Going Beyond The Bottom Line

Why advocating for local economies matters

When I graduated law school at the height of the financial crisis, I — along with tens of thousands of other starry-eyed law school graduates (and other young professionals alike) — could only contemplate what the effects would be on our careers and our livelihoods. I felt incredibly fortunate to have secured a job as an associate at a NYC law firm, ready to start my career in litigation. After an indefinite deferral on my offer, I was emailed by a partner and instructed out of a sense of urgency, to join the real estate group to assist with the secured lending practice. I spent my first months sifting through endless paper files of secured transactions to help leverage our corporate clients’ assets for immediate refinancing — or risk impending bankruptcy. It was hard not to sense the gravity of the economic situation and the problem with only focusing on maximizing profits as the bottom-line. Eventually I transitioned over to litigation and for the next four years I was immersed in government investigations of the fateful “too big to fail” financial institutions and ill-advised governance of global corporations.

Our government, our policies and our regulations were misguided, and greed and corruption seemed to prevail. Occupiers soon crowded Wall Street in protest as I shuffled by them to my office, head down; I was somehow right in the thick of it yet completely removed. Grappling with my conscience over the virtues of staying the course, my gut ultimately won out; I needed to fill this growing void in my life with something more meaningful. I left the firm, having learned invaluable lessons in advocacy, analytical thinking and all-nighters, but totally disillusioned.

I felt compelled to leave the country, to travel. Personal connections, cultural immersion and nature lent some much needed perspective. Abroad, on my own, I was a part of a larger community of travelers. We exchanged stories and itineraries, shared meals and rooms, and were embraced by the locals who invited us in. I gained a sense of comfort exploring the unknown, sharing in the generosity of strangers. Upon returning state-side, I relocated across country. When I arrived in Oakland I was excited for the opportunities to engage with a new community and explore my career.

What I discovered happening here, however, went way beyond my expectations. It seems the misplaced trust we gained for our institutional systems, be it big business or big government, influenced a new generation of tech-savvy millennials, already responding with innovative solutions to the world’s woes. More importantly, the bottom-line was shifting to include people and planet, in addition to profit, as a new breed of social enterprise and social corporate responsibility surfaced.

A step beyond Silicon Valley’s primary focus on exponential growth, these mission-based businesses designed to benefit the public, are reshaping our experiences, interactions and expectations. The sharing economy has emerged as a sustainable development in micro-enterprise where humans can depend on each other for support and solutions. As a result, communities are becoming more resilient — prepared to withstand the inevitability of future disasters, be it natural or financial.

Josephine is one such enterprise, born out of a mission to empower cooks to serve their communities with home-cooked meals, built on values that are not merely monetary. I found the concept to be so pure, and the application so simple. However, the laws designed to regulate the industrialized food system, here in California and throughout the country, are proving to be barriers to a more inclusive, local marketplace. I joined the team in their efforts to amend the CA Retail Food Code, to assist in this ambitious legislative initiative to expand the scope of existing cottage food operations. The mission resonated with me, as I felt a deeper sense of purpose; to be a part of a movement for a more inclusive food system while promoting economic empowerment.

Despite our early progress on this front, public health regulators in various counties made a concerted effort to crack down on operations, halting our facilitation of those cook-entrepreneurs seeking to legitimize their small businesses. Public health is of paramount concern for regulators overburdened with keeping up with the proliferation of food commerce. However, the policy in place was not intended to prohibit such basic, low-risk activities such as cooking in one’s home for their neighbors. To limit such access in the name of consumer protection is paradoxical, as these are the exact types of services that best serve the needs of the consumers: face to face contact with the cook, the kitchen and the ingredients, not to mention the opportunity to leave a review.

I walked into my first Josephine meal weeks before I started working there, and was overwhelmed with an instant sense of community pride and nostalgia. I felt just as welcomed as I had when I was abroad, once again sharing a meal with a complete stranger, indulging in the generosity of my neighbor. How could this be illegal? While we don’t yet know what the outcome will be for reform, change seems inevitable. Unlike the matters I helped defend years earlier, I am now advocating for an economy I believe in, and my conscience is completely clear.