Blog: Deborah Groban Olson

Deborah Groban Olson
is an employee/labor side ownership attorney with over 28 years of experience creating and advising employee-owned companies, equity compensation plans, and cooperatives, representing companies, trusts, unions, and employees, and creating employee ownership feasibility studies.

She is also executive director of the non-profit Center for Community-Based Enterprise. C2BE links entrepreneurs with underutilized local resources to develop locally rooted businesses paying living wages. Its initial focus is southeast Michigan. She is a managing member of Ingenuity US, the mission-driven, for-profit sister of C2BE that is currently being organized.

As an attorney, Deborah is general counsel to the American Ingenuity Alliance, assisting inventors and unions to jointly improve bargaining leverage and local job creation.

She is also executive director of the Capital Ownership Group (COG)* and founding executive director of the Michigan Employee Ownership Center; founding chair of JointCities Development, a community development corporation in metropolitan Detroit; past chair of the National Center for Employee Ownership; and past vice-chair of the ESOP Association Michigan Chapter. She is a member of the Leadership Detroit Class XVII and the AFL-CIO Lawyers Coordinating Committee. Her publications are available here .

Deborah practiced labor law in Wisconsin, Arkansas and Michigan from 1976-1981, then began her employee ownership practice. She taught courses at Wayne State UniversityLaw School and its labor studies program, University of Michigan Institute of Labor & Industrial Relations, University of Wisconsin School for Workers, AFL-CIO Meany Center for Labor Studies. She is admitted to the bar in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Arkansas, and holds a BA, cum laude, University of Wisconsin (1971); a JD, order of the coif, University of Wisconsin (1976) and has had a Martindale Hubbell AV rating since 1997.

*Although still on-line, COG was active primarily from 1999-2006. Olson directed COG’s Alfred P. Sloan Foundation-funded Fair Exchange Project, and authored “Fair Exchange: Providing citizens with equity managed by a community trust in return for government subsidies or tax breaks to businesses”, Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy (2006). The paper includes model state and federal fair exchange laws, also available in a separate document, which are particularly relevant now that the government owns an increasing portion of the US economy. COG is an international network of professionals, academics and activists that operates an on-line conference center, think tank, and library from Kent State University. Its purpose is to help communities use broad ownership to abate the negative impact of globalization. It has sponsored several international conferences and has had 20 working groups with over 600 participants from six continents and has responded to over 5.3 million information requests from people in 173 countries.

[i] Her publications, available at, include: “Union Experiences with Worker Ownership” 1982 Wis. LR 729; “Keeping Jobs and Capital at Home” 1984 Nova Law Journal 583; “Employee Ownership and Economic Development” 1987 NYU Review of Law & Social Change; “Unions and Employee Ownership”, ESOP Handbook (Probus, 1989); “Unions and Fair Market Value: An Argument for a Safe Harbor for Negotiated ESOPs”, 1992 Journal of Employee Ownership Law & Finance 135; “ESOPs for People, Not for Wall Street,” 1993 Journal of Employee Ownership Law and Finance 5; “Development, Growth & Experience of ESOPs and Democratic Employee Buyouts” speech at Int’l. Conference on Democratic Employee Ownership, Dublin, Ireland 1993; “Giving Employee Owners a Real Voice as Stockholders: Legislative Proposals to the Dunlop Commission”, 1994 Journal of Employee Ownership Law & Finance; “The Employee Buyout Feasibility Study”, Leveraged ESOPs and Employee Buyouts, NCEO 1997 (updated 2004), “The Feasibility Study for an Employee Led Buyout” Winter 1998, Journal of Employee Ownership Law & Finance. Summary of “Capital Ownership Group Industrial Homestead Policy Proposals” Business Ethics September 2000 and Accountability, December 2000; Chap. 17 “Labor Unions”, ESOP Answer Book, Panel Publishers, July 2000; “Fair Exchange: Providing citizens with equity managed by a community trust in return for government subsidies or tax breaks to businesses”, Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy (2006).

Deborah Groban Olson - Most Recent Posts:

Deborah Groban Olson - Post 3: Catalyzing Product Diversification for Auto Suppliers

The Center for Community Based Enterprise (C2BE) has a diverse group of talented advisors who seek to support and create locally rooted businesses. That includes helping auto suppliers who are committed to remaining in southeast Michigan to diversify their products.

Several of the C2BE advisors are forming a new company, Ingenuity US (IUS), that has access to a variety of sources of intellectual property in Michigan and Hawaii, an intellectual property licensing professional, a person experienced in product development, and expertise in employee ownership and divergent thinking processes.

IUS seeks opportunities to provide hands-on, entrepreneurial assistance to local manufacturing businesses that are interested in diversifying their products and remaining in southeast Michigan.

For more information contact Deborah Groban Olson at or 313-331-7821.

Deborah Groban Olson - Post 2: Community Based Enterprise Speaker Series

Catalyzing change: Community Based Enterprise Speaker Series

The Center for Community Based Enterprise, Inc. (C2BE) is organizing a speaker series to provide metro Detroiters with concrete examples of community-based business methods used to build sustainable economies in challenging circumstances.

Our aim is to catalyze similar development efforts by expanding the knowledge, skills, and organizing capacity of local people and organizations, and to help them build connections with people and resources needed to make these enterprises successful. The series is sponsored by the Skillman Foundation and Detroit LISC and focused on the special needs of the communities served by Skillman and LISC. Listed below are four of the events. To get updates on final locations and speakers, please see C2BE's website.

May 1: Youth Entrepreneurship and Education at the Freedom Institute’s Freedom Weekend (unconfirmed):  

Presenting community-based enterprises currently being developed in and around schools by young entrepreneurs, and programs that involve young people in solving business problems.

Location: Cobo Hall

May 28 at 6 P.M.: Creating a Community-Based Supermarket in the Detroit Food Desert

  • Jeff Brown, owner of successful, community oriented Shop-Rite   supermarkets in Philadelphia
  • Charles Walker, current manager of Detroit eastside Save-a-Lot and prospective CEO of the Detroit Supermarket Task Force’s first store;
  • Margaret Garry, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Detroit supermarket project
  • Wendell Young IV, president, UFCW Local 1776 in Philadelphia Location (in the neighborhood where the Supermarket Task Force has decided to locate its first store) 
Co-sponsored by the Detroit Supermarket Task Force, MOSES and UFCW Statewide Community Development.

June 18 or 19 evening: 21st Century Farming - Maximizing Crop Yield on Small Plots

Speaker: Elliot Coleman (invited), author of A Garden for All Seasons, keynote address at conference for urban gardeners and farmers.

Location: Wayne State University

Co-sponsored by The Greening of Detroit.

Sept. 9 at 6:00 p.m. : Successful, Large Community-Based Enterprise and the Future of Detroit

Speaker: Deborah Groban Olson, employee ownership attorney & C2BE executive director, will describe and show a film on successful European industrial co-operative communities arising from circumstances at least as challenging as those currently facing Detro. She will also discuss the skill and knowledge resources available in southeast Michigan, and how they can be redeployed to create a vibrant, locally-rooted economy.

Location: (TBD)

A “community-based enterprise” (CBE) is a locally owned for-profit or non-profit business enterprise with a sustainable revenue model, intentionally structured to create community benefits, and to be “rooted” in a specific community through its ownership structure, business model, by-laws, or cultural norms. Community-based enterprise has resulted in multi-billion dollar economies in the Basque region of Spain and the Bologna area of Italy, both of which suffered from extreme disinvestment before residents adopted CBE strategies.  There are also examples in the U.S.

For more information contact Deborah Groban Olson at or 313-331-7821.

Deborah Groban Olson-Post 1: "Innovation Broker" Developing Detroit as Green Manufacturing Center

For over 100 years, Detroit successfully organized its life around the needs of several major global companies. The future of these companies, at least as local employers, is in grave doubt. Over those 100 years the world has changed. Today, in order for a local community to thrive in the global economy, it needs a clear strategy aimed at protecting the needs of local residents and locally rooted businesses, especially when those diverge from the needs of global companies. 

Companies (particularly employee-owned ones) whose primary focus is on keeping local people employed are quick to change products or business strategies and slow to lay off employees. For example, from 2000 – 2008, Ohio lost 29% of its manufacturing jobs, yet the 24 manufacturing companies that were members of the Ohio Employee Owned Network, over the same period, lost only 1% of their jobs. (Ohio ESOP Survey – Kent State University).

Detroit needs to reinvent itself from its strengths: Detroit/southeast Michigan is the manufacturing technology capital of the world. We have 230 R&D centers for the auto OEMs and suppliers, which is the highest concentration of manufacturing technology knowledge anywhere. (J. Cleveland for MEDC, 2005) Even companies that manufacture overseas have technology design centers in southeast Michigan.

We have all become accustomed to the concept that today’s economy is a knowledge economy. Yet we do not eat, drink or wear knowledge; we are physical creatures surrounded by a built environment of things.

The new green economy needs a myriad of products that are highly engineered. As William McDonough & Braungart say in Cradle to Cradle, the future of green manufacturing is making things the way nature does, engineering them so that all parts can be recycled or reused, supporting instead of destroying the natural world.  Doing this requires diverse knowledge, capacity, teamwork and imagination.

Ford and GM, together, hold approximately one-third of all green technology patents and related value. (Malackowski, Detroit News, 12-2-09). There is a huge amount of unused intellectual property in the auto industry. Historically, the auto industry has not licensed out technology that it invented but did not use. So long as gas was cheap in the US, there were not sufficient economic incentives for the auto companies to develop their green technology. Many valuable technologies they could not afford to put in cars languish on shelves in southeast Michigan.

Over the past 5 -10 years, hundreds of thousands of highly skilled manufacturing technology workers, including engineers, scientists, technicians and managers have been laid off or taken buyouts. There has been some brain drain from the region, but many of these people remain. They have—our region has—the knowledge and skill needed to invent, produce and market the new green products which the growing real and political climate change will demand.

The non-profit Center for Community Based Enterprise (C2BE
) is focused on reorganizing our local smarts and skills for the benefit of local residents, locally rooted businesses and communities. We are organizing entrepreneurial resources that can be easily shared by the large numbers of skilled people here who know how to make complex things efficiently, but may lack some entrepreneurship skills or knowledge. 

It is neither realistic nor efficient to push every talented engineer or craftsman through “entrepreneurship training”.  Rather, such people should have an opportunity to participate in new or refocused businesses where they share their skills, take some entrepreneurial risk, and get the benefit of other people’s managerial, marketing, purchasing, intellectual property licensing, information technology, product design or other skills. C2BE is currently organizing a mission-driven sister company, Ingenuity US (IUS), as an Innovation Broker that will create and operate this new business model.

C2BE is an information and education resource that supports and connects entrepreneurs, community and resources to grow “community-based enterprises” (CBEs), which we define as companies that are: sustainable; locally rooted; intentionally structured to provide community benefit; and committed to paying living wages. C2BE is a membership organization that welcomes members and contributors; learn more at our website or
contact Debbie Sullivan at or (313) 331-7821.

Ingenuity US’ goal is to build a group of locally rooted, sustainable businesses, based on abundant underutilized resources of Detroit and southeast Michigan. It will create profit-making, sustainable, community-based or employee-owned enterprises by finding and developing business opportunities and initiating businesses with the region’s working people and inventors. Ingenuity US will foster cooperation between these businesses and existing local businesses, where possible and mutually beneficial. It will focus on proprietary products or on service businesses that inherently require and benefit local workers.

IUS will accomplish this by creating a capital structure unique to the United States, but practiced successfully in Europe (see, for example,
Mondragon). This structure will retain at least half of the company’s profits in the company for reinvestment or to capitalize other community-based enterprises, which will follow the same model.  This will create a pool of “patient capital” that is committed to using profit and reinvesting it to benefit local communities—unlike capital that is beholden to outside shareholders, venture capitalists or other non-productive stakeholders.

C2BE and IUS are actively looking for existing businesses interested in product diversification, skilled people interested in helping develop community-based businesses and investors who agree with our rooted capital structure. For more information, please contact Deborah Olson at or (313) 331-7821.