Cooperative Venture

Anya Firszt's Vision for the Willy Street Co-Op
By Shelby Deering

ANYA FIRSZT, the general manager of Willy Street Co-op, embodies the humble yet powerful spirit of Madison. Firszt has served as the GM of the natural food cooperative for 20 of its 42 years in business.  She held various positions a decade before that, shaping the co-op into the beloved local fixture that it is today. And yet, she unfailingly gives full credit for the co-op’s success to her “great team.”

It’s doubtless, though, that Firszt is an adept leader. The co-op’s recent addition of a third store, for example, was largely due to her persistence.

“It was a short timeline. When I first approached the department heads, they all said, ‘Absolutely not.’ And I said, ‘I want you to get to yes,’” Firszt says. “A few weeks later, each team was a yes. We did it in less than 10 months. I think we’ve got a great store, and we can all be very proud of what we did.”

Since the North Sherman Avenue location opened, the co-op has added 1,000 new members for a total  membership of 34,000.

Gary Kallas, executive director of the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center, has worked alongside Firszt on community projects. “Anya is a pleasure to work with because of her single greatest strength— she listens and sincerely hears what others are saying,” Kallas says. “This talent demonstrates to me her sincerity and curiosity that I am supremely confident has helped lead the Willy Street Co-op to its lofty and respected status.”

Firszt holds a fine arts degree and has had no formal business training. But she’s passionate about the local food scene and how to bring a farm-to-table aspect to the co-op. She loves to cook, a joy she shares with her two teenage children.

And, clearly, she’s passionate about the co-op.

“Working with a group of people I really like working with is a part of my passion. We can have differences of opinion, but that to me exemplifies what co-ops are about. There are 34,000 owners who have put in a relatively small amount of money, their fair share, and we’ve created a really amazing organization.”

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