even jobs in their local economies, low wage work usually, and yet they still have a heart for the kind of enterprise and a vision that could actually help them actualize their greater purpose. And for those who feel like they have a lot to contribute, and yet they don't know where to begin and how to navigate the complexities and often systemic lack of access to resources.

Alfa Demmellash (03:26):

So we run a community business academy. That's a core part of what we do. It's place based, six cities in New Jersey in Spanish and in English. And now we've been partnering with other groups around the country and sharing our model with them so they can also do this kind of work. The community business academy is fully scholarshiped by a wonderful foundations and partners who have come along to invest in the vision. We work with about a thousand entrepreneurs in New Jersey alone a year, and we follow them after they graduate from this three month intensive immersive program in business management with one-on-one coaching, access to market opportunities and access to advisory services. And we look at them not just from a business performance perspective. You're talking about, these are the kinds of people who start your local CSA programs, your bakeries, your, the many of them are mom and pop businesses, and they're on main streets.

Martin Ping (04:33):

Beautifully said, and, and we should just stay with that theme then because you've, you know, you've clearly had incredible impact with your work and over the last 17 years. And you've through that, been able to develop, uh, imaginations around this theory of change and how are we thinking about the economy and setting things up for our children and our grandchildren and beyond, and, you know, maybe speak to some of those ideas that are really forming and that excite you and, and invite you to show up every day, the way that you do, which is, I know is like 150% every single day.

Alfa Demmellash (05:10):

Certainly. And I think, you know, it's, it's important, especially now that we're navigating completely uncharted territory with this global pandemic. In many ways it's been eye-opening I think for, for a lot of us around, uh, why does an economy that can actually serve us as humans and serve our community and our places. And I think the way that we've approached the work from way back when we started 17 years ago, there was a wise man, Alex's father actually, who helped us co-found and invested some of the initial resources to get this off the ground had shared with us and encouraged us to take the long view. I mean, the really long view. We were pretty, pretty green when we were starting with, we thought we knew a lot, but yeah, we're 22 year olds, graduated from college just recently thinking we're going to make the world a better place and we're going to do it in like two years, of course.

Alfa Demmellash (06:12):

And, and he was wise enough to say, you know, it would probably be wise take might be wise to take the more of the 40 years in mind, and really think about generations and accept already that we made nourish banks of a river we may never get to see from our daily actions and the way we show up and the kinds of questions we ask most importantly and how we listen. So we've been fortunate to have people who've come alongside of us to nudge us to think in timelines that are very difficult for young people, perhaps to do. Although I have to say today's young people are, I think, extraordinarily in tune with this much, much more profoundly different understanding of time and our experience of it. So that perspective has enabled us to ask the more profound questions about what does it mean to have an economy?

Alfa Demmellash (07:18):

What is the purpose of an economy? What does it facilitate besides the production of goods and services that many of us need? And certainly in today's economy, one might argue, we've become very disconnected from the goods and. services that actually advance our wellbeing and those, we don't even see. We have a huge economy and a vast part of it is completely inaccessible to us. It's abstracted, it's disconnected from, certainly the bakers and the farmers and the childcare providers and just the daily needs that we have. And so we approached our work from a perspective of what are the people that we're connecting with, what are their visions, what are they trying to activate? What does it look like for them to have a sense of agency and not just voice, but real agency, real sense of participation and contributing what actually makes their communities, their families, and each other well, so that intuition and those inquiries were really validated from early on.

Alfa Demmellash (08:32):

And I think a lot of, particularly the moms that we met, who are, you know, cooking for two or three children while they're working on a business plan and trying to understand what a business plan is even for. And they're just want to either, you know, work on bottling that wonderful sauce from grandma's recipe and get it into more people's hands or, and so how could they do that? How could they nourish more bodies or, and there seem to be so many obstacles to be able to contribute in that way, and a lot of nos along the way: no, you don't have a business plan and you don't have money and Hey, who are you kidding? You don't have time. And there were still willing to show up saying, I think there is something here. And so for us, uh, coming into relationship with people like that, and we see and look around today and say, you know, those are the kinds of people who are keeping communities and households stitched together, even in the midst of a pandemic. And I think that perspective has been very much in the fabric of Rising Tide's culture, who does the work with us and how we do it and how we approach the notion of economy as a place for us to exchange, mutually, value that we consider essential for our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our places.

Martin Ping (09:59):

I think, you know, I had this opportunity to teach grade 12 economics, and I ask them at the beginning of the class before they even know who I am to do a little journaling exercise. And, and my first question is what is the first image that comes to your mind when I say the word "economy." And the exercise, of course, it's just really put the first thing that comes into their mind onto paper. It could be a drawing, it could be a word, whatever it may be. And, you know, it usually has to do with dollar signs, piles of gold, wall street journal, briefcases. And they're always surprised when they find out that the root word of economy is simply to manage our household. And, and then when you expand that to our household, our community, this beautiful planet that we all share, it certainly becomes a complex management question.

Martin Ping (10:51):

How do we really do that? But when you bring it back to that, we're starting in our own place, then you're reminded what's real. You are not only doing Rising Tide. You've also been asked to look into support the whole idea of supporting early childhood work. So I want to ask you a little bit about that, but first we put such a value on early childhood here at Hawthorne Valley and see it as so foundational for creating the conditions for who we can become in life, who we're meant to become. And I know your early childhood was not here in the U.S. It was in Ethiopia. And I'm wondering if you could connect the dots from your early childhood to how that was creating the conditions for you to become Alfa of Rising Tide Capital and so much more.

Alfa Demmellash (11:42):

I was born in Ethiopia and raised in the capitol Addis Ababa. My mother had actually left the country when I was two years old because of significant violence and essentially a version of social collapse with the communist dictatorship, that was just brutal. She had lost two of her older siblings, and as she was leaving the country, which my grandparents had insisted she do, she was about to become a refugee in Kenya. And she had the presence of mind to get a promise from them and her younger sister, who was 16 at the time and was the one who was my primary caretaker, to actually enroll me in a Montessori school that she had seen that was just brand new in the capitol. And she didn't know what it was, but it was a beautiful little school house. And she was convinced that they would have to take me there in order for her to feel okay about leaving.

Alfa Demmellash (12:43):

And I will tell you that when my grandfather came to my graduation at Harvard College in 2003, he looked at me and said, "it was that little Montessori school that got you here." And that's why I'm so thrilled that Hawthorne Valley exists. And I do think that the way in which we can ensure our future and our resilience and our capacity to bring the fullness of what we have to offer as, as beings, is shaped so early on. And there is such vast opportunities for us to change the world if we could put our minds to it. So, yes, I, I'm also honored to say that in the Rising Tide community, we have over a hundred entrepreneurs who are involved in one way or another, and providing children access to quality care and food and nutrition and such. And one of them is a Montessori school that opened up about not even six blocks from our offices in Jersey City, where we're headquartered.

Alfa Demmellash (13:56):

Uh, and she's been in business now for six plus years, weathering the pandemic and helping me shape, along with others, this new initiative we're calling United in Care, a big collaborative initiative that we brought together with the New Jersey pandemic relief fund, a three-year pilot to really shore up childcare centers, as hubs for quality services and connection for family care providers. And I'm hopeful that these kinds of initiatives could really learn from Hawthorne Valley and others who have centered children as part of their strategy for change-making, for long-term change making, that will outlive all of us.

Martin Ping (14:43):

Hmm. It is the long view that you spoke of, a kind of countervailing need for instant gratification is not something you get from teaching and being involved in education. You do it on a large platform of faith that you're providing the right space for this eventually emergence, but it is eventual. And it's, it's a lifetime you're really working in, in, uh, lifetimes and generations. So just hearing a hundred people out of the thousands that have gone through Rising Tide that are in early childhood in some ways is such a stunning and uplifting figure to hear that that's so great as far as impact. And then the pandemic relief that you were involved in, uh, it was not limited to early childhood, as I understand, is that correct? Because you were also known for your entrepreneurial support of people trying to get their agency in the world. And can you say a little bit more about what the, I think it was, was it the first lady of New Jersey who pulled you into this?

Alfa Demmellash (15:50):

Uh, yes, the first lady, you know, really activated as soon as the pandemic she had activated a network of business leaders and, um, and policy makers and others like myself to pull together a number of those who had significant resources contributed into a pool. And we were pretty quickly able to mobilize actually about $50 million for response. And so I definitely credit the first lady, Tammy Murphy. She's a really incredible coraller and convener and leader, very clear-eyed. And so she had insisted that we look at of course, crisis relief, but that we also needed to look at long-term solutioning. And so being able to split the resources and say, you know, 50% will go to emergency relief. You know, we need food for people. We have over a million 0.3 New Jerseyans who don't know where their next meal is going to come from even today. The level of unemployment and was in a short period on May 25th.

Alfa Demmellash (17:00):

Of course, we also had, uh, the unfortunate and horrifying murder of George Floyd and the call for any morally oriented human to look at that and recognize what that means and recognize the call to action. That means because we've seen this and we see it and around the world, the callousness with which a human life is treated could certainly spell not such great tidings for all of us and the kind of world we're building. And so that awareness, I think, was also very much a big part of how we were approaching the work was the fund. So I will say that, you know, from my perspective, big part of what's needed is that we have an immense challenge and a crisis of imagination, frankly, about where and how we're going to build the kinds of businesses that could actually structure roles that are befitting of all humans and co-creating those opportunities and those roles.

Alfa Demmellash (18:09):

And I'm a firm believer that local businesses, nonprofits, local organizations, and micro institutions that are highly relational and highly responsive to the needs of their neighbors. There is a tremendous level of accountability and transparency that comes when you are reliant on your community for your, certainly, economic survival. And so there is just, I think there is a lack of imagination about how it is that we can resource the field of these community enterprises in community-based organizations to really play the role we need them to for our future. I also serve on a future of work commission for the governor of New Jersey, as well as a third sector commission for the nonprofit sector, and in my heart what I'm bringing to the table is the fact that between the small business community, which employees 50% of New Jerseyans and the third sector, which employs 10% of New Jerseyans, that's 60% of all employment in the state that has at least through this pandemic been severely impacted.

Alfa Demmellash (19:27):

So it's easier to think about what mega corporations can do, what kinds of incentives could be structured to attract them or retain them and such, but we really have to flip our thinking. We have to get out of, uh, the track that we've been on and the path we've been on and, and turn around to look at just the fields upon fields of opportunity we have to actually reimagine what the role of these localized, more resilient, micro grids of, uh, human creativity, mutuality and resilience from certainly, um, definitely the challenges we face around equity and inclusion and reimagining that, and the climate challenges we face, which does not discriminate. And, uh, and well, you know, at one point or another, but like you said, we're on one, one home, one planet. And so whether it's the fires of California or deep freezing in Texas, or yeah, these are consequences that impact all of us. And so we need that reinvesting in what actually matters and doing so on vastly different terms than we've ever imagined before.

Martin Ping (20:55):

Well, use this sparks so much for me. And, but the one planet piece brings up an image, and it's an image that you and I share because we had this amazing generative conversation, the day that I reconnected with you to ask you to come and speak at Hawthorne Valley's graduation. And that was the image of Earthrise. And the fact that when we were having that conversation, we were approaching the 50th anniversary of that amazing image of the earth arising from space from the Apollo astronauts. And for me, that, that was a moment of, you know, uh, the potential for a major shift in human consciousness towards understanding this integral nature of our planet and our responsibility and connection to each other. And I know you still carry that image so deeply in are working with it in some ways, can you maybe say a little bit about that?

Alfa Demmellash (21:59):

Absolutely. It was such a delight to be coming to speak at Hawthorne Valley to that graduation in 2018, knowing that we were also in the midst of celebrating the 50th anniversary of that iconic photo, the Earthrise picture that changed our perspective about what it means to be one species on one planet. And that photo catalyzed a lot for me, one of the ways that I celebrated the 50th anniversary was actually to spend from December 1st through the 21st, in a 21 day meditation and Sabbath, the Earthrise Sabbath was born in my household because a big part of my own internal shift was to recognize that I'm somebody who activates I'm very much oriented towards action. You know, ideas are marvelous. I love them, but they have to be an enacted in order to afford for me to, to feel the satisfaction of having any kind of a good idea, hearing it, or having it be born in some fashion to me.

Alfa Demmellash (23:10):

And so taking a moment for stillness and recognizing and trusting that there is a deeper knowing. We can't be a species that are as interconnected as we are. And certainly we know from nature, just the vast networks invisible to the eye, but the vast networks that actually make our planet what it is. And, and so I know that to be true for our species as well. And so being able to spend 21 days in stillness, recognizing that was the highest form from my end, at least from one being, that I could bring in celebration and awe of our interconnectedness and the deep knowing that my actions will count as do every other person's action or inaction, but collectively there's a deeper intelligence. And I trust in that. And so that was one just personal shift for me. And then we actually did launch a series of dinners, Earthrise dinners that were kind of modeled after the Jeffersonian dinners, enabling very intimate gatherings of individuals to really reflect on what it means to be in this kind of relationship on one home.

Alfa Demmellash (24:32):

And the last dinner that we did was actually on a plantation in Louisiana with an extraordinary group of humans, a candlelit dinner, talking about race and America was the owner of this former plantation and individuals who are themselves first descendants of enslaved peoples in Louisiana. And we had a profound dinner and conversation, and it was a year ago, right before the pandemic shut everything down. And I'm happy to say that those conversations have now seeded a community business academy that's actually launching in Alexandria, Louisiana this week, and partners that have been activated and recognizing that the repair work that we need to do both on the relational front, on race in this country, and it's devastating and ongoing trauma and the repair work we need to do to reimagine how our economy works is deeply interrelated. And the history of slavery, while the shockwaves that we continue to experience from it are very much related to the relational trauma and breaks there in terms of the ways that yeah, humans have treated one another in this regard and the systemic nature of it.

Alfa Demmellash (26:11):

But beyond that, it's also a question and a deep indictment of our economy and our relationship was economy and how we've looked at humans as commodities, free labor. Yeah. If you're only thinking about outcomes and money and domination and power free labor is a great, tempting exercise. And so that's, that's a big part of why I think we haven't really fully grasped. But at that dinner at the Earthrise consciousness, being able to hold one another to account about what happened and how do we make sure it doesn't happen again, and how do we stop it, where it's happening still was profoundly transformative. So I'm grateful that you leaped into action with me around the Earthrise 50 story, and you bought the Earthrise 50 domain, and we, we launched a website around it and a set of relationships that will go deeper and will continue to reverberate hopefully for the next 50 years to come.

Martin Ping (27:23):

What's next that you're really working on amidst all of this that is giving you some, some energy ?

Alfa Demmellash (27:33):

About three years ago, uh, was a small group. I had ventured into, uh, a kind of a design studio of my own making. We call it Future Tide Partners, and it's work of a lot of deliberation and synthesis of these mega trends around our ecology, around exponential technologies, the meaning of work, a lot of the things that we've talked about so far, and really I'm excited to see some of that work coming into fruition. And so when I would participate in work on a project like the childcare sector, for example, I'm actually testing some of our collaborative planning tools and, and frameworks. And so there's a lot of, uh, good story-based narrative based work that we're doing. And we're also implementing some of those and to the way we work at Rising Tide. So that excitement of both creating and being in dialogue with people who are thinking about these kinds of trends.

Alfa Demmellash (28:44):

And so it's a very creative way to look at things. So even when I look at Hawthorne Valley Association in 50 years, and the variety of different enterprises that are interdependent was in the Hawthorne Valley Association work, I look at it through the Future Tide lens and what it means to model our enterprises in similar ways and in many other communities. So I'm very excited by being able to take on age old problems with creative, new eyes and colleagues who are willing to co-create and to innovate with me. And, and so that's, that's, what's keeping me jazzed and excited.

Martin Ping (29:29):

Well, I feel privileged to be somebody who does get to work with you and be inspired by you and uplifted. And so again, I just want to thank you for all of that and for your time today and for your vision and commitment to a future that I like to imagine for my grandchildren and their children and, and beyond.

Alfa Demmellash (29:54):

Thank you for this conversation of first and foremost, of course, and for Hawthorne Valley Association on its 50th anniversary, my blessing would be to say that this be a place where children and their parents and teachers and farmers, and all kinds of workers can come to pour out their love and nourish each other. And that'd be a place of both learning and healing and service to humanity and to this great planet. I am greatly hopeful that the lantern that was lit here 50 years ago will continue to shine bright and be a guiding signal for those who may feel despair and hopelessness, that they will know that there is a way to heal the land and to heal each other and to educate our young and that this be a place where wisdom grows along with all that grows here. May you be blessed.

Martin Ping (31:02):

Thank you, Alfa. We certainly wish you and Rising Tide and Future Tide and all of the other endeavors that you set your creative forces to, to continue to flourish and serve and heal. Thank you so much.

Heather Gibbons (31:22):

To learn more about Rising Tide Capital and its initiatives, including 311 MLK and Future Tide Partners visit risingtidecapital.org. Thanks for listening to Hawthorne Valley's Roots to Renewal podcast. We are an association comprised of a variety of interconnected initiatives that work collectively to meet our mission. You can learn more about our work by visiting our website at hawthornevalley.org. Hawthorne Valley is a registered 501c3 nonprofit organization, and we rely on the generosity of people like you to make our worker reality special. Thanks to our sponsor Tiara farm, who makes this podcast possible. We're grateful for their continued support and the support of grassroots contributions from listeners like you. To make a donation visit hawthornevalley.org backslash donate. If you'd like to support us in other ways, consider sharing this episode through social media or leaving us a review wherever you listen to this podcast, we'd like to express our heartfelt gratitude to Grammy award-winning artist, Aaron Dessner for providing our soundtrack and to Emma Morris for once again, lending her invaluable editing support.