PROVIDENCE— When Vice President Harris sits down with business leaders in Rhode Island on Wednesday, she won’t be talking to executives from Fortune 500 companies. The women she and the former Rhode Island governor, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, will be meeting are founders and leaders of small businesses based in the Ocean State.
Some own food startups. Others own businesses with clear-cut social missions that are already making waves in Rhode Island. Here are some of the entrepreneurs Harris is meeting with Wednesday.
Christine Paige, owner of Bliss Medical Hair Replacement Center
When Christine Paige, the owner of Bliss Medical Hair Replacement Center, received a text message saying the White House wanted her to be part of an event with the vice president, she assumed it was to do a touch-up.
“I thought she just wanted a little lip gloss and a curl to her hair,” said Paige, who did rapper Cardi B’s hair earlier this year.
She added, “I thought, ‘I can curl Kamala’s hair.’ ”
She soon learned that she would be part of a business roundtable with Harris and fellow female business leaders in Rhode Island. She went through a vetting process with the Secret Service that included a screening with multiple rounds of questions.
“I went to church and prayed on it. I said, ‘Lord, I don’t know what they’re seeing but just let me meet Kamala,’” she said. The next day, another message came, asking her to “keep Wednesday open.”
As a Black woman who was born and raised in Providence, Paige said she hopes that her meeting with the first woman and woman of color to be vice president will inspire others.
“I feel like I am meeting with my sister, my big sister, or friend,” she said. “She’s inspired people like me. She’s making the American Dream seem obtainable.”
She added, “That’s Auntie Kamala.”
Suzanne Ellis Wernevi, founder and chief executive of Luna & Stella Jewelry
Suzanne Ellis Wernevi, who founded the Providence-based lunaandstella.com fine jewelry e-commerce business 12 years ago, said she is excited to meet with the first female vice president and Rhode Island’s first female governor, and to talk to women who own local businesses.
“One of the biggest challenges for my small business is we are run by two moms with young children, and when schools [closed] because of the pandemic in March, it was very difficult,” Wernevi said. The experience underscored the need for comprehensive child care programs, she said, and she is “thrilled” that President Biden’s plan includes universal pre-kindergarten programs.
“For too long, child care has been seen as a women’s issue, but COVID has made it clear that it is a both a societal need and a business imperative,” Wernevi said. “Small businesses and individuals cannot be left to bear this burden alone to figure out.”
She emphasized how crucial high-speed Internet access is for e-commerce businesses.
“The faster a website loads, the higher the conversion, and the higher the conversion, the higher the sales,” Wernevi said. “We are lucky to have high-speed internet in Rhode Island, but 95 percent of our sales are outside of Rhode Island, so it is absolutely critical that all parts of the country have high-speed access.”
She also called for “fixing” the United States Postal Service.
“Holiday season was a complete debacle,” Wernevi said. “Packages took up to six weeks to arrive, and we had to issue refunds. Today should be one of our biggest shipping days of the year, for Mother’s Day, and it’s not, because folks don’t trust that their packages will arrive in time.”
Sandra Enos, founder of Giving Beyond the Box
After retiring from her post as a sociology professor at Bryant University, Sandra Enos launched Giving Beyond the Box in November 2019. Each box features products with some type of social mission, whether it has to do with supporting refugee resettlement, empowering women, passion for the environment, or providing clean water.
Their best-seller is the “Hope Strikes Back” box, which exclusively features products by business owned by people of color, and most of them are based in Rhode Island.
Enos said that for her, and her new business, meeting Harris is an opportunity to share their business model with a larger audience and to show a solution to where the economy can be “more inclusive and more sustainable through the power of purposeful giving.”
”This is really focusing on consumer power, and using that to advance policy goals that many of us are interested in,” said Enos.
Minnie Luong, owner of Chi Kitchen Foods
Minnie Luong is the founder and owner of Chi Kitchen Foods, whose mission is to create flavorful, hand-crafted Asian foods that are loaded with beneficial probiotics and are free of MSG and preservatives.
Luong, who was born on a rice farm in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, grew up in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and it was during that time that she noticed that there weren’t many Asian ingredients available in local grocery stores. Her family started preserving their own foods, and Luong eventually became a culinary expert specializing in hand-crafted fermented kimchi.
On Wednesday, she told Globe Rhode Island that she was honored to be invited to be with Harris and Raimondo.
“It really makes me feel proud that she cares about our voices, brings us into the conversation, and takes into consideration what it means to be a small-business owner in today’s world,” she said.
Sterling Clinton-Spellman, owner of Incred-A-Bowl
Sterling Clinton-Spellman told Globe Rhode Island that she is ready to let Harris know about her future plans with Incred-A-Bowl, the food truck company she owns with her husband, Russell, and their new Fresh Start program, which will hire people who are deemed unemployable or hard to employ.
“We eventually have a goal to bring it nationwide so that by 2030 we will be able to employ 2,500 people who will open their own Incred-A-Bowl and give other people opportunities,” she said. “We are really big on promoting a second chance for people to get back into the workforce so they can not only provide for themselves but help others grow personally and professionally.”