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What Rhode Island Can Do to Move the Economy Forward

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


It's high season for business expos and conferences in Rhode Island. Can they help move the RI economy forward?

The Rhode Island economy has been showing signs of progress as of late -- and over the course of the next several weeks, a number of groups in the state will be hosting workshops, summits, expos, and conferences addressing various facets of the business and innovations sectors, looking to provide an intersection of brainpower and initiative to propel the state forward.

Currently, unemployment numbers are near the lowest they've been since 2009, and indicators show that the housing market is warming up, with the Rhode Island Association of Realtors recently announcing that single family home sales rose 22 percent in July over the previous year.

However, July's unemployment rate at 8.9% was third highest in the country, indicating that Rhode Island still has a ways to go

GoLocal talked with these organizations as well as economic and community leaders to learn more both about their initiatives -- and asked them what it will take, in their opinion, to further Rhode Island's economy.

Innovation, Meet Business

Saul Kaplan

Saul Kaplan, former Director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, and founder of the Business Innovation Factory (BIF), will be hosting the 9th Annual BIF Summit on September 18 and 19. "It's more of a community than an event," said Kaplan.

Kaplan started BIF in 2005 with a mission to "enable collaborative innovation...and create a real world laboratory for innovators to explore and test new business models and system level solutions in areas of high social importance including health care, education, entrepreneurship, and energy independence."

"From a Rhode Island perspective, it's important to note that convening this conversation is positive and proactive," said Kaplan. "All the cynicism, and negativity we see here in Rhode Island...this is focused on improving the community."

The two day community gathering will feature over 400 people, the assemblage of which Kaplan describes at a "random collision of unusual suspects."

"We believe that the biggest opportunities are in the grey areas between silos, between industries," said Kaplan, noting that the social media conversation between innovators was already underway at #BIF9 on Twitter. "How many meetings do you know are already underway before they place?" quipped Kaplan, noting that there limited tickets available still.

The 21st Century screams for transformation," said Kaplan. "If we're going to improve communities, we need to experiment with an entirely new approach."

Design Made Local

GoLocal spoke with Andy Cutler about the upcoming A Better World by Design summit taking place September 27 to 29, who noted, "First and foremost, we're a conference of do-ers."

According to the website, the annual conference "brings a global community of innovators to Providence, Rhode Island to reach across disciplines and unite under a common goal: building a better world."

Cutler noted, "This year, we're going be covering, 'The Policy of Design' as one of the topics. We have to be able to take the dialogue and do something with it."

"Last year, Better World attracted college students from 32 colleges to come in, for 3 days. People are coming here organically -- who they meet, what they see, is really important," said Cutler.  "This year, university students will be coming from Stanford...as far as Brazil, Copenhagen -- we've become a nexus of conversation for design. We're attracting people here. I've heard from folks who inquire about living here."

"Mayor Taveras will be there for kick-off, but are our other leaders willing to dive into this pool? They need to be here," said Cutler, who mentioned he'd reached out to Mayor James Diossa of Central Falls in particular. "If they're willing to implement it, we're here to discuss and design it. "

Talking about what people can expect at the conference, Cutler said "The presentations are about how you get things done, not just what it "is" -- we need to know how to implement them."

Getting Things Started

On October 18, the city will be host to the now 3rd Annual Startup Weekend Providence.  

"What startups can do to any city, state and economy is bring together people from varied backgrounds such as myself and get us all working together in a single direction," said Sergio Ferreira, who was an integral part of last year's startup weekend, which was held at Johnson and Wales University.

"You will find that the startup community here in Providence is amazing we are all behind each other, helping each other to get to the next level. We see with each new startup making it to the next level it only helps promote Providence more and making it a place to be for startups," Ferreira continued.  

This year, the weekend will be hosted by Betaspring, which bills itself as a "mentorship-driven startup accelerator program for technology and design entrepreneurs who are ready to launch a company and change the world."

Melissa Withers with Betaspring told GoLocal that the Startup Weekend was an "important part of pipeline development" for the state.

"It raises the bar for what it means to explore an entrepreneurial idea," said Withers. "It's a great training opportunity. You get students from different colleges working together."

Withers mentioned that Betaspring's upcoming Hardware Hackathon was another example of how Providence was positioning itself.

"It demonstrates what we have an important infrastructure here," said Withers. "People come from all over New England. It creates more connections on the network. It's celebratory, fun, and puts gas in the fire."

State Business on Display

The Secretary of State's Office in conjunction with the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporations is hosting the 7th Annual "We Mean Business" Expo today, September 10, in Warwick.

The mission of We Mean Business is to "connect Rhode Island business owners with local, state and federal agencies as well as the non-profit resources that impact their business."

Secretary of State Ralph Mollis' spokesperson Raina Smith told GoLocal, "Our annual “We Mean Business” expo is a valuable tool to talk one-on-one with governmental agencies, participate in valuable seminars and get advice and questions answered on growing or opening up a business.

"We’ve also designed innovative technological support where business entities can handle their filings online, you can open up a business via our nationally recognized Quick Start Program and we have an online chat where your questions can be answered by our Corporations Staff during business hours," she continued.  

Smith noted that in the first six months of 2013, there were 3,815 "new business formations" in the state.

Jerri Cantone, with Jerri Moone Cantone Photography, said that attending the Expo had prompted her to start her own business. "I'd been thinking of doing it for a while. About a year after I went to my first Expo, I decided to get my business license, and the [Secretary of State's] office couldn't have been more helpful."

Education Cited as Key

URI Distinguished Professor of Business Edward Mazze to GoLocal what he thought were the three things the state could be doing right now -- or in the near future -- to improve Rhode Island's economy.

"Support education at all levels. Recruiting and retaining the "best of the best" as teachers/professors. Investing in educators by providing them with technology and support for them to prepare the workers/citizens of the future," said Mazze.

He continued, "Have a realistic vision of economic development for the state. Taking advantage of the state's strengths - our location, the sectors in which the state is strong (hospitality, education, financial services, health services, business and professional services.) The strength of the state is also its small businesses - make it easier for them to operate so that they can compete on a level playing field."

Finally, "Simplify and reduce the size of government, we need a smaller number of towns/cities, school superintendents, fewer legislators. Reduce structural deficits by having a better budgeting/forecasting system. Stop reorganizing economic development as a "feel good" activity. Start using metrics to determine if economic development is working or just a buzz term," Mazze instructed.  

Kate Brewster with the Economic Progress Institute echoed Mazze in emphasizing the role of education in economic development., saying that necessary moves need to be undertaken included, "Improving access to early childhood learning by continuing planned expansions of pre-kindergarten classrooms and maintaining expansions of affordable, quality child care; increasing the number of Rhode Islanders who obtain high school equivalency diplomas, this includes helping them to meet the new test requirements and fees; and increasing investments in adult education, including basic literacy, math, and English Language Services for non-native speakers."




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