Employment and Jobs

Rebuilding the Middle Class through Employee Ownership

July 6, 2023  • Economic Opportunities Program & Institute for the Study of Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing at Rutgers University

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Stagnant wages, the rising cost of living expenses, and other factors have led to a shrinking middle class and growing income and wealth inequality in recent decades. Workers in employee-owned businesses, however, have often fared better than their peers on a range of measures related to economic well-being. Speakers discuss the latest research on wealth inequality and the potential of employee ownership to help rebuild the middle class.

This discussion features remarks from Richard Freeman (Herbert Ascherman Chair in Economics, Harvard University), Doug Kruse (Distinguished Professor, Rutgers University Institute for the Study of Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing), Fidan Kurtulus (Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts Amherst), Veronica Ortiz  (Business Systems Analyst Manager, Worker-Owner, Web Industries), Stephen Smith (Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer,  Amsted Industries Incorporated), Steve Storkan  (Executive Director, Employee Ownership Expansion Network),  Tomás Durán (President, Concerned Capital), and moderator (Abha Bhattarai, Economics Correspondent, The Washington Post).

This discussion was hosted on June 15, 2023, as part of the Employee Ownership Ideas Forum, which brought together leading policymakers, practitioners, experts, and the media for a robust discussion on how we can grow employee ownership for the shared benefit of American workers and businesses. The Forum was co-hosted by the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program and the Institute for the Study of Employee Ownership and Profit Sharing at Rutgers University. Learn more: https://www.aspeninstitute.org/events/employee-ownership-ideas-forum/


Video: @abhabhattarai and guests from @Harvard, @RU_SMLR, @UMassAmherst, Amsted Industries, @EOXNetworkUS, @ConcernCapital, and Web Industries discuss rebuilding the middle class through #EmployeeOwnership.



Conversations from the Employee Ownership Ideas Forum



Richard B. Freeman

Herbert Ascherman Chair in Economics, Harvard University

Richard holds the Herbert Ascherman Chair in Economics, at Harvard University. He is a Research Associate at the NBER, and is currently serving as Faculty co-director of the Center for Labor and a Just Economy at the Harvard Law School. Professor Freeman is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science and the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science). He is currently serving on the AAAS Initiative for Science and Technology. Freeman received the Mincer Lifetime Achievement Prize from the Society of Labor Economics in 2006.

In 2007 he was awarded the IZA Prize in Labor Economics. In 2011 he was appointed Frances Perkins Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. In 2016 he received the Global Equity Organization (GEO) Judges Award, honoring exceptional contribution towards the promotion of of global employee share ownership. Also in 2016, he was named a Distinguished Fellow of the American Economic Association; the award citation describes Richard as “an enormously innovative labor economist who has made pioneering contributions to virtually every aspect of the field.” Professor Freeman’s research interests include the job market for scientists and engineers; the transformation of scientific ideas into innovations, Chinese and Korean labor markets; the effects of AI and robots on the job market; and forms of labor market representation and employee ownership.


photo of Doug Kruse
Douglas Kruse

Distinguished Professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations, Rutgers University

Douglas is a Distinguished Professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University, a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research (Cambridge, MA), and a Research Fellow at the IZA Institute for the Study of Labor (Bonn, Germany). Dr. Kruse served as Senior Economist at the White House Council of Economic Advisers in 2013-2014.  He received an M.A. in Economics from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University. His research has focused on the employment and earnings effects of disability, and the causes, consequences, and implications of employee ownership and profit sharing.



Fidan Kurtulus

Professor of Economics, University of Massachusetts-Amherst;
Co-Director of the University of Massachusetts Center for Employment Equity

Fidan is a Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Co-Director of the University of Massachusetts Center for Employment Equity. She has published extensively on a variety of topics including broad-based employee share ownership and democratic workplace practices, gender and race diversity at U.S. workplaces, and the impacts of U.S. Civil Rights legislation and anti-discrimination regulation. She is a former Women and Public Policy Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a Wertheim Fellow at Harvard Law School. She has won numerous awards for her research including a Beyster Fellowship on Democratic Workplaces, and an Early Career Research Award from the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. She has been awarded grants from the National Science Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation, and the Arnold Foundation, among other sources. Professor Kurtulus received her A.B. from the University of Chicago, graduating with high honors in economics. She obtained her Ph.D. in economics from Cornell University.



Veronica Ortiz

Business Systems Analyst Manager & Employee-Owner, Web Industries, Inc.

Veronica is Web Industries’ Business Systems Analyst Manager, headquartered in Marlborough, Massachusetts. Throughout her near 19-year tenure at Web, Veronica has served in many different roles, but always, and most importantly, as an engaged employee-owner. In her current role, she supports process and system improvements throughout the organization via technical analysis and facilitation of fellow employee-owner teams. Veronica is a passionate ambassador of employee ownership and Web’s values. She is driven to improve and grow the business through collaboratively working with others to enhance the employee-ownership experience and the overall effort to build shared wealth. Veronica has served on several employee ownership teams within Web Industries, participated in many employee-ownership conferences, and previously served on the board of directors at the National Center for Employee Ownership.



photo of Stephen SmithStephen R. Smith

Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer AMSTED Industries Incorporated

Stephen is Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer at AMSTED Industries. Mr. Smith joined AMSTED in 2005 as president of Amsted Rail, became general counsel in 2007, was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer in 2017, and added the role of Chairman of the Board in 2018. Prior to joining AMSTED, from 1999 to 2005 Mr. Smith was general counsel and president of the shared services operations in North America of GKN plc, a FTSE-traded UK diversified engineering company; and from 1991 to 1999 was vice president, secretary and general counsel of The Interlake Corporation, an NYSE-traded diversified manufacturing company. He began his professional career in 1982 at the Chicago law firm of Hopkins & Sutter (since merged into Foley & Lardner), where he was a corporate partner and chairman of the corporate transactions group.

Mr. Smith earned an A.B. degree in political science from Wheaton College (Illinois) with highest honor, and his J.D. degree from The University of Chicago Law School. Mr. Smith served as Board Chair of the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago from 2017 to 2021, and as Board Chair of Employee-Owned S Corporations of America (ESCA) from 2014 to 2017. He is a member of the Economic Club of Chicago and Commercial Club of Chicago. He is a past member of the Wheaton College Board of Visitors and the Visiting Committee of The University of Chicago Law School. Mr. Smith is a member of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Chicago. He previously served on the Board of Elders at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Warrenville, Illinois, where he chaired the Finance Committee. He lives in Chicago with his wife Linda. They have three adult children and two grandchildren.



photo of Steve StorkanSteve Storkan

Executive Director, Employee Ownership Expansion Network

Steve is the Executive Director of the Employee Ownership Expansion Network and board member of 7 State Centers for Employee Ownership across the country. Steve has been involved in the employee ownership industry for over 25 years, most recently as the Director of ESOP Administration for Alerus Retirement and Benefits where he worked closely with businesses in the creation of an ESOP and the technical administration/compliance required in subsequent years. Steve spent 11 years as a member of the Board of Directors of the Minnesota-Dakotas Chapter of the ESOP Association where also served as Chapter President and VP of Government Relations. Steve holds a Certified Financial Planner (CFP®) designation from the University of Minnesota State Mankato.



photo of Tomas Duran, a speaker at employee ownership ideas forumTomás Durán

President, Concerned Capital

Tomás has more than 15 years of economic development experience in low income communities of Southern California. He applies his finance, new market tax credits, and redevelopment skills to develop creative and innovative economic development solutions for private businesses. Prior to this role, Tomás worked as a Program Manager for the Whittier Redevelopment Agency and Vice President of Real Estate for Genesis LA Economic Growth Corp. In addition to CC, he teaches a class as a part time instructor for the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California. Tomás also serves on the board of Common Future., the New Market Tax Credit Community Advisory Board for Dudley Ventures Community Investment and is a fellow in the Aspen Foundation’s Job Quality Fellowship. Tomás has a master’s degree in Planning from the University of Southern California.



photo of Abha, moderator at Employee Ownership Ideas ForumAbha Bhattarai (Moderator)

Economics Correspondent, Washington Post

Abha is the economics correspondent at The Washington Post, where she writes about housing, jobs, inequality and workers’ issues. She was previously the Post’s retail reporter and won a Gerald Loeb Award for her coverage of essential workers on the frontlines of the pandemic. Abha is a graduate of Northwestern University.