What You’ll Learn

Sylandi Brown, marketing and communication specialist with Middle Georgia EMC, discusses leveraging cooperative identity to reach a new generation of working talent.

Guest Speaker

Sylandi Brown

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.


Intro: A production of WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. StoryConnect: The Podcast, helping communicators discover ideas to shape their stories and connect with their customers.

Andy Johns: What are some ways your organization can leverage its identity as a co-op? And what does that even mean? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. My name is Andy Johns, your host, and I’m joined on this episode by Sylandi Brown, who is the marketing and communication specialist with Middle Georgia EMC. Sylandi, thanks for joining me.

Sylandi Brown: Thanks for having me, Andy.

Andy Johns: So Sylandi just had a fun experience, an enlightening experience, just to cool all the way around experience, of going to the World Cooperative Congress in South Korea as a speaker and panelist there. So I don’t know that we’ve had very many internationally known speakers on the podcast, but we can certainly say that about you now. But tell us a little bit about what that was like to attend that. The World Cooperative Congress is something that you know folks may or may not be familiar with, but it sounds like quite an opportunity.

Sylandi Brown: Yes, for sure. So this was the 33rd World Cooperative Congress. And a little fun fact that I don’t know if a lot of people know about it is, is this is a periodic event. It is not an annual conference. It happens, what I’ve heard, every roughly maybe 10 to 15 years. It’s sponsored by the International Cooperative Alliance, and they are an incredible organization that works with cooperatives all around the world. And the World Cooperative Congress is brought together to really bring together leaders, global cooperative leaders, from different countries to be able to talk about a significant moment in our cooperative movement. And so coming off of COVID and the pandemic, we really wanted to start having some discussions about deepening our cooperative identity, especially in times of crisis. And so that was kind of the whole basis of what the event was like, and it was an incredible opportunity to be able to go.

Andy Johns: Very cool. Definitely. We can talk a little bit more about that later on, but what do you mean when you say “cooperative identity”? What does that mean to you or how do you how do you describe that to folks when you’re talking about a cooperative identity?

Sylandi Brown: Right, sure. So and I guess I should go back a little bit. The way I got connected to this event was actually last year in December 2020. The Congress team was actually putting together a campaign called 25 Voices, which is, you know, celebrating 25 young cooperators under the age of 25 to tell, you know, what the cooperative identity means to them. And so that was what I first started with, and it was a really encouraging question to be able to ponder. But one of the things that I love about the cooperative identity is that, yes, it’s deeply rooted, and it has a rich history, but it’s able to meet continuously evolving needs in our community. And that was what really stuck out to me about our identity, our principles, our values and what we stand for, is something that can apply all across the world in different communities and something that I’m really grateful to be a part of.

Andy Johns: And that’s interesting, too, because a lot of the, you know, a lot of the events here that I go to and probably that you do as well, there’s a lot of cooperatives there, but they’re usually all electric cooperatives or some of the conferences I go to are a lot of telephone cooperatives. But at this conference, you got a chance to learn and speak with and network with all different kinds of cooperatives, all across the world.

Sylandi Brown: Yes, that’s right. Every type of cooperative that you can think of. It’s funny. I mean, I had no idea how huge the cooperative movement was really prior to going to this conference and seeing how people are meeting different needs in their communities and especially from a rural community where I’m from. I had a particular interest in the agricultural cooperatives. Ones that were based in rural communities as well. But, you know, we had cooperatives representing some of the largest in the world, the Mondragon Worker Cooperatives in Spain are a huge, huge part of the cooperative movement internationally. And so being able to just be able to talk with different people in these cooperative spaces. And the amazing thing about it is, you know, these are all different cooperatives that provide different products and services than you would typically see in a utility, right? But at the same time, you know, we’re still meeting these needs in our communities in unique and different ways, and that’s how we can build upon each other and really strengthen our movement as a whole.

Andy Johns: What are some of the things that you saw either from that conference or, you know, elsewhere that you’ve seen along the way about ways that people tell that cooperative story? Just getting people to understand that this is a different way of doing business, and we do things a little bit differently. Have you seen anything that kind of stood out? Because I think the first step is just getting folks to understand that this is not the same kind of business model that a lot of other companies they deal with have.

Sylandi Brown: Right, yes. Now that’s a great question. One of the major things that I saw, especially at the conference, was trying to renew the way we are talking about the cooperative identity and branding it in a way that’s consistent. I think that’s really important with any organization or business. If you have a lot of different messages or communicators who are communicating different things, you know, it can cause a little bit of ambiguity, you know, in your business model as a whole. And so when we were in Korea, you know, a lot of that conversation was based in, you know, what discussions can we have with people who are not in the movement, not in the cooperative space to just at the very beginning just discuss what a cooperative is. And I know there has been a huge push for how can we involve youth? How can we bring this to education systems? Because I know for me, you know, when I’ve been in business classes or communication classes, whatever it may be, you know, talking about organizations, cooperatives aren’t typically at the top of that list. So what a lot of cooperatives are doing is trying to see, how can we insert ourselves into different spaces across different disciplines. Whether that’s, you know, having youth programing, you know, that’s focusing on cooperative development. Whether that’s investing in young people, creating their own cooperatives on their own. That’s kind of some of the things that saw that I just absolutely loved and was really hoping that we could bring back to the U.S.

Andy Johns: That’s an excellent point. Because like so many things, it starts there with the young audiences. And particularly those when I’ve done research or given presentations on Generation Z and millennials, one of the defining characteristics of those folks is a care of who they’re buying from as much as the product. You know, the shop local, and they’re wanting to, whether it’s fair trade or some of the other things that they’re looking at, those generations in general, pay a lot of attention to that. And in steps somebody who can tell the cooperative story, like you’re talking about, and it seems like a great fit for them to understand that it’s different.

Sylandi Brown: Oh yes, I absolutely agree. That was a hot topic that I absolutely love to talk about in South Korea. Because, like what you said, this generation is looking to support businesses and organizations that are not only, like what you said, providing the products and services that they need, but really just supporting them as human beings in this broader community. And a lot of time when, you know, we look at organizations and businesses, you know, with the focus on ESGs and, you know, promoting sustainable practices, we can promote having, you know, a socially responsible business. But a lot of times what we see in organizations is, you know, it’s just saying that because it may be the trend. It may be what sounds good. And business owners know that this is the way to go for 2022 and years to come. But the difference with co-ops is this isn’t just something that we’re just saying, right? This is something that’s embedded in our business model and how we operate that makes us different. And so that’s really what has been an exciting conversation, you know, especially in looking at how we’re bringing people in to co-ops and recruitment and talent acquisition strategies. That’s something I’m studying in my master’s program right now and hoping to bring a co-op emphasis to that as well.

Andy Johns: Ok, well, that sounds like a part two of a podcast with you to do once that project is complete, because that’s definitely something I’d love to talk with you more about when that’s wrapped up.

Sylandi Brown: Right.

Andy Johns: But as great as that cooperative story is, and as much as you and I and a bunch of other folks believe in that model, it’s not without its challenges. And I know that there were some things talked about on the panel in terms of talent recruitment or rural depopulation where cooperatives do face some real challenges, especially like you mentioned, you’re in rural South Georgia. It’s not all a rosy picture. There are some challenges.

Sylandi Brown: Yes, that’s very true. I previously, did some work with the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, and a part of the rural recommendations included, you know, looking at, you know, what they deemed as the war for talent. And I think that can be equated to, you know, a broader topic that we’re talking about nationally, which is, you know, the great resignation. Where workers are, you know, realizing that, you know, they can have control of what type of business that they want to be employed in and really looking at this changing nature of work overall. It really is becoming an increasingly competitive landscape for talent. And rural communities definitely have that challenge in, you know, how can we support these businesses and these organizations and helping to bring people into our communities to really support the sustainability and the prosperity of the community for future generations to come? But co-ops are in a really unique place, as mentioned before. You know, this is something that’s, you know, a part of our business model and people are looking for organizations that will give them meaningful sense-making factors in their work. And co-ops are the way to do that. And so it’s really exciting because co-ops are now looking at that and seeing that they can play a direct role in the solution. So for us on the same lines of this war for talent and looking at how we can help improve our local economy for electric co-ops, you know, the big topic right now is broadband. And you know, if we see that we have the infrastructure to support this need, that will not only feed back into our economy, but also probably help draw people and businesses to our community at the same time. You know, we see that this is something that we have to pursue. We have an obligation to our membership to pursue it.

Andy Johns: A couple of things to unpack there. You know, yes, what we talked about Gen Z and millennials early on, you know, wanting to to know where they’re buying from. But like you said, those are two generations that are moving back into cities, into urban areas more than previous generations have. So that’s kind of the other side of the coin is the challenge presented there. But you brought up broadband, and I had that in my notes to ask you about. So I know sometimes when a cooperative gets into broadband, when an electric cooperative gets into broadband, sometimes they have to create subsidiaries or different organizations to be able to do that. But how do you guys go about, or do you go about, telling that cooperative story on the electric side and the broadband side? You do it the same, different, any nuance when you’re going into a new line of service like broadband?

Sylandi Brown: Well, that is a great question, Andy, and it’s one that we have been talking about and really trying to explore for, you know, the last several years. So for us specifically, it’s unique because with this broadband service, you know, it is customer choice, right? So for us, typically from the utility space, you know, it’s pretty much decided who your membership would be based off, you know, them coming to your community, you know, settling down. You know, that’s pretty much decided. But with broadband, it’s a little bit different. And so for us, it really helped us rethink, you know, how are we going to promote this service and really find that alignment to our core purpose in identity? And for us, you know, concern for community and listening and being attentive to members needs or something that’s incredibly important. And our president and CEO would receive notes from our membership, you know, asking and saying, “Hey, I see fiber broadband is coming to other co-ops, when is it coming to us?” And so when we have that type of direct request, it becomes, in a sense, a bit of a no brainer that this is something that we need to pursue.

Sylandi Brown: And for us, of course, you know, we had to look at the feasibility. We had to look at different partners, and we chose to go with Conexon as our partner, which we have absolutely loved. Because we knew, and even in the sense, with our core principle of, you know, cooperation among cooperatives, we knew that we couldn’t do this alone necessarily. You know, we have the infrastructure to support it, but really having that operational and marketing support to help promote this service, was really huge. So we knew it was something that we needed to provide to our community, and the way we look at it is, it’s really, you know, the 1940s all over again. Of course, it comes with its challenges and, you know, bringing a 36.7 million project to our community. But, you know, if we look back and if it was decided, you know, not to turn on the lights, you know, imagine where we would be now. And so we knew that we had to make this decision for our community and for the sustainability of it.

Andy Johns: Nice, that sounds like a familiar process that folks are looking at. And I know some of those notes that come into the general manager, some of those are a little louder than others, and some folks are more patient than others. So it’s a whole lot to figure out as you’re going in there. Well, so let’s close with this. But if you know, I’ve heard a wide range of opinions. There are some folks that feel like if they’re in an area dependent on their market, they may not want to play up the co-op because they want to seem more like the big national competitors on the broadband side of things or whatever. You know, a bunch of different opinions. But if there’s somebody out there who’s thinking, you know, maybe we should do a better job of telling our cooperative story, maybe we can leverage this co-op identity into something special like you’re talking about. What advice would you have for folks just to take some of those first few steps? I know you guys are obviously deeply rooted in that, deeply committed to that. But if there’s some folks maybe who haven’t done a lot there, what are some of the first steps they could take, or advice that you have for them?

Sylandi Brown: Sure. I think one of the most beneficial things for me personally is really first looking back at who we are as co-ops and as businesses, what our principles are, what our values are, starting there first. If you start there, for everybody in your organization, from your fellow employees to your staff, I mean to your board of directors, if you start at that foundational understanding of why we are meant to operate in these communities, I think that’s a great first step in moving to kind of leveraging some of this innovation that really helps us have that competitive advantage as cooperatives. I think that’s a great first step. You know, it doesn’t have to be anything super monumental, but even just starting to talk about our business model and our principles internally, you know, having employee education meetings to really kind of focus in on that. And I think once everyone is on the same page and has that buy in on that perspective, you can really start talking about, OK, what new products and services can we provide to our community based on the needs that are present at the time? If you can get there, if you can start to have those conversations and really start to think about those things, I think you’re setting yourself up on a great path of future success because the membership of today is not the membership of yesterday. It’s evolving, and it’s changing. And as cooperatives, we shouldn’t be afraid to change with it.

Andy Johns: Well said, that’s fantastic. And I think personally, that’s something a lot of folks need to hear. So that’s excellent, and I’m glad that you that you brought it up. So thanks for taking the time to talk with me and for walking through that with everyone.

Sylandi Brown: Sure. Thank you so much, Andy.

Andy Johns: She is Sylandi Brown. She is the marketing and communications specialist with Middle Georgia EMC. I’m your host, Andy Johns with WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. Thanks for listening and until we talk again. Keep telling your story!

Outro: StoryConnect is produced by WordSouth and Pioneer Utility Resources. Both companies are built to share your story. Our associate producer is Sarah Wootten. StoryConnect is engineered by Lucas Smith of Lucky Sound Studio.