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Helping businesses pivot and provide during the coronavirus outbreak

Kelly Ramirez, chief executive officer of the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, based in Providence, R.I.Courtesy of Social Enterprise Greenhouse

The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com.

This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Kelly Ramirez, chief executive officer of Social Enterprise Greenhouse, based in Providence.

Question: For those unfamiliar with it, can you explain what Social Enterprise Greenhouse is -- and can you confirm that it has nothing to do with plants?

A: We have gotten calls for plants in the past. We are a business-support organization for entrepreneurs and businesses that address social needs. They can be nonprofit or for-profit. We provide a comprehensive menu of services that include an incubator, a 12-week accelerator program, customized consulting and strategy support, a loan fund, a co-working space, and links to all 11 Rhode Island-based universities.

Our secret sauce is we have a network of 250-plus business and community leaders who coach and advise the entrepreneurs that we serve. They also deliver a lot of the workshops that are part of our incubator and accelerator programs. We have a co-working space at 10 Davol Square in Providence, we work out of Innovate Newport, and we work out of co-working space on the Pawtucket/Central Falls border called The Rail.


We have been operating under our current business model for about 11 years. We have served more than 600 social ventures. Of our 171 accelerator graduate ventures, 87 percent are still operational, and many report high growth. In aggregate, they employ more than 600 people in our region.

Q: How has Social Enterprise Greenhouse adapted to the coronavirus outbreak?

A: We have taken all our programming virtual. Clearly, it’s not the same as meeting in person. A big part of the accelerator program is getting together with groups of entrepreneurs -- creating bonds, supporting each other, and learning from each other. But at the same time, a lot of things are easier to schedule and coordinate, we have been learning a lot through this process, and we have added new services in response to new needs and opportunities.


For example, we run a group consulting session focused on adaptive strategies. A lot of businesses are having to pivot and think of new ways of doing business. So we bring a group of five or six volunteers together to brainstorm strategy. We just did one of those with a nonprofit, Creating Outreach About Addiction Support Together, that addresses the opioid crisis through theater. Typically, they’d go into schools and other organizations and perform a play. That’s not possible now, so they are working on a virtual pivot to provide online content.

Q: What are some of the new programs you are planning in response to the coronavirus outbreak?

A: During the pandemic, we have launched a six-week virtual business training program for startups. We developed this under the assumption that some people have lost their jobs and have always wanted to start a business, so now they have the time to do it. The hope is these can be businesses to supplement their income and respond to needs in their community. We launched it (last) Monday with 14 participants.

Also, in the next month, we will be launching a COVID-19 response incubator focused on individuals who are developing businesses in response to the social challenges or needs that have emerged as a result of the pandemic.


Q: How are you handling the graduation ceremony coming up for entrepreneurs with food businesses?

A: The 2020 Food Accelerator Virtual Graduation and Pitch Night will take place from 6 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 13, and it will be a Zoom event. This is our fourth food accelerator -- it’s like a mini-MBA for entrepreneurs. Their businesses are up and running but at an early stage, so they get a 12-week program that’s usually a blended learning model -- curriculum online and a 4-½-hour in-person workshop each week. Each entrepreneur gets assigned a coach from our volunteer network who works with them one-on-one.

This group will be pitching their social ventures to an online audience. The hope is that people who attend the pitch event will go on to become funders and supporters of these organizations. Typically, the in-person turnout would be 100 to 120 people, and right now, we have nearly 100 RSVPs for the online event, which is free and open to all. Register at https://bit.ly/SEG2020FoodGradZoom

Q: Can you give us an example of the companies that will be making their pitches Wednesday?

A: One business that has been able to respond very effectively to the pandemic is FreshConn, which is acting as a virtual farm stand, helping to distribute produce and products from local farmers. They were sort of early stage and just went for it -- probably much quicker than they anticipated -- because they saw this as a need, and it has proven to be a need. They are trying to do everything they can while building up capacity and their tech platform.


Q: How will the economic collapse caused by the pandemic affect the “innovation” economy here in Rhode Island?

A: Businesses are really hurting. Some have been able to pivot. We do a speaker series with Venture Cafe called “Innovation as an Antidote,” and we highlight how certain ventures have pivoted. This past week, we talked with Hands in Harmony, which does music therapy. After everything shut down, they lost all of their clients and were really struggling, but they figured out how to go virtual and they got all their clients back, and more. They are exploring more international work that otherwise would not have been possible.

Because of this crisis, a lot of entrepreneurs are thinking, creating, and trying out new things, but innovation is more possible for some than others.

Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.