Collage by Alex Schloer

Thurston County resident Daisha Versaw is committed to helping small businesses in her community thrive as a member of the Thurston Investment Network (ThINk).

“I get this sense of sadness whenever a small local business closes its doors, giving way to a big corporation or chain,” said Versaw. “Compared to companies whose owners live far away, these independent businesses care so much more about the communities they’re in. They tend to treat their employees and customers and neighborhoods better, so their presence does a lot for the culture and soul of a local community.”

Many in the Thurston community, like Versaw, have looked for ways to align their methods of investment strategy with community values and socially conscious stock investments, and ThINk makes that possible.

ThINk offers a local alternative to traditional commercial lenders, like banks, by giving community members an opportunity to invest and connect with local small-business owners. While the investment network is separate from the Thurston Economic Development Council, the EDC formed and administers the group, which consists of more than 40 county residents like Versaw.

“Our job is like a matchmaker,” said Aslan Meade, ThINk business and investor relations manager and director of strategic alliances at the Thurston EDC. “We have a high concentration with business technical providers, like coaching and training, where we can help identify businesses who are seeking capital.

“If it seems like a good match for that business to pitch to the ThINk network, we can help them get there.”

The EDC staff bows out once the pitch is complete. From there, it is up to ThINk members to reach out directly to the business to learn more. If the two parties decide to move forward, all negotiations regarding capital are between the individual investor or investors and the business owner.

Meade created and built the local investing network five years ago by scouring the region for individuals who were interested in investing locally. The first business investment match was made in early 2018, and since then, ThINk has had 10 matches, for a total investment of $800,000.

“We are proud that we have done two investments during COVID, showing that our membership is willing to make investments in small businesses even amidst a crisis on certain financial times,” Meade said. “And we see ThINk and local investing as part of the toolkit to help (businesses) come out of COVID.”

Trxstle, an outdoor gear and apparel company, is one business that has benefited from a ThINk partnership. Photo courtesy of John Smigaj.

The Thurston Investment Network follows a model initially developed in Port Townsend called LION, or Local Investment Opportunity Network, where local investors started endowing small-town businesses.

“To me, (LION) is a very inspiring story, especially when our whole investment system in America is geared toward Wall Street and big corporations,” Meade said, noting that, while small businesses in America are responsible for a large amount of productivity and job creation, only about 1 percent of investments goes to such businesses.

There are different levels to “buying local,” according to ThINk investor Gary Andrews. “Certainly, buying local is helpful — making things local is even better — but investing local puts it all together; it just makes our whole community stronger.”

Since its inception, ThINk has invested in a wide range of businesses, such as OlyKraut, sustainably handcrafted sauerkrauts, pickles, and sipping brines; Off Planet Research, which creates unique simulants from extraterrestrial environments; Trxstle, an outdoor gear and apparel company; and River Valley Community Health, which offers health care in rural Lewis County.

“One thing the economic fallout from COVID-19 has proved to me is that our global and national systems can be extremely fragile, and in times of crisis, resilience doesn’t come from far away — it comes from your neighbors and your local community,” Versaw said.

“ThINk is important because choosing to invest locally is one layer of positive economic connections that can tie our community together and make us stronger,” she continued. “My hope for ThINk, as we emerge from this pandemic and begin to rebuild, is that the network will get even better at building connections and reinforcing those community ties.”

Fellow network member Craig Landes also emphasized the importance of ThINk as an avenue for local investment, not only as a method of community support, but also as a way of understanding the economic significance of small businesses.

“Obviously, you can go to your stockbroker and invest nationally, but you are very far removed from that,” Landes said. “We are trying to help out local people that are trying to do something interesting, fun, and worthwhile, and it is rewarding to do that.”

The more individuals deliberately invest, bank, buy, produce, and procure locally, Meade said, the more that money gets to stay in the community instead of supporting corporations that do not directly benefit Thurston’s economy.

“Learning the importance of localism as an economic development tool changed my life,” Meade said. “My job is to build an economy that matches the values of the people in my community, and I get to do that by supporting these locally owned businesses that are making really cool products and are a part of the character of our community, and that is incredibly rewarding.”