As someone who teaches language every day, I have a particular interest in language schools that are organized as worker cooperatives, and so I was very excited that just a few days before spring break I got a the chance to speak to Greg Demmons, president and founder of Real English Victoria, a new worker-owned language school in Victoria, British Columbia. In addition to being a worker-cooperative, REV is unique for pioneering an innovative new language-learning pedagogy, and Greg and I spoke about how his particular approach to language learning lead him to the cooperative model for his new school:
Tim: It would be great to start, just to learn a little bit about yourself and about the beginning of the cooperative and why you decided to form this business as a cooperative in the first place. What led you down that path?
Greg: Oh boy, there you go! It might take your 20 minutes. I’ll just give you kind of the short version. Prior to becoming a teacher I was an investment adviser at the Royal Bank of Canada here. But I left in around the year 2000, and I traveled overseas to Korea, and decided to teach English there. I was just going to stay for a year but I ended up staying for five in Korea, and then I spent five more in Japan. During that time, I discovered a particular style of learning, through doing projects called project-based learning and enquiry-based learning in Japan.
I helped to set up a programme in a Japanese school that basically transformed the school and turned it into what’s now a relatively famous school in Japan for English speaking. When I came back to Canada in 2012, I got a job in the ESL (English as a Second Language) business, and then I kind of decided that I wanted to try to do what I had seen work very well overseas, but unfortunately the schools here were trapped in a corporate business model that didn’t allow them to make large scale changes, despite it being very obvious that this was the way to go, and helpful for their clients.
So I started investigating models that would allow me, with very little start-up money, to be able to open a school that was project-based and enquiry-based, and be able to do it in a way that allowed the model to be flexible enough to change on a dime, with enough support and feedback mechanisms that would prevent us from making large-scale mistakes.
About a year-and-a-half ago I began investigating co-op models, and then I discovered the worker co-op model. And then the school that I was working at at the time, although people at the school didn’t know it, because of my previous tenure as an investment advisor, I could see they had… well, it was very apparent in the figures that they were going to go under, so I began to recruit other teachers who were of a like mind and who were interested. In December of 2015 we started the process towards incorporating as a worker co-op, and we were basically, according to the CWCF, the Canadian Worker Co-op Federation, at their AGM last fall, we were touted as pretty much the fastest ever worker co-op start-up; from concept to start-up was from January to June 20th. Our incorporation happened on April 9th, so this is almost our first incorporated birthday.
Tim: Excellent. Could you talk a little bit more about that journey? You also mentioned initial start-up capital; how did you raise that? And what’s the legal framework in Canada you’re drawing on to structure your business?
Greg: What we did is, we kind of played around with roughly how much it would cost, with what kind of finances we would need… And actually what’s happening right now, this will inform you a little bit about our situation: We are relatively small. We’re trying to keep our school small because the model that we use, the pedagogy and methodology that we use doesn’t really allow for a large school; it has to be done in a small, kind of personal setting. And that sort of speaks to the financial part of it as well. We determined what we would actually need to start up and survive for the first six to eight months, and we worked our way backwards, and we had an initial member buy-in of $5,000 per-person.
We were kind of toying with the idea of whether or not we needed to — or whether we should — incorporate. It was a bit of an odd situation, or a process to go through, because we started to discover that even though incorporation probably was more expensive and really didn’t help our business model in the way that it would function on a daily basis, incorporation gave the financial institutions and the organisations that helped finance us at the beginning the confidence to support the model.
And so that’s kind of the initial start-up, and we started out, originally we had about 14 or 15 people that were interested, and in order to get people to be more serious about it, that’s when we announced the $5,000 buy-in, which quickly narrowed it down to 10 people, and then eventually once we got working on the model and so on we were reduced to 9. A couple of months later, we had some international folk that were involved, and the style of doing business in their country wasn’t really compatible with the way that we did things or the co-op model in general, so they ended up leaving of their own accord because they knew that they wouldn’t be able to fit into what was happening.
As far as the legal framework, for us we just really wanted to have a flat system. We have a flat pay system. I’m the president and founder, and a couple of other titles as well, but I get paid the exact same amount of money as teachers, and the administrators, and the advisors and so on. We wanted that democratic functioning on a daily basis, in particularly at the beginning. And now we’re at the point where we’re starting to divide up the responsibilities a little bit more. I’m spending less time now in the classroom, and I’m spending more time in the promotions area.
So yes, it’s been an interesting ride. I guess ultimately we’re not really businesspeople in the traditional sense; we’re really only interested in teaching. We wanted our outcomes for students to be the primary driving factor in our decision-making, and that can’t be done in a corporate business model where your primary focus is on returning shareholder value. This is our big thing with the co-op model, is that we don’t see how society can continue on utilising an inhumane model of success based on GDP and things like that.
We’re a very philosophical group in that way. And it didn’t necessarily started out that way. I guess we kind of bought that in to what we were doing more after we’d started it, if that makes sense. But that’s kind of my character. I don’t worry about failure; as long as the rationale seems solid to me, I’ll jump in. So far it’s been working really well. It’s been very stressful, but there’s all kinds of different stress, and our stress is based on running a business rather than wondering what other people are going to do with the business that we happened to be employed in.
Tim: You mentioned a little bit there that in addition to member buy-in, that you also had other sources of capital at the beginning?
Greg: Yes, well not at the beginning. We started basically with – this doesn’t sound like a lot – with $43,000. Then we just went to the Canadian Workers Co-op Federation, the CWCF, and then Vancity which is a credit union here in British Colombia. We opened on 20th June, we had $43,000, and we went through until late October when we finally received funding from those two sources.
Tim: That’s great that you got that support. Were either of those two organisations also helpful in terms of business advice?
Greg: Oh, yes. The CWCF really does a lot to support us. They helped us with some funding to get co-op development advisors who helped us initially in the development of our business plan, as well as the governance modelling and so on. And then once our business plan was initially prepared, I actually did the business plan totally on my own with a little bit of help with those guys, but it was mostly formatting and those things. We were also really grateful to Vancity, a large BC Credit Union that has been focusing on social entrepreneurship for a while now. They put together a team of local business people and community experts to help shape our business plan, and then, in the end they recommended that we accept even more money than we had asked for, but with valid explanations as to why. They saw our model of education as being very unique and interesting, and that it actually looks to a non-expert in the field that this would be a very logical way for people to learn language. The head of the applied linguistics department at a major university here in Canada come up to me after a speech I gave at the university, and shook my hand, and told me that we had the school of the future. People can actually see what we’re doing and see how it works, and so it’s quite easy to sell ourselves actually.
Tim: What do you see as the next organisational challenges for your group in the future, and how do you think you’ll meet those challenges?
Greg: The next organisational challenge that we have is bringing in outside people to the board to kind of oversee or to help oversee the business with an objective perspective. And I also think that the second of those challenges will be resisting the urge to expand based on profitability, and trying to resist also the urge to use cutbacks as a way of improving profitability rather than sticking to our guns on the idea that if you build it they will come. So far we’ve stuck to our guns in such a way that we’ve actually probably lost some business, just because we haven’t really considered any other option other than if we provide really good service, and people get really good results, that that will result in a really good business.
Tim: If you did see the opportunity to grow, would you divide into two schools so that you could maintain the size that’s ideal for the pedagogy you’re using? What would you do?
Greg: That’s the challenge, I think. We would be more than open to helping other groups of teachers to do the same thing, and I mean, I’ll be quite frank, and people get nervous when they hear me say this – my goal is to destroy this industry as it exists right now, because it really focuses on extracting large amounts of money from international folks, and the model that they use for teaching is a model that keeps people in classrooms for as long as possible.
In contrast, all of our teachers here have lived abroad and have successfully learned other languages, and this is how we model our outcomes for students. I speak four languages. It took me almost a year to learn Korean, but I was able to understand conversational Japanese and get along in my job and life after six months of practice and listening at my high school job in Kyoto.
We’re actually now facing pushback from some local non-governmental organisations who operate on a volunteer basis, because we’re actually volunteering our services to teach refugees here, particularly Syrian refugees. And so our Syrian refugees are actually learning English probably two or three times faster than those people who are going to the non-governmental organisations. So the government is looking at them and going, “Uh…”
So ultimately I hope that other teachers will see what we’re doing and they’ll realise that we don’t get paid a lot of money, so we might as well be doing something good. Right now we’re in the process of helping another couple of teachers who are exploring the idea of doing this.
I see the co-op world as being a very literal thing, and I think in my own personal view it is the only way that the world can move forward. I know that sounds rather dramatic, but I don’t think, as a former investment advisor and someone who has a fairly good knowledge of the financial practices that we see in our systems right now, we’re not going to survive unless we switch to a cooperative model or we move back towards a more community-based system of doing business; businesses existing for community rather than communities becoming dependent on business.
Right now here in Canada, the co-op movement is really picking up a lot of steam, and so we’re actually hoping to find ourselves on a bit of the cutting edge of all the new system that we hope is emerging in the provinces here in Canada, where the government is now starting to look more seriously at supporting the co-op models. We work with a programme called Co-ops in Schools where university students from around the province work with our students on projects. We just want all the community to come together in these things. Ultimately it all comes back to that.
Tim: That is excellent. That’s actually a great place to stop. That’s really good. Thank you very much!