Innovation Ecosystem

Doing well by doing good at the Social Enterprise Greenhouse

An interview with CEO Kelly Ramirez, who directs SEG and its efforts to make Providence/Rhode Island “the best place on the East Coast” to launch and grow social enterprise ventures

Photo by Richard Asinof

Kelly Ramirez, CEO of the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, talks with ConvergenceRI about the entrepreneurial vision of doing well by doing good.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/28/16
The model for social enterprise developed by the Social Enterprise Greenhouse continues to grow, now encompassing the health and wellness sector. In an interview with ConvergenceRI, CEO Kelly Ramirez explains the strategy moving forward.
Beyond defining what a social enterprise is and is not, how will SEG’s work help to define what an engaged community is in the digital world we live in? Are there ways that the ongoing efforts with 11 health equity zones can connect with the initiatives of the Social Enterprise Greenhouse? As the health care delivery system moves toward bundled payments and population health, how will the efforts to develop metrics and analytics play out in the health and wellness cluster? How will the emerging digital health market redefine the health and wellness markets?
Beneath the surface of the different approaches to entrepreneurial activity in Rhode Island and efforts to jumpstart the economy is the lack of a metric, beyond anecdotal stories, to quantify the quality of life. People as diverse as Mary Burke, a researcher with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, and Barnaby Evans, creator of WaterFire, have both suggested that a quality of life index for Rhode Island would provide a key competitive advantage. Is there an opportunity for the Social Enterprise Greenhouse to serve as a catalyst in creating such an index?

PROVIDENCE – Whether you call it the Knowledge District, the former Jewelry District or the future home of the Rhode Island Innovation District campus, there are a plethora of entrepreneurial initiatives, both planned, underway and evolving, that seek to transform the potential of the innovation ecosystem in Rhode Island into a highway that leads toward more jobs, more business creation, and more economic success, with a clear connection, however conscious or subliminal, to the landscape that was once the former Route 195.

Both former Gov. Lincoln Chafee and current Gov. Gina Raimondo have called it a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. Which, of course, if you’ve been re-reading Thomas Pynchon’s  Gravity’s Rainbow, might cause you to conjure up an image of the two of them competing, either on Lip Sync, or singing together on Carpool Karaoke, performing The Talking Head’s “Once in a Lifetime.”

And you may ask yourself/
Well…How did I get here?

Without a scorecard, it is difficult to keep track of all the activities and dreams that have been projected onto that landscape, to serve as a hub for what The Brookings Institute has dubbed Rhode Island’s advanced industry cluster economy. [Indeed, was it only a year ago that the new owners of the Pawtucket Red Sox were promoting the concept of building a new stadium smack dab in the middle of it all, as a field of dreams to be paid for by taxpayers?]

There is the new partnership between Wexford Science and Technology and CV Properties to build a new $250 million life sciences complex that, if negotiations go well, could serve as the new home for three Brown University initiatives – the Brown Institute for Brain Science [BIBS], the newly formed Brown Institute for Translational Sciences [BITS] and Brown Biomedical Innovations, Inc. [BBII], an incubator space for new startups, in partnership with the Brown University Technology Ventures office. [See link to ConvergenceRI article below.]

That same complex could also serve as the home to a new offshoot of the Cambridge Innovation Center, something that Gov. Gina Raimondo and CommerceRI’s Stefan Pryor have been actively involved in pursuing, as part of a suite of programs under its “Rhode Island Innovation Initiative” to create “a new generation of Innovation.” [See link to ConvergenceRI story below.]

That landscape is already the home to a nexus of academic and clinical research centers [including Brown, URI, Lifespan and Care New England], new startups such as ProThera Biologics, and successful biotech companies such as EpiVax, not to mention Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School and the facility now under construction to house URI’s and RIC’s nursing programs.

It is also home to the Slater Technology Fund, a key source of early investment in new companies in health innovation and clean energy.

And, on any given morning, Olga’s Cup + Saucer serves as a hub of innovation, caffeination, and interconnectivity, where the ideas and people regularly collide in conversation. The Founder’s League may now have new digs downtown, but it still holds a regular meeting there, adding to the volume of conversation bouncing off the tin ceiling.

Building networks and social purpose
Underneath all these entrepreneurial efforts is a creative tension within the innovation ecosytem: is it about making money? Building a successful company and then making a planned exit? Creating jobs? Serving as an investment vehicle to create wealth for investors?

The Social Enterprise Greenhouse has its own set of metrics in the way it answers questions about its entrepreneurial mission and purpose.

Headquartered on the first floor at 10 Davol Square, a building that also houses the Providence Plan and the executive offices of Coastal Medical, its office space, which opened in 2015, is what SEG called “Rhode Island’s first social enterprise co-working and education space.”

SEG defines itself on its website as “helping to inspire, start, grow and sustain successful social enterprises.”

What is a social enterprise? It has been defined as “an organization that applies commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being,” in a way that maximizes social impact alongside profits for external shareholders.

In turn, SEG defines its mission as creating “positive social and economic impacts by supporting social entrepreneurs and enterprises with the tools and networks they need to thrive.”

“We are a network of business and community leaders who contribute time, expertise and money to create jobs and support positive change through social enterprise,” the website said.

How does SEG work to achieve those outcomes? It follows what it describes as an “ecosystem approach,” with a focus on how to grow your network, accelerate your enterprise, expand your market, access capital, leverage policy, and get on the map.

By the numbers, in four years, SEG said it had increased its portfolio ventures from 10 to more than 150. The ventures had helped to create more than 750 jobs in the region and improved the lives of more than 250,000 people in a myriad fashion, including job training, educational interventions and financial literacy training.

“We have seen ventures that graduate from our accelerator grow and be successful,” Kelly Ramirez, CEO of SEG, told ConvergenceRI in a recent interview. “We can’t attribute that success directly to the accelerator; of course not, you never can. Do our participants say that the experience was valuable? Ramirez asked rhetorically, and then answered: “Yes.”

But exactly what is valuable, Ramirez continued, depends on the entrepreneur. “Every entrepreneur is different. For some, it’s one-on-one coaching; for some, it’s access to the network; for others, it’s the actual curriculum; for others, it’s the peer support, being part of a cohort model.”

Do I think it’s helping them? Ramirez asked, and answered emphatically, yes. “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if I didn’t believe so.”

Here, then, is the ConvergenceRI interview with Kelly Ramirez, the CEO of SEG, talking about the organization’s vision for future growth and its role within Rhode Island’s innovation ecosystem.

ConvergenceRI: Where do you see the Social Enterprise Greenhouse going? You’ve had an initial growth phase, perhaps a plateau, and now, a new acceleration in health and wellness?
I wouldn’t say that we’ve had a plateau. I would say that we’ve had accelerated growth. Over the last couple of years, we’ve gone from a small group of engaged philanthropists in 2009 to having a budget of about $1 million this year. We’ve grown pretty significantly. Our projected growth in 2016 is quite significant.

ConvergenceRI: How are you measuring your growth? Is it by annual revenue?
By a number of factors. One is definitely budget and revenue growth. Another is by growth in our community of volunteers, which we can barely keep up with the demand. That’s a good problem to have. A lot of people are really interested in giving back, in coaching and advising entrepreneurs.

ConvergenceRI: In terms of new ventures, can you share what are the numbers for 2014 and 2015?
I will have to get back to you on the exact numbers. But I can share with you our metrics. We measure by service: how many ventures are participating through our hub.

ConvergenceRI: There appears to be a lot of different activities going on simultaneous in your space. How do they intersect? In my reporting, I’ve often found that there are numerous new models of accelerators and investment programs, as well as new collaborations. What seems to emerge as a barrier is that many folks are still operating in silos? Is that accurate? Is it part of your mission to help break down those silos?
I would say that it a key aspect of our model. We are all about collaboration and partnership. That’s critical to our growth and success.

As an example of that, we partner with all 11 colleges and universities in the state, with students and alums, to create a pipeline of talent.

We try to act as a convener, whenever we can, and make that service available to any community group that wants to convene.

In our new focus on cluster activities, we’ve tried to be very active as a convener, to bring entities operating within that specific sector to the table, to make sure that we are collaborating, not duplicating or replicating, and adding value.

A great example of that was with our food initiative. We created an advisory group that included many of the major players, such as Hope & Main, FarmFresh RI, and the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, to make sure that we what we were offering in the ecosystem was valued and not what some of these other groups that have been in the space much longer than we have, were doing.

ConvergenceRI: And how does that strategy play out in other cluster focus areas?
Obviously, you’ve heard my talk [at the recent gathering at the Brown Faculty Club.] I’m a big believer in breaking down divisions and silos and really having those sectors come together and work together.

ConvergenceRI: How do you see that working with your new area of focus, health and wellness?
I’m not an expert on health and wellness, I’m an expert on social enterprise. First off, it’s a pilot, which means that it is experimental. We’re trying to see if, in fact, our model can add value to ventures in the health and wellness space.

You can never know when you’re trying something new whether it’s going to be successful or not. We are a network of entrepreneurs, we know that.

So, basically, where we are right now in health and wellness is that we’ve created an advisory group, and we have about 50 amazing, brilliant people working in this very broadly defined health and wellness space.

One of the challenges that we are really grappling with is the breadth.

Are we going to work with mindfulness companies on one end, and medtech companies on the other? Is it OK to consider them all under one big umbrella?

Will there be value in bringing those different types of businesses together in a cohort? We don’t know. We’re going to the advisory group to ask that.

ConvergenceRI: How will you deploy your strategies in the health and wellness sector?
SEG has some general business acumen training programs that we know will work.

We do not claim to have significant industry experience; in any industry that we work in, we try to gain the industry experience, making it available through the volunteers and mentors in our network.

Right now, we are actively trying to recruit people who have health and wellness industry experience into our network, so that when we have a specific venture with a specific need, we can connect to that industry expertise.

Our accelerator model, it’s business-based. It’s like a little mini MBA program.

One concrete example we heard from health and wellness ventures was that one thing which would be very valuable is to be able to meet with someone with regulatory experience, who can answer: is this feasible? Is this going to be crazy expensive?

We have recruited a couple of people that have regulatory expertise. And they said yes, they would do these early brainstorming sessions.

ConvergenceRI: From Ximedica?
Definitely, we are partnering with Ximedica. Hope Hopkins is really active, and Aidan Petrie is a volunteer in our network.

I know that one or two of the individuals that have agreed to help us in this came through Ximedica and Hope.

It’s a great collaboration. The work that we’re doing with Ximedica, I hope it can be a win-win-win.

We are certainly benefiting from their expertise, there’s no question about it. I hope that we can provide value to the entrepreneurs that they then can work with to make this community better.

Another example is our meeting last week with Ed Bozzi and Denice Spero from R.I. BioScience Leaders. We’re going to do a joint meeting with them in April to talk with the businesses they work with and say, this is what we’re doing. Do any of the established businesses want to get involved as mentors with us? Can we provide value to any of the startups? Here are the services we offer.

ConvergenceRI: What do you see as your points of leverage in working in this sector?
We’re out there, trying to figure out how we can provide value. We know, at least for startups, that we can provide value. There’s always value in connecting to a network, and we know that we have a great network.

But, for more established companies, we don’t know what their needs are, or what our capacity is to serve the many needs that they have. That’s what we have to figure out.

One challenge in working in this space and with clusters has been the question of who we serve.

We serve social entrepreneurs. But, who is a social entrepreneur. And, how do we define that?

As an organization, we are thinking a lot about that, we have our own internal criteria, and we need to continue to work on that, especially in the health and wellness space.

Is every health and wellness company a social enterprise? Are they all doing well by doing good? We think a lot about the intention of the entrepreneur. Why did the entrepreneur start the business?

That’s going to be a challenge for us.

ConvergenceRI: Do you have an idea about what your next area of expansion may involve?
We are sort of dabbling in a few other areas right now, exploring if we could provide value. One is the green economy; right now we’re acting as a local partner for some regional small accelerators and networkers, like the Clean Tech Open.

We’re in the early stage of exploration.

Another area, which doesn’t fit this industry cluster model, are groups we work with that are resource development models that train and employ populations that traditionally have had barriers to employment or are underemployed – such as people who have struggled with addiction, people who have been incarcerated, adult education learners.

We are exploring how we can work together as a network to try and help find employers.

ConvergenceRI: What do you see as your ultimate goal for SEG?
Our ultimate goal is to make Providence/Rhode Island the best place on the East Coast to launch and grow social impact ventures. We believe that SEG is the most robust ecosystem builder for social enterprise.

In this area, we have access to great talent through the schools, in such a close proximity. It’s a lot cheaper to live in Providence than it is in Providence and New York.


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