Limitless Growth Debated at Slow Money Conference

Sole Food | BCBusiness
Sole Food co-founders Seann Dory (left) and Michael Ableman.

“Taking money out of the fast track” and putting it into the community “with a return on investment that is far greater than financial” was the focus of the inaugural Slow Money conference

The founders of Sole Foods are audacious enough to grow persimmons, quince and Meyer Lemon in containers on two acres of blacktop at the traffic-choked intersection of Main and Terminal in Vancouver. In five years, Sole Food co-founders Michael Ableman and Seann Dory have transformed a few planter boxes in a derelict Skid Road parking lot into North America’s largest urban farm. They grew 20 tons of food last year on four sites and distributed the bounty to community shareholders,  farmers markets and some of Vancouver’s top restaurants.

But today the agricultural entrepreneurs face a different kind of cultivation challenge. They can’t harvest enough veggies or get enough grants to truly grow their business. They’ve turned to a crowd-funding campaign for capital to open two retail outlets.  But the really big dream of a 50-acre farm in the country, where Downtown Eastside employees could live and work, needs real capital. And that’s why Dory is polishing his pitch to potential angel investors at the first ever Slow Money conference in Vancouver.

Sole Food was one of nine local enterprises chosen from three dozen applicants to pitch to more than a hundred delegates and investors who attended the conference on Granville Island June 5th and 6th. Organizer Rory Holland—who has a background in technology start-ups—says he had an “epiphany” attending a Slow Money conference in the U.S. last year.

“These guys matched what I liked to do in business, but ground it in the soil,” says Holland. “I see this conference as a catalyst for a conversation about taking money out of the fast track and putting it into the community with a return on investment that is far greater than financial.”

Holland assembled a conference cast that included Slow Money founder Woody Tasch, Renewal Funds’ Joel Solomon and mining heavyweight Ross Beaty of Alterra Power and the Sitka Foundation. 

Slow Money challenges the notion of limitless growth in a global economy. It was inspired in part by the Slow Food movement, which began in Italy as an antidote to the proliferation of fast food. Slow Money urges investors and donors to steer money to local food ventures. Tasch talks about “patient” and “nurture” capital, built around principles like care of community, nonviolence and sense of place.

“There’s such a thing as money that is too fast and companies that are too big,” says Tasch. “I think everyone should ask themselves, What is the impact of my investments on other living human beings? We are not just about organic food. Our goal is resilient, healthy communities that have nutritious food as their foundation.”

In the four years since it began, the U.S. Slow Money community has generated $35 million in investment for 300 small American food enterprises. So far in Canada, one Nova Scotia group with 190 investors has distributed $750,000 in that province.

Rory Holland says the buzz and turn-out in Vancouver indicates that Slow Money is not a fringe concept. Andy Broderick, VP Community Investment at Vancity, a Slow Money sponsor, agrees: “The patient investment funds this conference seeks to facilitate will be an important new resource for Lower Mainland local food entrepreneurs.”

Ross Beaty is one of those potential investors. Beaty, who founded Pan American Silver, is also one of the country’s most ardent environmentalists through his family Sitka Foundation. Beaty says he’s not bothered by “ambiguity,” and at this stage in his career is attracted to the Slow Money concept of “total return” rather than just the bottom line.

“I had breakfast this morning with a bunch of CEOs and the chief economist of one of Canada’s biggest banks,” says Beaty. “They were all talking about 3 percent growth or nobody’s happy. I told them you’ve got to get off this growth thing. The party’s over. You can’t infinitely grow a finite world. Either we’re going to get to a different model by disaster or design.”

After the pitches were done, principals huddled with potential investors dockside on Granville Island. How much money will move as a result of the Slow Money conference is yet to be determined, but as this was no Dragons Den, nobody left in tears. The entrepreneurs looking for Slow Money seed capital tend to the philosophical.

“I used to try to beat my audience into submission with the brilliance of my ideas,” says Michael Ableman of Sole Foods. “Now I just try to grow the most beautiful tomato. Everyone eats and the pleasure of eating well is a powerful motivation for investment.”