PROVIDENCE — Vice President Harris came to the Social Enterprise Greenhouse on Wednesday to hear from small business owners about how they’re making a difference in their communities and to hear how new federal programs can help put people to work.
Harris arrived with US Commerce Secretary and former Rhode Island governor Gina M. Raimondo at the Davol Square offices of the SEG, a network of enterprises and business leaders that helps entrepreneurs maximize their social impact.
They joined all four members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation and SEG CEO Kelly Ramirez at a “social impact pitch event,” which included presentations by Dr. Eugenio Fernandez, founder of Asthenis pharmacy in Providence; Sandra Enos, founder of Giving Beyond the Box; Sterling Clinton-Spellman, owner of Incred-A-Bowl; and Philip Trevvett, founder of Urban Greens.
“Keep doing what you are doing because you are models of the best of what we are doing in the country,” Harris told the local business owners. “It’s about helping people see the possibilities.”
While businesses have to pay the bills and make a profit, she thanked them for “what you are doing to enhance the value of the community, the potential of all human beings to reach their capacity.”
Raimondo thanked the social entrepreneurs, saying, “I am totally inspired. You have given us all hope. The struggle is real, but your innovation and hope and persistence has inspired me, and we are committed to building back better.”
She said President Biden’s administration is focused on providing “more equitable access to capital, job opportunities, and really leaning into small business. The vast majority of Americans work for small businesses, so we have to stand up ones that have been out of business and assist those who still exist.”
Harris praised the Urban Greens project, saying, “When we were kids, my mother shopped at a coop, so you are bringing back fond memories for me.”
She said the American Jobs Plan invests in infrastructure projects, including public transportation, and she asked how that could help his mission.
Trevvett said, “Improving public transport has a tremendous impact on the communities we serve. We don’t want people investing a massive chunk of their paychecks on cars and gas. One of the key reasons for our site is at a bus stop. Four lines go by our store on either side, to make sure we are accessible to everyone.”
Harris asked Enos how much businesses rely on access to high-speed, affordable internet access. “The pandemic was a big accelerator in highlighting the failures and fissures in our system,” she said, adding that the issue affects students, senior citizens, and small businesses.
Enos said that without affordable high-speed internet access, “We would have been dead in the water. And as the pandemic lifts a little bit, online will be an immense part of our business. It’s absolutely essential for everything we do.”
Harris asked Fernandez to identify the biggest challenges he sees at his South Providence pharmacy in getting people the health care they need.
Fernandez said people are looking for information on health, but their doctors are often too busy to spend much time with patients and answer their questions. So, he said, “We wanted to create accessibility to education, to say, ‘These are your 10 options and here‘s one I recommend.”
Harris asked Clinton-Spellman how she balances the “hard and soft skills” in hiring people from the community who might be considered “hard to employ” but “who are ripe for developing skills.”
Clinton-Spellman said, “One thing I have a gift with is to see what type of talent people have and focus on developing that rather than focusing on what they don’t have. As a former teacher, I know you have to dig deep. More companies need to focus on their strengths rather than weaknesses.”
Raimondo noted it was lunch time and asked why everyone wasn’t eating Incred-A-Bowls from Clinton-Spellman’s company.
At the end of the event, Raimondo thanked the vice president. “Come back to Rhode Island any time,” she said.
And Harris said: “I will keep coming back to Rhode Island.”