The Case for a RI Foundation-Ryan Incubator Partnership

by David Salzillo Jr. '24 on April 20, 2023
Opinion Staff

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Business to Benefit the Local Community

Across many college campuses—including rival Catholic colleges like Boston College—the laboratories of entrepreneurship empower students to transform business skills into real-life success. At their best, they challenge students to see business as public service: how can I make my life and the lives of those around me better?  

Luckily, the head of Providence College’s new Donald Ryan ’69 Incubator for Entrepreneurship in the Arts & Sciences, Kelly Ramirez, shares my perhaps expansive definition of entrepreneurship. When she discussed the College’s plans for the Incubator with the Student Advisory Council at Providence College, she made many of the same points. Her most interesting suggestion at that meeting was to have the Incubator foster partnerships between students and local Rhode Island businesses. I share her enthusiasm for such a plan. In my later discussions with her, she has tied it to a socially responsible model of business she believes the College ought to promote. She has mentioned the example of Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, who recently transferred the ownership of his company, worth about $3 billion, “to a specially designed trust and a nonprofit organization.” I, again, agree; Chouinard’s community-centered business model should inspire our program to set out an ambitious new vision for laboratories of entrepreneurship.  

Still, how do we implement our Providence College business vision? To answer that question, we must ask ourselves: what opportunities does Rhode Island offer that other states like Massachusetts don’t? And how can we exploit those opportunities? To those questions, I reply: look no further than the Rhode Island Foundation. Under the leadership of Neil Steinberg, the organization has been leading the way in philanthropy. During the 15 years that Mr. Steinberg has been President and CEO, it has created a whole host of programs to aid many of Rhode Island’s struggling communities, and it has funded a whole host of scholarships to help mold the next generation of Rhode Island leaders. From the Foundation’s Community Grants program to its Carter Roger Williams Scholarship awards, it has provided scores and scores of opportunities to people in a state that desperately needs them. Finally, from my personal experience, I can tell you this: the staff of the Rhode Island Foundation are people who appreciate the value of personal relationships and community engagement, and who will always see their work as a vehicle of positive social change. 

A Ryan Incubator partnership with the Rhode Island Foundation has many benefits. To start, it allows the Incubator to target its initiatives better to Rhode Island’s needs. Political campaigns require grassroots organizers, and so will Providence College’s business initiatives require the expertise of local activists. But a Rhode Island Foundation partnership could also improve Rhode Island’s business climate. How? Because local philanthropists like Neil Steinberg often start out as local business leaders; Steinberg himself began his career as a banker and fundraiser. If Providence College is educating the next generation of business leaders, why not hold up these local examples of philanthropy as the touchstone of the “Providence College business philosophy”? Why not challenge Providence College students to give back to Providence College by giving back to the community that made Providence College possible?  

Now, am I suggesting that the Ryan Incubator pursue a partnership with the RI Foundation at the expense of other great community-based organizations in Rhode Island and even beyond? Certainly not. I applaud Kelly Ramirez’s plans to coordinate with organizations like the United Way and Half Full, LLC, and I expect that these efforts will yield lasting success. However, I also believe the RI Foundation could have an especially promising part to play in the Ryan Incubator’s community outreach program.  

Providence College, then, has a great opportunity to make its Incubator program stand out. And, with Mr. Steinberg retiring as President and CEO, and (soon-to-be former) Congressman David Cicilline taking his place, who knows what the RI Foundation and Providence College can accomplish together? In the words of Rick Blaine from Casablanca, this might just be “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”