Slow Money: An interview with Carol Peppe Hewitt and Lyle Estill 

Slow money authors and advocates talk about why people should think local instead of global when it comes to money

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Carol Peppe Hewitt and Lyle Estill don’t have any money. They want you to know that. But someone does, and they want you to know that, too.

The two authors and advocates came to Orlando recently to discuss the principles of slow money, the movement to get ordinary people to invest (sorry, lend; we’ll explain the distinction later in this interview) small amounts in local entrepreneurial endeavors, rather than putting their money into large national investment banks. The term “slow money” was created by former Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation treasurer Woody Tasch. As a companion concept to slow food – the movement toward more local food production – slow money encourages people to use their risk capital on ventures specifically related to food and agriculture.

Back in North Carolina, where she’s from, Hewitt founded Slow Money NC, which can boast having connected more than 50 entrepreneurs with more than 115 slow money loans. She used those stories to write her book, Financing Our Foodshed: Growing Local Food With Slow Money. She tours with friend and fellow activist Estill, author of numerous books on sustainability and the founder of Piedmont Biofuels, a small energy concern in Chatham County, N.C. The two of them spoke at East End Market to an open group one night and then to an invite-only meeting of local activists the next morning.

While the term slow money is often tied to food-related endeavors, the implications are much larger. The system proposes a way to get communities more invested in their own health and security, but it can look risky for those searching for start-up capital or thinking about making a loan. Not only is the potential for loss present, some may fear stepping on the toes of state and federal regulatory agencies.

Whether you’ve got a dream for a small business or a few thousand dollars you’d like to see at work in your own town, Hewitt and Estill’s advice and philosophy is a good place to start.

Orlando Weekly: Why would anyone get into slow money? Why do it – from either the perspective of an investor or an entrepreneur looking for financing? Why would slow money be the way to go, as opposed to traditional investment?

Lyle Estill: Most of this stuff is too small for banks to be interested in, so if you’re a borrower, you do it because you can’t get other financing. And, from an investor’s perspective, you do it because it gives meaning to your portfolio.

Carol Peppe Hewitt: And it strengthens your local community. It builds relationships with people that run projects that you think are inspiring and valuable. Broadening that idea of meaning in your portfolio, what’s meaning for you? For most people, part of that is connection to other people. And then you really are adding businesses – farms, businesses – to your community that you can then enjoy. So there’s a payback beyond financial.

Probably the scariest question for most people looking to invest is how to properly vet what you’re investing in. How do decide if the business you’re looking at is sound?

LE: It’s a good idea to eat the product. Sample. Do you like their chicken? Do you like their kombucha? So that’s a good start point.

CPH: There’s three things that make a successful business. One, as Lyle just said, you need to have a fantastic product. So is the product great? Or if it’s a concept like collecting food waste and turning it into compost, is it a brilliant idea? And two, is it going to sell? Does the person have some marketing savvy? Do they have customers already? Have they set up the relationships that they need to get their supply chain going? And three, who’s going to handle finances? Is there someone in the mix – the farmer or the farmer’s wife, the food entrepreneur or the food entrepreneur’s husband – whoever it is, is there somebody in that mix that has some financial knowledge?

For example, if you go to them and ask them what they need and they say $10,000. You say, “How much can you afford to pay back?” and they say, “Well, I don’t know.” That’s not a good sign. They should say, “I think I can afford about $250 a month.” OK, let’s do this 2 percent, that’s going to be that much payment.

So those are three simple, quick things to look at. Depending on the loan, there should be a business plan of some sort – at least a clear budget. And most everybody knows someone who can take a look at it if you don’t know how. … There’s technical assistance available in your community to help with the due diligence.

For a small loan – $2,000, $4,000, a small project – a lot of it is going to be your intuition, your sensibility, and these are going to be people you’re going to want to get to know. The loan is going to be made because you’re friends. You’ve built a personal relationship.

Orlando is – I don’t know if you know this – the low-wage capital of America. How do we use these principles to help low-wage workers? How can this kind of investment be used to raise that kind of
community?

CPH: Small businesses tend to hire people they know. They’re going to hire people from within their community. It’s not a company coming in that has a lot of building going on [that’s] going to source workers from outside, and then they’re just going to go away again. If you get a farm going, or you get a coffee shop going, and they need a barista, they’re going to need a good [employee] that’s going to be minimum wage to start with, then they maybe get them up to $9 an hour, then $11, and so on. … A successful small business that survives has two or three or four workers.

LE: John [Rife, owner of East End Market] has a good concept with one of his directors here. [Gabby Lothrop, market director] has a base pay and gets commission on festivals and events. … She’s on an “eat what you kill” plan. So it’s entirely possible to bring people in and say, “Help me build this business and share the spoils.”

Another fear is that there are an infinite amount of ideas and a limited amount of capital. How do idea people get in front of capital, and capital people get together with idea people?

CPH: There’s a tremendous amount of money out there. And people don’t know that if they’ve had an idea, someone would help them. So if you’re a high school kid and you tinker … and you’ve got this amazing idea for a new way to make cheese or whatever it is … If you knew that someone would spring for $5,000 to help you get started because they can see that you’re smart, you care. … But no one knows that, so they just give up and they join the Marines or they just give up and take a low-wage job or they just give up and move and take their great idea somewhere else.

One of the things we need to do is let the world know, let the people in your community know, we like to sponsor good ideas. We’re going to try to fund your brilliant idea. If you can get that word out there, now you’ve got what you were talking about before.

LE: One thing that Carol has done successfully is that she just has meetings … and she invites people to pitch. So it’s just, “All right, you want to be a lender? Come on out. You want to be a borrower? You, too.” And then you run them through. “I want to do a salon.” “I want to do a cabbage patch.”

“I want to do a new rainwater system in my greenhouse.”

Then in the back of the row, it’s like, “I like greenhouses.” You see them chatting, and then the deal gets done.

One time, Carol was hosting an event down in Tarboro [N.C.]. I was in the audience. … There’s this doctor who’s trying to get all of her money out of the markets. She’s up on stage, talking to Carol, people are mingling around. And this shy guy beside me has always wanted to open a butcher shop.

And I’m like, “Well, let me introduce you to Carol. And let me introduce you to this doctor whom I’ve never met.”

Boom. A month later, Carol’s driving down and the butcher shop is born, and it’s done with the doctor’s local money.

CPH: Let me just give you one clarification: We don’t use the word pitch. Because if you’re going to pitch investors, you need to make sure they’re accredited. … So rather than saying “pitch,” we say “share.” People share their ideas. That’s allowed. I can talk all day about my cabbage patch, I just can’t tell you I’m going to make you rich on it. So that’s the reason I say “lend” rather than “invest.”

Which brings up the question: What are the legal boundaries of slow money? When people start to get it wrong, why are they getting it wrong? Why are they pressing against that boundary?

LE: There is a marvelous book by Stephen Hren called Sustainable Underground [full title: Tales From the Sustainable Underground: A Wild Journey With People Who Care More About the Planet Than the Law] in which he travels the country and interviews people who are knowingly and willfully breaking the law in order to get their sustainability projects going. Sometimes the law is wrong. Carol is very careful about Securities and Exchange Commission and so on. I am way more fast and loose with it, because I’m also not as associated with slow money as she is.

CPH: In answer to your question about legalities, it’s really very, very simple. It’s just only one, which is, as long as you are loaning between friends and family, you don’t have to worry about registering as a security or any of that. These are all loans made between friends and family. I do not tell people who to loan to. I simply introduce them to each other, like I would tell someone about a great movie or a great restaurant. You meet. You talk. It’s entirely up to you.

So I’m screening them for a mission. I’m screening them to see if they’re really loan-ready. Sometimes they call me and they aren’t ready at all … so we do some coaching to take them from their idea to a place where they’re actually ready.

LE: And it goes the other way, too. Some lenders want a lot of involvement. … Others don’t. They say, “I’ve met [the potential entrepreneur]. This is great. I’ve got $20,000. Can we do five?” Carol insists that they meet face-to-face, they have to get to know each other. We try to be in the same town, we try to be in the same locality. But we have varying ranges of involvement. Some lenders just want that check to show up and not even hear about it.

CPH: But they want to know what it is. There’s definitely a personal connection.

Since Orlando is not a small town, and we have huge segments of the population that don’t know each other, how do we overcome the “big town” challenge?
LE: You’re doing it. Orlando doesn’t suck. I saw that T-shirt.

CPH: In our town of 4,000, it feels like I know everybody. But I shop in the same three or four or five stores all the time, so of course I know those people. I almost never shop in the local grocery store anymore. … There are definitely people in my town of 4,000, even though I’ve been there 30 years, that I have never met.

That doesn’t make me long for community. I have built my community. I know where my people are, and I know where to go find them and run into them. We have potlucks all winter long. The feeling of lack of connectedness is just chronic across most of the people we know. It’s a matter of deciding you’re just not going to buy that anymore.

LE: It’s everywhere. Small Is Possible [Estill’s book on Chatham County, N.C.’s sustainability movement] was big in LA in the backyard-chicken community. What? There’s a backyard-chicken community in LA? Yep. And who’s their tribe? The tribes are the people keeping chickens in LA.

People are doing this in pockets and enclaves everywhere. How many people can you be intimate with at once? 150? 30? There’s different numbers. But the point is, you can’t be intimate with the 2.5 million people of Orlando. Pick your tribe.

Which you’ve got going here! … We’ve been to other towns where it’s like trying to blow on a fire to get it started. This place is on fire.

What’s the single most useful piece of advice that you would give to people looking to get into slow money on either end of it?
LE: Don’t be afraid.

CPH: Do it together. There’s several people here who are interested. Do it together. And save your stories. Broadcast your stories. That would probably be the biggest thing. Make a loan, broadcast your story.

The Principles of Slow Money

In order to enhance food security, food safety and food access; improve nutrition and health; promote cultural, ecological and economic diversity; and accelerate the transition from an economy based on extraction and consumption to an economy based on preservation and restoration, we do hereby affirm the following slow money principles:

1. We must bring money back down to earth.

2. There is such a thing as money that is too fast, companies that are too big, finance that is too complex. Therefore, we must slow our money down – not all of it, of course, but enough to matter.

3. The 20th century was the era of buy low/sell high and wealth now/philanthropy later – what one venture capitalist called “the largest legal accumulation of wealth in history.” The 21st century will be the era of nurture capital, built around principles of carrying capacity, care of the commons, sense of place and non-violence.

4. We must learn to invest as if food, farms and fertility mattered. We must connect investors to the places where they live, creating vital relationships and new sources of capital for small food enterprises.

5. Let us celebrate the new generation of entrepreneurs, consumers and investors who are showing the way from making a killing to making a living.

6. Paul Newman said, “I just happen to think that in life we need to be a little like the farmer who puts back into the soil what he takes out.” Recognizing the wisdom of these words, let us begin rebuilding our economy from the ground up, asking:

What would the world be like if we invested 50 percent of our assets within 50 miles of where we live?

What if there were a new generation of companies that gave away 50 percent of their profits?

What if there were 50 percent more organic matter in our soil 50 years from now?

For more information on the slow money movement, visit slowmoney.org.

And, sex joke.

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