“The Community Age”
Michael Garjian and E2M
Ever since growing up on a Massachusetts farm, Michael Garjian has been in touch with nature and community. He is known locally and internationally as an inventor, business leader, community developer, and visionary. Also a serial entrepreneur, Garjian is in a daring and relentless search for sustainable solutions and is using his own businesses (from alternative energy sources to greener cat litter) to leverage the power of business to do good and ultimately create an economic system that favors communities over corporations.
What was your introduction to social entrepreneurship, and what is your background, educationally?
Well, I’m a farm boy and went to high school south of Boston, and then out to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst as a Physics major with the hope of becoming an inventor. I realized that it was a very rigid program and I also did not have the education motivation to follow through with something that was not so directly related to invention. Ultimately I kept a strong science background, added a business management component to it and came out with a management degree and a solid scientific background, and at that point I worked in the corporate world for a year and realized that that wasn’t going to take me where I wanted to be. I became an inventor and during the next thirty years opened several businesses to commercialize inventions I had created. More recently I started a business manufacturing and selling tubeless neon signs I had developed. These were laminated plates of glass with glowing images produced by neon ecapsulated within the plate structure. That went international until the collapse of the Asian economy in 1999 ended our joint venture with one of the largest companies in Japan. When we closed, as I was walking out the door I said, “God, I never want to invent another object, I’d like an idea – no weight, no freight, no factories – something that can do good and fly around the world in an instant.”
What were some of the big take home points at that closing?
Well, as I look back on it, it was really a culmination of, 30 years of manufacturing and understanding business and understanding how to overcome severe business problems, how to deal with any problem that came up, whether it’s IRS issues or production issues or business structure issues. Those 35 years really were able to give me an intimate background of what I needed to know about starting, maintaining, and saving a business through tough times as well. So the take home, if you’re talking about intellectual knowledge, that’s what it was for me. And it was very helpful with my new position as director of small business development at the Valley Community Development Corporation. My job was to help low-income entrepreneurs start new businesses. Over the course of the next four years, we met with many small business, one hundred a year. Ultimately, we formed seventy new businesses.
So you were acting as a guide and consultant?
Yeah, I was their mentor and advisor. So at one point my mayor in Easthampton, who was a friend, asked if I might be able to do anything in the city, because it had just lost a number of manufacturing firms and the downtown business district had a 50% vacancy rate. So the mayor asked if I might be able to do something and I said, I think so. So the Valley CDC got a grant, an urban blight grant, for Easthampton. I opened a storefront office in the middle of the blight. My boss asked if I wanted to open the new office in a nearby office building and I said “No, we don’t need to be in an office tower, we need to be right in the middle of the blight. So we took one of the closed down storefronts, opened our office, and within 30 months we had 26 new businesses on that street. All of these were low-income people who were written off by the traditional financial system – none of them could get money to borrow – and that made them eligible to borrow money through my organization, as a secondary lender. So between our ability to get funds for them, my ability to mentor them, and most important, their capability and desire to succeed, we filled that street with businesses. The last storefront that was available for rent was my office, after the grant ended. That period of time became known as the Easthampton Renaissance.
Beyond those hard skills that you were able to offer, the financial know how and the business know how, what other qualities do you think you have as a mentor figure that helped spur this renaissance?
A renaissance is all about vision and dreams and hope being actuated. You can’t have a renaissance unless there are people with visions and dreams and hopes to drive it. Oftentimes those people are considered just dreamers undertaking things they can’t possibly succeed at, so there isn’t much support for those types of people. And so I was able to provide emotional help and the support to say that dreaming is what you want to do, it’s important, it helps your business find it’s way forward. But the other thing that I really wanted to impress upon people is that businesses aren’t just to make money. That’s one of the reasons that a business exists. The other reason is to take care of its employees and its community that allows it to succeed. And that’s the more important part of it. That’s how I always felt about my own employees. They were my children, and my business was the tool that brought in money that allowed me to do things for people that you can’t do without money or without a business.
Tell me about your new venture, Vee-Go.
Vee-Go is a means to an end, only. When I left my factory, I said I never want to invent another object, I want an idea. And that idea began coming in bits and pieces over the next several months. And I really kind of considered myself a channel for that idea, rather than the creator of that idea.
But once I really got the bits and pieces of it and understood what it was, I knew that that was my reason for being – to execute the idea and to bring it to life. And that idea was what e2m.org is all about – an alternative economic system whose purpose is to create an alternative business and economic infrastructure, not driven by greed. E2M does not embrace the traditional investment goal of maximizing profit and growth for a relatively small number of individual investors; its purpose was to produce adequate profit and sustainable growth for the good of all, for the advancement of humanity. So I didn’t know what the pieces were when I started getting them, but at one point in time it all came together, and I looked at it and I said, “Oh, God, this is huge, and it is an idea that can take us into a whole new era of humanity!. And that became my mission. And anything else that I do is simply to forward that idea. So Vee-Go is a means to an end. And other companies that I’m involved with are simply a means to that end. And that end is to establish a manufacturing base to fund an alternative economic system. I went out and formed several businesses, Vee-Go being one of them, to begin to lay the foundation for a commercial component to begin establishing the E2M economic system. That said, in just a few words, is that the main industrial base I am interested in forming, and upon which E2M can grow, is to use alternative fuels to create electricity to produce food indoors in sealed inner city buildings, highly controlled environments, in living soil with the highest nutrient density possible, with no pollutants, no GMO spores, no acid rain, no diesel soot, and under absolutely controlled environmental conditions. This will enable us to produce organic, highly nutrient dense food in that environment, in inner cities, employing inner city people, starting at 13 years old, starting at $16/hour, with benefits, profit sharing, and equity sharing. That’s what I’m interested in. And that, to me, is the sustainable base that can survive no matter what happens when the economic system collapses, which it will. We need energy and food, and if we can have cities producing food, those people will suffer less from what’s coming, and we’ll be able to renew our manufacturing base and produce absolutely fresh living food locally for everybody. So that’s where I’m headed.
That’s what I said.
So one of the things I found to be very important, if you talk about social entrepreneurship, is faith; and sometimes this comes late in life — I’m 64. Faith is about understanding that there is something here and a destiny for all of us. And if we open ourselves up to it and ask what it is and aren’t afraid to have that faith, we will be shown the way. Although it can be difficult, when you do open yourself up to that, you begin to become pulled through life, rather than trying to push your way through life. And when you’re hanging on for dear life, it’s not because you’re hanging on for dear life to try to make up for mistakes you made and to survive, it’s because things are moving so quickly you have to hang on tighter. And so that’s what has happened.
It is the economic system combined with technologies that create the direction of humanity. The book I am writing is called “The Community Age” because I’m saying that we had the Agrarian Age, where most people farmed, lived sustainably, yet had no surplus value or individual wealth. That transitioned into the Industrial Age, where wealth began to concentrate because the surplus value and profits resulting from the use of machines was not distributed; it was kept in the hands of the entrepreneurs, who built vast fortunes which secured them the economic control of the planet. This then turned into the Information/Technology Age where the huge industrial fortunes created in the Industrial Age were invested into technologies such as computers and other technologies that are moving society forward faster. And these are all driven by corporations seeking to maximize profits and growth for their investors in any way possible, including patenting and owning the food chain, and owning as much clean water resources as possible. Your generation is the most important generation in the history of humanity because it is you who will decide who controls this planet – corporations seeking maximum profits in any way possible, or communities seeking a better world for the common good.
What else would you recommend to someone of this younger generation, whether they’re an inventor, an investor, an economist, businessperson, social entrepreneur, community organizer, all these hats that I hear you wearing? Some final pieces of advice to help create this community focused future?
Find your higher purpose; have the faith to pursue it through whatever you must, because it’s not always easy; don’t forget that there is another source of information, a higher place you can pull information from. Give it all you’ve got. And connect and love and care and share with the people around you.