Portland News

Self-Starting in the Age of Covid

Every month since April, over four million Americans have quit their jobs in the so-called Great Resignation. Some have retired, many have switched employers and even careers, but millions of others have become their own boss. This year, more small businesses have been created in less time than in any period in history. It is indeed the best and worst of times for entrepreneurs, even those engaged in an activity as old as our democracy itself.

Portland based Zee Cohen-Sanchez, founded political organization Sole Strategies in September of 2020, just two months before a divisive presidential election and one month before the first effective Covid vaccine was announced. “It was a terrible time to start an organization because it was so close to the election, when campaigns are already set up,” Sanchez recalls. “But we were able to help a couple of candidates. We did very well in spite of things.”

Sole Strategies faced another unique challenge because of Covid. As its name suggests, the organization relies on feet–or as Cohen-Sanchez puts it, “people wearing out the soles of their shoes.” The hundreds of canvassers she hires to go door-to-door to educate on-the-fence voters about her candidates would have to negotiate a delicate balance between advocating while respecting peoples’ fear of being infected.

There would be many more learning moments to come for Sole Strategies and for Cohen-Sanchez, who did not give up her regular job until February of this year–just before another game-changer, The Great Resignation, revved up. “I didn’t come from a business background,” she recalls. “My field business was something I did on the side. I worked mostly in labor at the time, as a union organizer. It was hard switching roles.” 

In addition to learning how to do payroll, hiring, and plenty of other “owner” tasks, Cohen-Sanchez had to learn PPE protocols and Covid training, on top of the entrepreneur’s most pressing task: drumming up business. “I just reached out to people myself,” she says. “I had worked previously for consulting agencies where I did outreach. I got lists and started DMing candidates that we wanted to see win. It was really time-intensive. We did do social media, but I learned that, even in the midst of a pandemic, what always lands campaigns is reaching out to folks directly.”

Although field operations is a year-round activity, uncertainty surrounding Covid created a dry period. Cohen-Sanchez compensated by serving more organizations and nonprofits. As the cycle normalized, Sole Strategies refined its strategy.

On the positive side, a number of competitors left the industry, or moved onto virtual services like phone banking. Cohen-Sanchez credits Sole Strategies’ success to its willingness to adapt. “The folks who did make it through found other things they could do to reach voters,” she says.

Adaptability in the era of Covid also meant learning how to get everyone working together without working together, literally. “We have to be creative in the ways in which we collaborate now,” she says. “How do we have that really close collaboration that we need without infecting each other? It’s a question I ask a lot.”

Although workers in political advocacy tend to be loyal, Sole Strategies is not taking anything for granted during the Great Resignation. The company pays a living wage; most of its 25 employees earn upwards of $25 per hour. And all employees have an at-home based job, meaning more time for their families and other interests. Despite its youth, the company already offers low-level benefits, paid time off, and a wellness benefit. 

Another important benefit is making everyone feel acknowledged. “We have a management structure and we’re unionized now,” Cohen-Sanchez says. “But all of our employees are treated like managers. We’re going on a retreat soon and every person on our team will have a part in deciding the next step in our organization.”

Whatever comes next will be informed by the pandemic but will also need to outlast it. For example, “field-op” organizers like Sole Strategies will have to find ways to be more creative with outreach. With climate change producing more, and more severe, pandemics, change will be a constant. “We need to figure out how to still have a good conversation with someone in an effective way,” Cohen-Sanchez says. “When you’re not face-to-face with someone it’s a different process.”

A final challenge is more personal: she hates being the boss. “It’s one of the worst parts of my job,” Cohen-Sanchez says with a laugh. “That has been very challenging, especially as a person who worked in labor. How do I navigate this position on the other side of the table? How do I make my employees feel valued? The job requires a lot of hours and emotional effort. But we’ve made it work. Our turnover has been low and we’ve built our dream team. We’re on the right track.”

In the end, her only regret is not starting Sole Strategies earlier, though “if only” is a cliche of entrepreneurship. “Starting when we did made us more resilient,” she says. “We’d already been through Covid for nine months. We knew it would be a long-term thing. I’m happy that we’re going to help progressives get elected for the next ten or twenty years–and beyond. I’m grateful. I’m excited.”

Zee Cohen-Sanchez, is founder and executive director of Sole Strategies, a progressive political organization, using people-powered campaigning strategies to lift the voices of working class candidates.

Zee has worked on several people-powered campaigns in the last decade, helping flip seats across the county. After Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, she committed to helping truly progressive candidates who don’t accept corporate money win seats across the nation.

Zee has worked on several people-powered campaigns in the last decade, helping flip seats across the county. After Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, she committed to helping truly progressive candidates who don’t accept corporate money win seats across th

Opinions expressed by Portland News contributors are their own.