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Slow Money Solutions for a “Fast Food” Industry

How visionary Woody Tasch re-envisioned investment in slow food, community, and social responsibility

Everyone has heard of “Slow Food.” And in this day and age, taking a break to stop and savor the stock is increasingly important; the disastrous consequences of abundant waste, the loss of familial and community relationships, and over-processed foods are slowly engulfing us. Thankfully, however, chefs and restaurateurs are beginning to invest heavily in local sourcing, whole-product cookery, and dining that is as focused on the people as it is on the food.

Woody Tasch, Slow Money Founder

Woody Tasch, Slow Money Founder

For thought leader Woody Tasch, this shift from quantity-driven food production to thoughtful execution of local, sustainable product mirrored the world of investment. For decades, the churn of the business world has relied on venture capital and big investments to perpetuate itself. But what if, Tasch posited, we treated our money like we do our slow(ing) food—with an eye towards sustainability and holistic health, and not just profit?

Thus was born Slow Money, an organization designed to “bring money back down to earth.” We chatted with Tasch recently about how Slow Money got its start, and the kinds of Slow Money-sponsored events that are reshaping the world of investment in food.

Interested in experiencing the Slow Money movement? Sign up for the Decelerator event coming up on October 21 in Boulder. Listen, chat, eat, and invest. Sustainable success starts here.

Your background is in venture capital. How did you land there originally?

That’s where I got my start in New York City in the ’80s, then I moved on to be a treasurer for a foundation with a sustainable agriculture/environmental mission. For most of the next decade, I ran Investors’ Circle, which was an angel network dedicated to sustainability. But the question for many people is: Why move from venture capital to mission-driven foundations? As a child of the ’70s, I had a strong interest in what we were—and are—doing to the planet, as well as the social enterprises that affect that. Over time, that interest zeroed in on food and sustainable agriculture.

I can see how this laid the foundation for Slow Money, but when was it realized?

In 2006, I took a year off to write a book—not knowing what would come of it. Well, what came out was Slow Money. I realized that well-intentioned angel investors weren’t able to get much money moving in the right places. And that’s because we, as a society, weren’t looking at that fundamentals; we were too focused on market fluctuations and using bandaids to fix financial leaks. But the fundamentals are not found in money; they’re found in the soil. So I asked myself: Are we building commerce in a way that leaves the soil more fertile than we found it? No. We grow our economy by extracting, not giving back. This all came to fruition in the book.

A book which you aptly titled, “Slow Money.” What did the first applications of this vision look like?

Not long after the book was published, people started calling it a movement—including big media outlets like NPR. That gave the idea momentum, which turned into a non-profit that gave action to the vision. Essentially, Slow Money holds community meetings where we connect angel investors to local food entrepreneurs who are committed to sustainable development. We’re already in dozens of communities, and have catalyzed more than $50 million for over 500 food enterprises in the U.S., Canada, France, and Switzerland. We’re all about direct, local investing, usually on the small side of things—micro loans of a couple thousand to as much as a few million. It’s very decentralized—we don’t control the money, we just connect people at the local level. The investor figures out with the farmer or entrepreneur where they want that money to go.

How many people are attending these meetings, and who is supporting Slow Money internally to make the meetings happen?

Thanks to the book and a lot of media attention, we’ve had tens of thousands of people attend meetings. Many of them become investors for local business. The local networks are volunteer-based, and while that’s sustained the vision so far, we’re now at a point where we have to think about scaling and growth. Our gatherings—some national, some local—have doubled in size in some cases, and we need to be able to support that moving forward. I should say that thus far the vast majority of money that has changed hands has done so informally. Only recently did we start launching investment clubs at the local level. We’ve got about a dozen or so, and that’s helping formalize some of our investments.

How do the clubs work?

There are actually two different kinds. The first 11 were created as LLCs. For these, each member puts $5,000 into a collective pot and investors vote democratically on how to invest the funds. The second type of club is a nonprofit model, recently launched in Carbondale. For this model, investors throw whatever amount these choose into a collective pot—at least $100, with no maximum limit—and then vote on how to invest the pooled money in the community. In both models, every member gets an equal say in the club’s investment. The Carbondale club is actually getting a lot of traction, with members recently voting to make a few zero-percent loans to farmers in the Front Range. It’s been successful enough for us to consider implementing this model in other communities around the country.

You mentioned Front Range farmers as beneficiaries. What other Colorado food businesses have benefited from Slow Money?

There are quite a few, but among them are Mountain Flower Goat Diary, Fresh Thymes Eatery out of Boulder, Ozuké, RE:Vision, and a slew of small farms.

Slow Money 2010 National Gathering

Slow Money 2010 National Gathering

You’ve touched on some of these, but what would you say are the biggest challenges to growing Slow Money?

I’ve traveled extensively across the U.S., and it’s clear that there are millions of Americans who want to do something radically different with their money—they want to make a real impact. But investing through Slow Money requires effort and commitment, and many folks don’t want to roll up their sleeves and get dirty. The idea is exciting, but the work involved in seeing an investment through to fruition is significant. I think that’s sometimes a deterrent.

Is there a point when you call this a success?  [Laughs] In one sense, it’s already a success. From the minute it started, people called it a movement. But I also see the glass half-empty. Why? Well, we’re still facing two major hurdles: a broken food system, and a broken financial system. Slow Money offers a hopeful alternative, but we’re still not sure how to optimize it. Then, there’s the challenge of just getting the word out. How do we do this in a way that encourages people to participate and makes that participation easy?

Now, if we’re talking dollars, I’d say success is well on the way. Our next target is to kick investing up to as much as $100 million in a year. Ultimately, we want to become statistically relevant.

I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a second. If Slow Money becomes so successful that the little guy shifts to a profit-focused enterprise instead of one committed to sustainability, what then?

To be honest, that’s not a huge problem. At least not with small community farmers. But when you’re dealing with a larger company that focuses on a niche product, you’re always asking how big they aim to be and if they get there, will their vision will change. That said, there is no scripted part of Slow Money that forces us to ask a company not to grow beyond a certain point. It’s a constant debate. As long as we go into this with integrity at the outset and lean on the natural balance of community enterprise and investment, I think we’ll be alright.

So what Slow Money events are upcoming, and how can Coloradans get involved?

The next big one is our Decelerator even on October 21. We’ve been doing meetings for a quite a few years, but the idea for the Decelerator came only a few months ago. There are two parts to Slow Money: the conversation around ideas, and the actions we take to implement them. The first part is playful—talking about our growth as an organization. But when it comes to our money, what we’re really asking people to do is to slow things down—to move from the volley of assess-invest-collect to investment with faith in a vision and a community. That’s decelerating—bringing our money back down to earth. In the upcoming Boulder Decelerator, we’re going to be looking at launching another non-profit investment club for this community and seeing if we can define success around local food systems. We’ll have some outside speakers as well—experts in the field, and folks who have benefited from Slow Money investment. Plus, we’ve arranged a farm-to-table dinner the night of the event. You can register for either—the main Decelerator event and/or the dinner. It’s going to be a wonderful experience—and it’s open to everyone.

For more information about Tasch and Slow Money—including details on upcoming events—visit slowmoney.org. For more information about the Boulder-area Slow Money Decelerator event happening October 21, check out our events calendar

Interview by Jeffrey Steen, Managing Editor