Square Roots Collective: The Ethics of Stewardship
By Richard L. Gaw
To trace the beginnings of what has led Square Roots Collective into becoming one of the most successful project-driven agencies in
southern Chester County, one needs to travel no more than one hour west to
Lancaster County, to where co-founder Mike Bontrager grew up as the son of a
Like his wife Dot, who grew up the daughter of a Mennonite farmer, the influence of the church’s philosophy took hold of Bontrager as a child growing up in the 1960s and 1970s and informed the direction of his life.
“The principles of the Mennonites were built on community, social action and loving your neighbor long before it was fashionable to do so,” he said. “I remember one time when there were floods in northern Pennsylvania. Our church packed about 15 to 20 of us in a van, and we drove up and helped others. They were shaping times for me, in order to understand how we fit in terms of the greater community.
“When people have needs, you help them.”
While the official “Square Roots Collective” (SRC) name is less than two years old, its foundation was first planted in the Kennett Square community 30 years ago, when the Bontragers moved to the area to begin a family and launch Chatham Financial, a financial derivatives advisory and technology company. From its humble beginnings, the company slowly grew from Mike working over his garage, to a few dozen staff working out of a barn, and eventually into a worldwide leader in risk management advisory and technology solutions, with over 600 employees in seven offices on four continents around the globe.
Nineteen years ago, Luke Zubrod – now SRC’s operations lead -- began what would become a 17-year career at Chatham Financial, eventually leading culture and policy initiatives. He saw the “big picture” of the company’s vision, one that saw success as something not based entirely on financial returns, but rather as the opportunity to make the markets in which they serve more equitable, to invest in the communities in which they operate, and to elevate trust as the north star of client interactions.
“What made Chatham so special was that it became a vehicle for making the world a better place in the domain of finance,” he said. “It grew on the idea of creating multiple bottom lines -- to create impact not only financially but to advance the mutual interests of Chatham and our clients. On Wall Street, there is a big breach of trust between finance and society, and Chatham Financial sought to close that breach.
“What I have observed as the common DNA between Chatham and SRC is an ethic of stewardship. We were always asking, ‘How do we take our resources and put them in the service of the greater good?’"
Social impact, environment, community development
As Chatham Financial grew in size, so did its commitment to the community it served. Together with a local youth pastor, Bontrager helped found The Garage Community & Youth Center, whose locations in Kennett Square and West Grove have provided thousands of area youth with a safe and nurturing haven of activities and learning. Dot was part of a team that formed the local chapter of Community Bible Study, an interdenominational group that now has 250 members in two chapters in the county.
In addition, Chatham Financial launched Together for Education, a non-profit organization that provides local volunteers to over 35 percent of the elementary classrooms in the Kennett Consolidated School District.
Following the lead of this shared and simple philosophy, SRC is making a significant and lasting imprint on Kennett Square by engaging three key pillars: social impact, environment and community development:
- In an effort to improve a derelict property and create a new type of community gathering space for all, SRC restored the industrial shell of the former Eastern Condensed Milk Company on Birch Street and in 2016, opened The Creamery.
- SRC, together with KACS and United Way of Southern Chester County, created The Southern Chester County Opportunity Network (SCCON), in collaboration with committed local stakeholders to address the issue of poverty in the region. The principles that SCCON are founded on are based on the Bridges Out of Poverty model that taps into the strengths of various socioeconomic levels to seek solutions, together. Coordinated by a planning team made up of diverse community leaders, its many interactive workshops are intended to educate community members and engage them in pursuing solutions that enable transitioning from poverty to economic sustainability.
- In partnership with Lincoln University, SRC launched the Voices Underground Project in the Fall of 2019. The goal of this project is to promote the nationally significant history of the Underground Railroad in the region through scholarly research, creative partnerships, public experiences and historical recognition.
- SRC launched The Kennett Trail Alliance -- in partnership with the Kennett Borough, Kennett Township and The Land Conservancy for Southern Chester County -- in an effort to link some of the community’s most important natural and community assets to form a 14-mile trail loop known as the Kennett Greenway.
- In May, SRC partnered with Historic Kennett Square on the Historic Kennett Square Small Business Response Fund, a major matching-fund campaign that provided immediate relief to small, consumer-facing retail businesses in Kennett Square Borough and Kennett Township in the form of grants up to $10,000. For every dollar that was donated to the fund up to $250,000, SRC matched each gift. The fund has dispensed more than $275,000 -- 75 percent of which has been directed to minority- or woman-owned businesses.
- In order to address the issue of affordable housing in Kennett Square, SRC created the Maple Grove Housing Project, in collaboration with Kennett Area Community Services (KACS) and other partners from the municipal, business, and nonprofit sectors. The project is focused specifically on converting a vacant rental property on Maple Street, donated by Square Roots Collective, into a transitional housing option for local residents facing barriers to stable housing.
- In lockstep with the Kennett Borough’s comprehensive plan for development, SRC’s Birch Street Project intends to work with the street’s residents and other local leaders to develop the street into an avenue of art, culture and community. Using the success of the Kennett Creamery and other new businesses that have joined Birch Street, such as Braeloch Brewery as examples, SRC is looking to encourage further development with an evolving approach and community involvement, into a destination that will not only be attractive but economically sustainable.
- Teaming up with the Kennett Consolidated School District and other community partners, SRC collaborated to form the Kindergarten Readiness Initiative in 2017, to improve the “Kindergarten readiness” of youngsters preparing to enter school who have not had preschool experience, or have limited English language skills.
While the work of SRC is being done in the smallish incubator of the Kennett Square community, its stakes-in-the-ground projects have been influenced by organizations around the country like Thriving Cities Group, Marsh Collective, Strong Towns and FSG. They have helped Bontrager, Zubrod and brand and creative lead Sandra Mulry to measure each of SRC’s initiatives as small parts of a collective whole.
“We intuitively knew that we had a vision as to what a thriving town should look like, but we couldn’t articulate it, until we saw what other similar groups like ours were doing,” Bontrager said. “As we began to be exposed to other groups, we began to pull back and ask ourselves, ‘How do these different projects contribute to the overall ecosystem of Kennett Square?’”
At the launch pad for many of SRC’s projects is a conversation that begins with the familiar question, ‘What if?’ When Bontrager and Mulry first looked at the Eastern Condensed Milk Company on Birch Street, they saw a forlorn and neglected piece of Kennett Square’s past, but instead of passing it by, they saw a possibility and a need.
“We did not have an idea for it when we bought it, but I knew that there was a beautiful structure underneath, and that somebody who loves this town should buy this,” Bontrager said. “Once we bought it, there were a lot of ideas as to what it could become, that eventually intersected with the idea of trying it out as a pop-up venture. We approached the Kennett Borough and said, ‘Let’s partner on this experiment.’”
Bontrager said that no matter the project – whether it is broadening the reach of a vital greenway or creating ways to level off what the agency refers to as ‘the uneven nature of opportunity’ -- SRC is constantly searching for the right kind of alliances.
“When we run into the partners we believe are the right partners, and we believe we can actually accomplish something with them, and then we go full steam,” he said. “As an entrepreneur, I am motivated by experimentation and out-of-the-box ideas. The Kennett area is small enough to see whether ideas are working, to see whether we can move the needle on the addressing systemic issues, unlike a large city like Chicago or New York -- where there are so many factors impacting results that it is difficult to know if you are making a systemic difference.”
It does no harm to SRC that they operate in a diverse community of overlapping altruism, seen in the business, private and public sectors in Kennett Square who often share the credit for the network of initiatives and strong social infrastructure that has become the bedrock of the town.
“Mike, Sandra and I – as well as many other members of the SRC team – are deeply embedded in the community and we are neighbors with people, so between Mike’s catalytic instincts to create possibility and these partners, we’ve been able to share, shift and shape these ideas,” Zubrod said. “It’s a function of planting them like seeds. Some will fall on the rocks and not take root, but the others will reach the soil.”
The graphic identity for Square Roots Collective -- that of a box, with the company’s name appearing outside of it – is purely intentional.
Bontrager, Mulry and Zubrod would be the first to admit that the business principle that continues to steer SRC is based on an “out-of-the-box” philosophy that asks its many partners to “think big.” Often, it’s a wide-eyed strategy that runs against the grain of quiet, plodding progress.
“A lot of procedures and red tape are there because they have to be, and I get that,” Bontrager said. “However, sometimes when the red tape becomes the driver, it obscures the intent of what matters. We always need to be aware of public safety and a project’s impact on its neighbors, but we also need a community that says ‘Let’s try that.’
“In any community ecosystem, there are trade-offs that have to be made in order to make the ecosystem to thrive. We feel that there needs to be a good discussion and debate about what those trade-offs are, and what the impact of those trade-offs are.”
Despite the necessary roadblocks that often limit the expediency of progress, Bontrager said that he, Mulry, Zubrod and the entire agency remain committed to moving the needle of SRC’s vision forward.
“As someone who seeks to follow the path of Jesus, of course I am called to love my neighbors, regardless of their faith, background, social standing or how they identify,” he said. “But a major spiritual experience in my thirties also changed my understanding that I am a steward rather than an owner of my talents, financial resources, social capital and influence. I have been entrusted with these benefits to serve others rather than accumulate for myself.”
“I have always believed that Chatham Financial is Mike’s mind, but Square Roots Collective is his heart,” Mulry said. “He is deeply rooted in this love for community for all people to thrive. We’ve been privileged to be a part of that heart, to curate these spaces that honor the past and our local heritage, and pave the way for opportunities for the future.”
To learn more about Square Roots Collective, visit www.ksqroots.com.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].