2019 Year in Review

by The Workers Lab, on January 7, 2020 at 6:00 AM
The Workers Lab 2019 Year in Review

Take a moment to read about the inspiring programs you and other supporters of The Workers Lab made possible in 2019. Help us continue to give new ideas about increasing worker power a chance in 2020 by making a donation.

Supporting Innovators Building Worker Power

Thanks to people like you, The Workers Lab doubled down our support of worker power in 2019. Again, this year we are increasing our investments in experimentation by doubling our organizational budget from $3 million to $6 million and revamping some of our programs to allow room for more learning and dissemination of those learnings to build the broader field. We will continue investing in new initiatives from a broad spectrum of organizations including: nonprofits, worker owned enterprises, and local governments to generate even more innovation in the field.

Investing in Worker Power
Through our primary funding and experimentation vehicle, The Innovation Fund, we supported co-op businesses incubators and social entrepreneurs who are:

  • Working with dairy farms to improve conditions for migrant workers
  • Collaborating with developers to create worker-enforced labor standards
  • Improving pay and protections for gig economy workers

We seek innovators with a direct connection to working people, especially those who are marginalized. In our experience, the closer the connection, the more effective the solution. Below is a brief overview of our programs and some of the 2019 award recipients creating positive change:

The Innovation Fund - Through this signature program, The Workers Lab awarded $150,000 (each) to five organizations with new ideas aimed at increasing  worker power. During our fall 2019 application cycle alone:

  • We received 217 applications from 28 states and 14 countries.
  • Nearly 75 percent of applicants were led by women and/or people of color
  • Applicants included nonprofit organizations, for-profit entities, cooperatives, labor unions, and government agencies. 
  • Sectors represented included construction, manufacturing, agriculture, care (childcare, homecare, healthcare), food and hospitality, and technology.

Since its inception, the Innovation Fund has supported more than 38 projects with more than $2 million in funding. Learn more about our recent Innovation Fund award recipients, and subscribe to receive updates to find out when we begin accepting applications for the next Innovation Fund.

5th Annual Co-op Innovation Awards - The Co-op Innovation Awards celebrate and support organizations dedicated to improving economic, social, and racial justice through cooperative development. Last year we partnered with Capital Impact Partners, and out of 103 applications, we awarded $100,000 to three winners: 

  • Worker cooperative incubator Centro De Trabajadores: Immigrant Workers Project (CTU-IWP) - will use the funds to recruit and train 40-50 community members on co-op business models and initiate two new worker cooperatives. 
  • Independent Drivers Guild - a purchasing cooperative for gig-economy drivers, will apply their award to reducing car repair and upkeep costs.
  • CLEAN Carwash Campaign - will help workers become entrepreneurs by providing resources and training to start an environment-friendly mobile car wash business. 

Enterprise Institute Evolution
The Enterprise Institute is a 2-day  boot camp led by Michael Bush, the CEO of Great Place to Work, where social entrepreneurs can collaborate with experts. Organizational leaders receive coaching on how to pitch their ideas, legal and marketing advice, and walk away with a scalable business plan.

Last September, we ran an Enterprise Institute with The Boston Ujima Project, a democratic investment fund that provides loans to Boston entrepreneurs in communities of color. 

  • We awarded $5,000 grants to three companies that are part of the Ujima Business Alliance and wanted to implement worker-centered standards and practices to participate in the program. These companies included: City Fresh Foods, Jazz Urbane, and Haley House. During this Enterprise Institute we also invited government leaders for the first time, including the mayors of Jackson, Mississippi, St. Paul, Minnesota, and Stockton California along with their senior-level staff. An open dialogue included discussion about the challenges and opportunities of advancing community-based businesses and cooperatives in their cities.

Lessons Learned...
The Enterprise Institute model could benefit our Innovation Fund recipients as follow up support instead of being a stand alone program. Moving forward, each cohort of Innovation Fund winners will participate in a convening modeled after this program to share successes and challenges and refine their business models.

We also realized the value of a smaller Innovation Fund to support a specific demographic, geographic region, or sector. Beginning this year, The Workers Lab will offer awards in the $50,000 range through this smaller Innovation Fund to quickly address emerging issues and develop new partnerships.

Design Sprint Pilot Grants Hundreds of Workers Access to $1000 in Emergency Cash
Nearly half of American workers cannot easily afford $400 to pay for an emergency expense, such as a car repair.  

Using Google’s design sprint methodology, we created and tested an emergency fund to support gig platform workers experiencing a financial emergency. We called the program The Workers Strength Fund.

Design Sprint for Social Change - Google’s innovative testing process, known as a design sprint, allows them to understand a problem, ideate and decide on a solution, prototype, and test new ideas before going to market. We applied this method to create a pre-pilot where 30 gig workers could access $1000 in emergency funds.

Next, we moved to a full-scale pilot program for workers in Dallas, Detroit, New York City, and San Francisco. 

Lessons Learned...
We confirmed the Design Sprint process is an effective way to test solutions to social and economic problems in a time bound way. We’ll choose our next Design Sprint for Change topic based upon issues identified in Innovation Fund applications and conversations with stakeholders. Learn more about our first Design Sprint for Change.

Sharing Success Stories and Raising Workers’ Voices
Throughout 2019, The Workers Lab raised awareness about the struggles workers face and opportunities to create positive change. Our organizational leaders, award recipients and research appeared in prominent publications including: 

Looking Ahead to 2020 - A Knowledge Base for Worker Power
We’re compiling what we have learned over the past five years. The Workers Lab knowledge base  will allow investors, entrepreneurs, businesses, worker organizations, and public sector employers to:

  • Discover innovative ideas for building worker power
  • Learn about best practices 
  • Identify and network with others who share a similar mission 
  • Replicate successful programs 

About Us
The Workers Lab gives new ideas about increasing worker power a chance to succeed and flourish. Show your support by making a donation.

Follow @theworkerslab on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn and make workers’ voices part of your conversations with family, friends and co-workers. 


Topics: The Innovation Fund| Design Sprint