Innovation Ecosystem

The hub of social enterprise in RI grows its footprint

Social Enterprise Greenhouse expands its co-working space, partners with Brown on a social innovation fellowship, and opens new satellite offices in Newport and Pawtucket/Central Falls

Photo by Richard Asinof

Kelly Ramirez, CEO of the Social Enterprise Greenhouse.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/15/19
The Social Enterprise Greenhouse is expanding its footprint, enlarging its co-working space, and partnering with Brown University to help student-led ventures pursue social innovation.
Is there a culture clash when it comes to the way that venture capital invests in women-led enterprises? How can the conversations around investments in the innovation economy in Rhode Island become more inclusive of bottom-up community enterprises? Has Gotham Greens reached out to the new supermarket, Urban Greens, to develop a working relationship? How might Brown’s Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship collaborate with the Social Enterprise Greenhouse? Will the Social Enterprise Greenhouse arrange a tour of the new Neighborhood Health Station facility in Central Falls? What kinds of new metrics and benchmarks need to be developed to capture the impact of social enterprises in Rhode Island?
Much like the problems with the current business model for hospitals, the business model for newspapers is no longer sustainable. The Boston Glove recently recruited two ace news reporters from Rhode Island, as part of its planned push to expand the newspaper’s coverage of Rhode Island. The goal, of course, is to drive increased subscriptions for The Globe. But few have asked why.
The reality is that the Globe’s circulation has flattened out and keeps falling, and the Rhode Island market is one of the few opportunities for growth, not so dissimilar, in some ways, to the position that Partners Healthcare found itself in – with limits on its ability to grow within the Massachusetts market.
The opportunities for growth in local journalism, however, may be found in digital platforms such as ecoRI News, Uprise RI, and ConvergenceRI, which can provide the kind of comprehensive, in-depth reporting and analysis now lacking in the marketplace. The expansion or the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, much like the development of a blue tech innovation hub, are important stories that revolve around a sense of social enterprise, not just market growth.

PROVIDENCE – News is not so much what happens, but what you do not know. As an editor, when ConvergenceRI worked with young reporters, that adage served as a first rule of journalistic storytelling: how to think differently about the gathering of news, seeing it as a human enterprise, looking beyond news conferences, the choreographed events, and the staged photo ops, and instead, look to tell a story of discovery – and to bring the reader along with you on that journey.

ConvergenceRI was reminded of that “principle” when he recently sat down to talk with Kelly Ramirez, the CEO of the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, or SEG, at its headquarters on the ground floor of 10 Davol Square, now owned by Coastal Medical, where the human enterprise of social impact business formation has proven to be a key ingredient in SEG’s formula for success.

SEG is poised on the cusp of a number of major expansions and new partnerships, reflecting what Ramirez called the power of “word of mouth” – the fact that when participants in the programs offered by SEG have a good experience, they tell their friends. “The grapevine works,” Ramirez said, with a laugh. “This is the heart of social impact social enterprise; it is about creating opportunities for everyone.”

In last four years, the co-working space at the SEG Hub at 10 Davol Square has enabled hundreds of entrepreneurs to launch and to grow their “do well, do good businesses,” according to SEG’s website, supporting more than 500 social enterprises to date, offering a network of more than 300 community volunteers and business mentors, incubator and accelerator programs for new startups, talent matching and a loan fund.

“The goal of a social enterprise is to address a challenge in society, using a business model,” as Ramirez defined it. Rather than seeing a market opportunity, Ramirez continued, “A social enterprise starts by seeing a societal or community challenge, and building a business around addressing that community challenge, rather than addressing a market need.”

Collisions, connections and collaborations
With all the hoopla about the opening scheduled for later this spring of the Wexford Innovation Complex, the pending completion of the pedestrian bridge across the Providence River connecting the Fox Point neighborhood with the former Jewelry District, and the hubbub around the signs of new growth emerging within Rhode Island’s innovation economy, it is easy to miss the story about how and why SEG occupies an important cornerstone in the state’s innovation ecosystem.

There was a lot of news to “uncover” in the conversation with Ramirez:

SEG is expanding its footprint, preparing to set up satellite outposts in Newport and in Pawtucket/Central Falls, the result of a three-year, $257,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce and its Economic Development Authority, under the I-6 Innovation Challenge.

The funding will go to support three new staff positions: a director of the Pawtucket/Central Falls office; a director of the Newport office, which will be located in the Innovate Newport building; and a coordinator to support both of those new SEG outposts.

“The first phase of the work for both new geographic locations,” Ramirez said, “will be to do a landscape analysis, to understand what already exists, what’s needed, and how SEG could potentially provide value.”

The whole hypothesis of this work, Ramirez continued, “is that you really need ‘boots on the ground’ to gain credibility.” In SEG’s experience, she explained, “We’ve been focused on equity and inclusion intentionally for four years. We’ve finally really started to get traction.

One sign of that growing traction is a new partnership with Brown University, through which SEG will be running the school’s Social Innovation Fellowship, which is planned to launch next year, according to Ramirez. The new fellowship program is being developed with a group of Brown students and team members from the Swearer Center.

As Ramirez explained the value of the partnership, “Why have a social innovation program on campus when you can actually have it in a community-based organization?”

Brown, Ramirez continued, is a valued part of our pipeline, having worked with a lot of student-led ventures. Both of the two top prizewinners in the Brown Venture Pitch Night held in March by the Nelson Center for Entrepreneurship, Formally and goTeff, had working relationships with SEG in developing their new business platforms. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Brown venture prize pitch night draws an overflow crowd.”]

There is plenty of room to grow in the process of partnering and collaborating with Brown, according to Ramirez. “I wish I knew about every single student-led venture that’s being developed at Brown. And, I wish [those ventures] knew about us; I don’t think that that is the case.”

On Thursday, May 2, from 6-9 p.m., SEG will celebrate its expanded Hub at 10 Davol Square. The expanded community and co-working space will allow SEG to meet the increasing demand for its co-working spaces, which reached capacity in 2018 with more than 100 members.

Another sign of SEG’s traction in the innovation ecosystem space is the way that others are using the hub space to host lectures and make program announcements. On April 3, the Slater Technology Fund hosted a talk at SEG by serial entrepreneur Paul Mandeville about his strategies from turning a C+ pitch slide deck into an A+ pitch slide deck. And, last week, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza announced the city’s summer employment opportunities for youth, including jobs and paid advanced internships to be offered in the summer.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Kelly Ramirez, the CEO of the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, talking about the next phase of growth of social enterprise formation in Rhode Island.

ConvergenceRI: One of the things that I’ve observed about the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, whether it was a conscious or unconscious choice, is that it seems to be driven mostly by women and women in leadership roles. Does it change the way you do business to have women in leadership roles?
I’m not sure that I’m qualified to answer that. But, I will say, one of the differences, or differentiators, between impact-oriented businesses and traditional entrepreneurship is the role that women are playing.

More than 60 percent of our businesses are led by a female founder, which is very different from a traditional entrepreneurship. I believe that is because women have traditionally more aware and involved and thinking about societal issues.

We have actually had conversations about our need to diversify and have more men involved in the SEG team. For a while, it was an all-female team. That was not really intentional. It was [hiring] our best, most qualified candidates, who were females.

That being said, we have an amazing network of some 300 plus community leaders who are in our volunteer network. I can’t give you accurate statistics on what the breakdown is, but there are a lot of men who are involved in our volunteer network.

ConvergenceRI: You now occupy a prominent place in the Providence Innovation and Design District. The Wexford Innovation Complex is opening soon. MedMates has rebranded itself as RI Bio; there’s the New England Medical Innovation Center.

My question is: the dream is that there are enough companies to step into all those opportunities? Can the pipeline fill all those spaces? For you, on the ground, is the innovation ecosystem ready to move into that larger space controlled by venture funds and find the path to prosperity? Or, are there other steps that need to happen.
You’re asking very difficult questions. I don’t know. I think that is going to be the major question. Is there enough pipeline for all of the intermediary activity that has been coming to Providence?

And, will that intermediary activity attract entrepreneurs outside of Rhode Island to move to Rhode Island?

The pipeline, from my perspective at SEG, the entrepreneurial pipeline is certainly much more robust than it was five years ago.

From the SEG perspective, and that could be as a result of several things:

Number One: People are more interested in impact, so we are seeing more impact-oriented businesses.

Number Two: We have done a better job about getting the word out about what we do, and that we, in fact, do provide valuable services.

Number Three: It could be that there are just more entrepreneurial ventures.

Number Four: It could be because we have broadened the way we define impact-oriented ventures.

I know this space, and I feel that there is a more robust pipeline. I’m less familiar with the high-tech space, for example. We don’t see those ventures. I don’t know that I’m the best person to ask that question.

ConvergenceRI: Who else should I ask?
I would say Thorne Sparkman from the Slater Fund would be a better person to ask that question.

What I will say is that Thorne and Slater have been a very good partner to SEG. We do very different work, but Thorne approached me about hosting this event, because he knows that one of the challenges for impact ventures is access to capital.

And, one of the areas that I feel SEG needs to increase its level of programming is around helping our entrepreneurs become pitch ready.

ConvergencerRI: What is the difference between top-down and bottom-up innovation?
Basically, we’re supporting innovation that is coming from the community. I honestly think that there may be room for both. One of our interests is to continue to build and to support entrepreneurs who are addressing societal issues in the communities where they live and work.

But I’m also interested in working with mainstream business and educating them, in some cases, about the value of having a very robust social impact mission and vision within the company, that is very tied to the strategy of the company.

If our ultimate goal is to maximize positive social impact and improve the lives of all Rhode Islanders, we can’t do that without engaging business in a productive way.

ConvergenceRI: Could you talk about the importance of the role that SEG is playing as a hub of entrepreneurial activity, in terms of the collisions and connections that are happening?
I think the collisions are extremely important. We see them happen in this space all the time. I think that is one of the real values of the SEG hub.

We’re lucky, very fortunate to be in such a beautiful building. When we first moved in, it was not [so nice]. Three years ago, this space had been empty for years.

But I don’t think that it’s the building or the location that draws the entrepreneurs; it’s the community.

And, for us, that was key. We built the community first; we found the space second. This space is about community, it’s about ensuring that there are the opportunities to have the collisions.

ConvergenceRI: Is community the secret sauce?
I think that it is extremely important; I think one of the reasons that we’ve been successful is we are a strong believer in partnerships. We know what we do well, and we know what we don’t do well, and we look to partner with organizations that do the things that we don’t do well.

We don’t want to duplicate efforts. We know we can’t do everything.

The Rhode Island Foundation has quarterly meetings of business support organizations, at which we talk about what we’re doing. It is a way that we call can keep up to date. This is Rhode Island, so relationships exist.

ConvergenceRI: Some practitioners of innovation say that as part of the innovation process, there is a need to embrace failure. At SEG, how do you approach the concept of failure?
We definitely talk about it. That question is making me realize that I wish there was another word for it, because it’s not really failure, it’s learning. If you haven’t failed, you haven’t pushed the envelope enough.

We have had so many things that we have tried at SEG that have not worked out over the years. That’s trying. That’s adapting and learning and being open.

I often say the most important characteristic of an entrepreneur being successful at SEG is being coachable – being willing to listen to feedback and to admit when things are not working, and to pivot or adapt. It’s a lot like life; we never get all of it right.

It’s also having some degree of humility. I think is incredibly important for entrepreneurs to be humble. I feel that a common thread among social entrepreneurs is humility. It’s generally a shared value of social entrepreneurs.


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