Devin: What is your superpower?
Stephanie: I would like my superpower to be the great application of the community wealth building lens to help effect positive change in Baltimore, so it can, at some point, become a more equitable, inclusive, sustainable, resilient city.
Stephanie Geller is going to hate this article.
Stephanie, the founder of Community Wealth Builders and the Maryland Neighborhood Exchange, deserves credit for making a big difference in Baltimore. That is the last thing she wants to see in print.
She’s all about building community and believes that requires sharing credit widely while she takes personal responsibility to put her heart and soul into the work.
She went to college to learn how to end the poverty she saw in Baltimore, earning a degree in Urban and Regional Studies from Cornell before completing her master’s of social work specializing in social and community development at the University of Maryland.
“I had the crazy idea that I would study urban planning and public policy and come back to Baltimore with all the tools necessary to effect change,” Stephanie says. Before shifting her attention to grassroots work, she spent two decades at Johns Hopkins studying the problems she now works to solve.
“I was born and raised in Baltimore. This is my city,” she says. “even as a young child, I was frustrated by the poverty I saw, the homelessness I saw. And in Baltimore, it’s very visible.”
“I knew from childhood that I wanted to affect some type of positive change,” she says.
That’s exactly what she’s doing.
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“I was very frustrated with the socioeconomic challenges facing Baltimore and was curious what communities were out there that were doing different things with better outcomes,” she says. “That opened my eyes to the whole notion of community wealth building.”
“Community wealth building is an economic development paradigm that focuses on bringing power and resources back to disinvested communities,” Stephanie says. Speaking of cooperatives, worker ownership and community land trusts, she adds, “These models were fascinating, and in many ways, they flipped what my city, Baltimore City, was doing on its head.”
The city focused on recruiting large employers to town, ignoring community and individual empowerment, and failing to consider how people could build assets, which, she notes, is essential for breaking cycles of intergenerational poverty.
“We are the only entity in Baltimore to focus on the broad notion of community wealth building. We do education work, advocacy work, and then we do real active programs,” Stephanie says. “They’re all different, and they focus on different communities in Baltimore, but they’re all tied through the lens of bringing power and resources back to disinvested neighborhoods.”
Working with thriving local entrepreneurs, she has built strong relationships, including with successful Black-owned businesses. Despite their success, they consistently reported difficulty attracting capital.
Looking for solutions, she discovered a new tool. “That opened my eyes to the new world of grassroots investment crowdfunding,” she says.
“It just made so much sense within our overall mission, for three reasons,” she says, listing them:
One, it creates more asset-building opportunities for real Baltimoreans.
Two, it gets businesses the capital they need. In a way, the businesses set the terms they can decide do they want equity? Do they want to do revenue sharing? So it's very business focused.
Then three, through that community wealth building lens, if businesses give their customers and community a small financial stake in their success, they're going to shop at the business more. They're going to promote it more. So it really creates that more equitable, sustainable, resilient economy that we care about.
Community Wealth Builders works on both sides of the equation. On the one side, the organization provides free technical support to any locally owned business interested in raising money via investment crowdfunding.
On the other side, she’s helping to develop discipline around investing in local businesses. “We want to educate real people that they can invest in local businesses. We want to excite them about it. We want them to understand why this is important for a sustainable, resilient local economy. And then we want to make it easy for people to do so.”
The Maryland Neighborhood Exchange lists companies currently raising capital via crowdfunding. The site also lists 63 companies that have successfully raised money after being listed on the Exchange.
While Stephanie refers to the site as a platform, it is not a FINRA-registered Regulation Crowdfunding portal. It is a directory of companies that are raising money on FINRA-registered portals. Many of those companies have received training and support from Community Wealth Builders, which also works to cultivate the investor community to support local companies.
At SuperCrowd22, Stephanie will lead a workshop on tapping investment crowdfunding to foster more equitable, inclusive, sustainable, and resilient local economies.
“People in Baltimore want to invest in our businesses, so sort of adding that local frame and focusing on people as possible investors and great businesses,” she says. “I think that’s important if we want grassroots investment crowdfunding to be a more robust tool.”
“People live in Baltimore. People stay here because they love the city,” she says. “People now know, [if] I want to support the economy, I should shop local. I should go to the farmer’s market. They don’t know about investing in local business. So it’s just educating, opening people’s eyes.” SuperCrowd22 can be a tool for that education in every community.
I’m thrilled to have Stephanie on the program for SuperCrowd22. Her leadership is helping to improve opportunities for people in Baltimore. More importantly, at least to me, her work provides a model for every other city in the country. No town is exempt from poverty.
Community Wealth Builders has also stepped up to act as a co-host for SuperCrowd22. Members of the community should contact Stephanie for discounted access. (Superpowers for Good subscribers can register for half-price here.)
Stephanie’s work builds on what she describes as the superpower she hopes to strengthen, using the community wealth building lens to solve problems.
How to Develop Community Wealth Building As a Superpower
Given the number of companies that have raised capital with her help and the number of investors who have put their money to work with her help, I think community wealth building is her superpower.
Stephanie explains the power of her work and the patience and passion required:
Grassroots work involves people. One of the projects we're working on is two-and-one-half years in development. There's nothing even tangible there yet. We're working in a Baltimore community to help residents pool capital so they can collectively buy commercial real estate.
I'm really excited about this project and potential and it's the first time this is being done in Baltimore. It's definitely an initiative I am excited about and proud of.
Stephanie shares the credit. “All of this work is due to countless hours of so many other great Baltimoreans.”
“That’s one reason I love investment crowdfunding the way we’re doing it in Baltimore. People can go into the businesses that are raising capital. They can see them; they can talk to the owners and entrepreneurs. It’s all based on relationships and connections.”
By following Stephanie’s example and advice, you can apply the lens of community wealth building to your work and make it a superpower enabling you to do more good.