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Burlington’s Emily Eley Offers 'Anti-Capitalist' Business Coaching

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Published August 17, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Emily Eley - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Emily Eley

Emily Eley first used the phrase "anti-capitalist" to pitch herself as a business coach in August 2021. She signed up eight clients for a year of coaching sessions and made $60,000.

It was the most success she'd ever had with her yearlong Made 4 More business coaching program, Eley said. Her clients have access to online courses, weekly individual coaching sessions and resources to help them shape their work around the rest of their lives while supporting values other than pure profit.

"For me, anti-capitalism has always been people and the environment over profit," said Eley, 36, as she sipped a chai latte and nibbled breakfast waffles during a recent interview at Zero Gravity Beer Hall in Burlington. "That's really what I'm interested in, because capitalism at its root is profit."

The self-described "anti-capitalist business coach" tells her clients to slow down and stop pushing themselves to do more — to have fewer clients and sell less stuff.

Eley seems to have tapped a nerve at a time when many people have grown disillusioned with moneymaking for its own sake. The first decade of the 21st century brought the Enron accounting scandal, the exposure of Bernie Madoff's investment fraud and a hedge fund-driven financial crisis. In the wake of those economic disasters, employees and entrepreneurs alike have turned away from Wall Street in search of other ways to do business.

In the spring 2020 "Survey of Young Americans' Attitudes Toward Politics and Public Service," a Harvard Youth Poll that the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School conducts twice a year, only 29 percent of 18- to 29-year-old respondents identified themselves as capitalist. Less than half said they supported capitalism.

The inclination to add some conscience to capitalism isn't new. The B Corporation movement began in 2006 with a certification program for companies that meet certain standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency — and that put their employees, communities and the environment on an even playing field with profit.

"I want to see how else we can do business," Eley said. "I am curious how else we can meet our need of selling in our business and make it feel good and feel respectful and enjoyable."

Eley, a Burlington native who returned to the city with her husband and their son in 2020, never got an MBA or even an undergraduate business degree. True to her coaching message, she doesn't think those formalities and traditional rules matter to a person's success.

Most of Eley's clients are like her, she said — solo service providers and small business owners — so they don't have to deal with employees. She has coached a financial adviser, a yoga teacher and a tattoo artist.

Eley isn't against making money, she said. She's happy to have a career she enjoys and to earn enough to pay for increasingly expensive childcare for her 2-year-old son. Currently pregnant with her second child, she supplements her coaching income by working as a consultant to organizations such as Opportunities Credit Union and the Center for Women & Enterprise, which hire her to teach group sessions for their members.

Eley does most of the marketing for her business through email, Facebook ads and Instagram. The last platform is where she posted her first "anti-capitalist" pitch a year ago. Her posts are often personal, usually instructive and, at times, irreverent. She tells viewers to set "strong AF boundaries" and that business owners can "take naps AND push hard." A strong anti-capitalist post in January generated a lot of attention, including hateful trolling, she said.

"The primary motive of capitalism is to just generate more capital," Eley said in that January video. "So, to be an anti-capitalist business, it means you care about all the other things outside of just building capital."

That message resonated with Ashley Bovin, an independent marketing consultant in Grand Rapids, Mich., who joined Eley's program in the spring. Bovin appreciated a business coach who took an approach different from the "hustle mindset" that pushes for growth at all costs, she said.

"Thinking about core values is becoming more common in the business world and in the marketing world," Bovin continued. "That means to me that I am not exploiting myself in terms of my time, energy and labor. And I am not exploiting the time, attention, emotions of my audience."

Eley took some time to carve out her own path in the work world. She attended the University of Vermont for two years, majoring in human geography and Middle Eastern studies, but her college trajectory left her dissatisfied. A former high school athlete, she also worked as a personal trainer.

In 2014, she packed her car and drove across the country. Landing in Boulder, Colo., she rented an apartment with three roommates — one of whom has since become her husband.

While working as a nanny, Eley completed her degree in human geography at University of Colorado Boulder. A professor she admired persuaded her to do an honors thesis. Her paper on "neoliberalism and the economization of academia" focused on the influence of money on people's relationships to education, work, their fellow citizens and the world.

After graduating in November 2016, Eley worked as an outreach coordinator for a nonprofit that lobbies for bicycle lanes and e-bike access. Then the employer of her future husband relocated them to New Jersey. In Montclair, N.J., Eley was thrust into an environment that opened her eyes to racism and poverty in a way she had never before experienced, she said.

"Something I learned about myself is, I actually really enjoy being uncomfortable," Eley said. "I like pushing myself to examine and critique and look at and analyze and question where my brain automatically goes, versus maybe where I want it to go or what I want to think about myself."

Eley continued to work for nonprofit organizations, including a women's health coalition. A friend from the local CrossFit gym who ran her own dietitian consulting business, mostly online, started working in Eley's home office with her.

Watching her friend, Eley thought she'd like to have her own business and structure her career the way she wanted. She had always excelled at job interviews, networking and selling herself, she said. So she started a career-coaching business.

Eley's new job gave her glimpses of the dark side of business success. Most of her clients worked for big corporations and wanted to move up the ranks. Many were women dissatisfied with their treatment as second-class employees, she said.

"I kind of got to a place where I was like, 'I don't actually think corporate America is a good idea,'" she said. "'So I don't know if I really want to be coaching people [on] how to excel in that space.'"

One client, an executive at a major company, decided she wanted Eley to help her start her own consulting company rather than move up the corporate ladder. That's when Eley shifted from career to business coaching. Her dietitian friend coined the Made 4 More name.

After Eley and her partner had their son, they married in September 2020. In the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, they moved back to Burlington and managed to buy "the last house under $400,000" in the New North End, she said.

This fall, Eley is breaking up the yearlong Made 4 More program into three tracks covering market research, ethical marketing and sustainable sales. Clients sign up on a rolling basis and receive four months of coaching on any of the tracks, a more flexible arrangement for people who don't want to pay for a full-year commitment. Each four-month program costs $2,500, or $625 per month.

In the sustainable sales section, for example, Eley addresses strategies clients can use to handle their businesses as their lives change — when they have a child, struggle with depression or want a chunk of time off.

"My greatest interest is supporting people in thinking critically about their life, about the world, about their relationships, about the way they make money, all of it," she said.

In the ethical marketing section, Eley teaches her clients to eschew the traditional business model of luring customers with flashy "buy now" appeals that aim to maximize the number of sales.

"The alternative to shitty marketing is building real, authentic relationships with people," she said. "That means you probably can't do it as fast. And you probably can't reach as many people. And you might not have this huge, big, splashy impact."

But the customers with whom you build those relationships will stick with you, she tells her clients, and spread good word of mouth to others.

"What I'm asking people to do," she said, "is to come into discourse with me about how else we could be operating in our businesses."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Woke but Not Broke"