A workers’ co-operative program is helping Surrey students create and start their own business while also building “longtime places that kids and mentors feel connected to one another.”
From a media company to popcorn, Solid State Industries is working with youth in Surrey to create workers’ co-operatives. More than a dozen Surrey students are learning about what it takes to start and operate a new business with a program offered in partnership with the Surrey School District.
Solid State, according to its website, builds workers’ co-operatives with newcomer youth in Surrey with the support of mentors, advisers and community partners to build “a solidarity economy hub and a network of worker-owned co-operative businesses.”
Syed Khawar, a Grade 12 student at Princess Margaret Secondary, is in charge of creative management with Mavins Media – the first co-op through Solid State. The opportunity to join Solid State and be a part of Mavins Media was kind of “funny,” Khawar said.
It was the start of the 2017/2018 school year and because of scheduling changes, Khawar said, he didn’t have any classes for a couple of days. He said he was approached by France Stanley, a safe schools liaison with Surrey Schools.
“One day I was just sitting alone and France approaches me because he thought I was skipping,” Khawar said with a laugh. “I just feel like if I did have any classes, I would have never gotten to meet him or know about this program.”
Stanley and Harp Baughan are two of the safe schools liaisons who work as mentors at Solid State. In their role as safe school liaisons, they said they’re able to connect students with the other mentors at Solid State to potentially work in the co-op.
“Our roles in the school system is we’re safe school liaisons… so we deal with kids all day, every day. We’re on the side where we’re there for their emotional needs and we know the home life needs that they need,” Baughan said. “There are kids that not every teacher or vice-principal would know because we’re the ones that wander the hallways, we’re the ones interacting with the kids and we can see that a kid that we see a lot sitting in the corner by themselves might be a good fit.”
Stanley said the mentors will usually meet up with the students, have a conversation and meal with them and ask the students to hang out at the co-op for a while to get a feel for it.
“Obviously, it’s not for everyone. Not everyone is comfortable in this kind of scenario of working together and being your own boss and collaborating with other students,” said Stanley, adding that while they try not to turn students down, sometimes they reach the capacity for the co-op and tell the students to come back down the road.
For Khawar, he said Solid State is a “good opportunity” that will allow for “more under-privileged youth or anyone really in the community, who wants to make the community better.”
He said his hope down the line is to get more youth involved by possibly giving them summer jobs and internships.
“That’s what kind of motivates me going forward,” Khawar said.
Matt Hern, one of the founders and mentors of Solid State, said that while the focus is on newcomer students, the program isn’t exclusively for newcomers. The program is also “entirely voluntary,” said Hern, adding that the students receive no credit for participating in Solid State.
When Hern and Isaac Oommen started researching what it would take to start Solid State, Hern said the two became “really interested” in Surrey and began figuring out ways to collaborate with “good existing” organizations and projects.
“In particular, we were interested in projects that are addressing community safety, youth violence, gangs, community issues because those appear to be the… issues of overwhelming interest to Surrey,” he said. “Virtually every metric, those kinds of issues come up at the top of election cycles, they come up as polling that people are most interested in, in Surrey.”
Hern said they were “particularly interested in thinking through responses to concerns about community safety and youth violence in ways that are constructive and preventative and think of young people not as problems to be solved or disciplined, but as people with all kinds of potentialities.”
“We found a whole lot of interest and excitement from a whole variety of places, and in particular the Surrey school board and the Surrey school district — who we partnered with in 2015 — and we launched our first cohort in September of 2017,” Hern said. He said it was through Solid State’s partnership with the district and the school board, that safe school liaisons have become involved with the program.
But coming to Solid State and working on the business isn’t the only thing the students do, Baughan said.
“We pretty much deal with all aspects of their lives; school (and) personal lives,” she said. “Our roles in the school system is we’re safe school liaisons… so we deal with kids all day, every day. We’re on the side where we’re there for their emotional needs and we know the home life needs that they need.”
And while a goal of Solid State is to expand the number of cohorts, Hern said it’s “not a driving need.”
“The real fundamental reason for doing it is something like the reason people like being part of a sports team, or like being part of a club,” he said. “It’s to draw a group of people together to regularly hang out, to work on a project together, to eat together, to develop a sense of collective belonging and identity together.
“Our main interest is to try to develop these little teams, these little cohorts, and build them into kind of longtime places that kids and mentors feel connected to one another.”
When Mavins Media – the first “cohort” – started, it included students in grades 10 and 11. Mavins Media, according to its website, offers a “full range of services” from graphic design to website construction to photos and video to building social media platforms.
In the first year of the business, Mavins Media has created several websites for non-profits and businesses.
Khawar said working with Mavins Media is about learning more skills and techniques for one project, and them implementing them with the next.
“At times it does feel a bit daunting because we’re doing so much, and it’s, like, can we manage all of it? But it’s nice with this group of guys.”
Hern, who is one of the mentors for Mavins Media, said the group started meeting twice a week in September of 2017 throughout the 2017/2018 school year.
“Then Solid State hired them full time last summer where we really launched the business,” Hern said. “We make all our decisions together, we share all the revenues equally and we have real clients and a real revenue stream. It’s not a gigantic enterprise because these guys are all in school.”
Next to launch is Queens of Pop, a popcorn business that Baughan is working on with a group of girls in grades 9 to 11. Baughan said when it came to deciding what kind of business the girls wanted to create, it started off with figuring out their interest – which leaned toward food.
“Eventually, we started experimenting on chocolates and popcorn.”
Lanaya Alexander, a Grade 10 student at Kwantlen Park, said joining Solid State and working with the Queens of Pop has helped her learn how to work better with other people, while also learning how abusiness is formed and what kind of work goes into it.
Asked how she would explain this workers’ co-op, Alexander said it’s a bunch of students “just experimenting” and “learning how to put together something from scratch.”
“Because barely any of know barely anything about business and now here were are hoping to make a popcorn business,” said Alexander who plans to go to university for a business program.
Hern said between five and 10 people are the “right size” for a co-op.
But, Hern said, the goal is to add new cohorts at a “reasonable pace.” Solid State has a new cohort that is “just operational” and another two launching in the next couple of months.
“(We) hope to follow the same sort of cycle, which is bring a group together in the beginning of a school year, work with them twice a week through the school year and then hopefully bring them together full time — or at least as many of them as possible full time — through the summer, and then launch a business and have that group stay together and develop that business as a collective project.”