John F. Kennedy said “Things do not happen. Things are made to happen.”
A year ago, the Rhode Island Foundation launched “Make It Happen RI.” We brought more than 300 private sector individuals together to brainstorm ideas on how to jumpstart the Rhode Island economy. The only rules were to be positive, look forward and take rhetoric to action. This group represented a range of sectors, industries, generations, backgrounds and expertise. And they delivered more than 400 ideas.
But that was just the first step—true progress depended on what happened next. That’s why we committed $1 million above and beyond our $30 million of annual grantmaking to support several specific ideas.
So, what’s happened?
We’ve supported entrepreneurs like Navyn Salem, a stay-at-home mother of four from Barrington. The company she founded in 2007—Edesia—now employs more than 60 workers producing nutritional supplements that stave off hunger for more than 1.7 million children worldwide.
Leaders have emerged in the medical technology, design, digital media and education technology fields, forming associations to leverage strengths, build collaborations, attract resources and communicate about Rhode Island’s talent in these industries.
Innovators at the state’s Department of Environmental Management and Office of Management and Budget are taking on challenges like lean government, improved customer service, regulatory reform and electronic permitting.
Rhode Island’s 11 colleges and universities are leveraging their collective expertise to assist policymakers by providing data and analysis on economic development issues.
Leaders are stepping forward to find new ways to nurture entrepreneurship in communities of color.
Manufacturers and designers are coming together to support one another, increase exports and leverage Rhode Island’s strengths for growth.
You can find descriptions of all 18 initiatives on rifoundation.org.
Lastly, together with partners, we took on our state’s self-esteem challenge by telling our success stories through “Rhode Island: It’s All In Our Backyard.” Self-esteem by itself does not build success, but embracing true success does. The Backyard campaign highlights people, organizations, businesses and sectors making a positive impact locally, nationally and internationally. Examples include:
· Over 1,800 manufacturers like Alex and Ani and Taco employing more than 40,000 people and selling products around the world.
· Young companies like Andera, G-Form and Carousel Industries innovating and growing.
· Family businesses like Armando’s and Danielle Inc. that are re-inventing themselves.
· Corporate giants like CVS, Hasbro, and Textron that are headquartered here.
· A thriving arts and culture sector envied across the country.
· Innovations in health and wellness.
· Nationally recognized nonprofits like the Learning Community Charter School and AS220.
· Infrastructure assets like Green Airport, Quonset and the Port of Providence.
We have barely begun to uncover Rhode Island’s success stories. It is up to all of us—one million ambassadors for Rhode Island. Learn about the assets of our state, spread the word and visit OurBackyardRI.com to tell us your stories.
We launched the Backyard campaign because we see good things happening every day. Based on the reactions we’ve received, it has struck a chord. This is not about feeling better about ourselves. We believe that the hard work of meeting our very real challenges requires the entire community to be engaged in fact-based, productive conversations, not fear-mongering or myth-spreading. This is how we will solve our problems and leave Rhode Island better for future generations.
We are proud of the work we’ve seen over the past 12 months, proud of the people who have stepped forward to serve their community and pool their talents. But clearly, our work is not done. The benchmarks we offered a year ago were to:
· Lower our unemployment rate to the national average.
· Raise our median household income to the level of Massachusetts and Connecticut.
· Close the income, employment, and education gaps that exist in our state.
These are serious, long-standing challenges that will require leadership, persistence, patience, and a sustained sense of urgency. In the coming months, the Foundation will partner with the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation for the next phase of “Make It Happen RI”, a series of discussions at the intersection of important Rhode Island industries. The outcome will be an economic development action agenda for Rhode Island that strives for scale of impact and not just incremental change.
Yes, these are big challenges, but we have bold ambitions, inspiring examples, strong partners and a proud history upon which to build. Let’s make it happen, Rhode Island.
Neil Steinberg is president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, a charitable, community foundation that last year granted more than $30.4 million to nonprofit organizations addressing Rhode Island’s most pressing issues and needs of diverse communities.