Learning about Business and Connecting with Community

“How can we embolden a generation of entrepreneurs to invigorate Rhode Island’s economy by leveraging the unique strengths of the Ocean State?” This is the question that inspired the creation of Chez Innovation, a camp for teenagers that ran for the first time this summer.

The idea arose from a think tank held at Moses Brown (MB) for educators, students, and community members. Adam Olenn, Director of Communication and Community Engagement at MB and David Ahlborn of Parallax Education Group became the co-directors of the camp, and Maria Veale, a 2015 graduate of MB, contacted all local high school and middle school administrators as a part of her senior project.

With the goal of teaching budding entrepreneurs with an interest in the food industry about the many facets of the field and the skills necessary to build a successful business plan, the co-directors enlisted teachers and site visit hosts from around the state. Presenters and mentors included Sergio Ferreira of Startup Weekend; Manuel Batlle and Josh Daly of the Rhode Island Small Business Development Center; and Jeff Ledoux of Johnson & Wales University’s Entrepreneurship Center.

The seventeen students and their facilitators had the opportunity to visit Blackbird Farm, Daniele Foods, Farm Fresh RI, Windfall Shellfish, Savoring Rhode Island, Amos House, and the Southside Community Land Trust’s City Farm. At each of these places, campers were able to talk directly with farmers and business owners.

P.J. Thompson, one of the participants, said, “I learned a lot. It changed the way I thought about business in general.” He was particularly impressed with the passion and sense of mission that the business owners brought to their various enterprises. Commitment to integrity and reputation was a theme that came out at several of the different site visits.

For example, Ann Marie Bouthillette, proprietor of Blackbird Farm, raises all-natural, hormone-free, pasture-fed beef and pork and organic, free-range Rhode Island Red eggs. She explained to the teens that her commitment to quality means that she is responsible for knowing everything about her animals; if they eat something they shouldn’t or get sick, she won’t sell their meat because Blackbird Farm’s reputation would suffer.

Neil Thompson of Windfall Shellfish produces Poppasquash Oysters using a three-year production cycle, up to 18 months longer than other oyster farms. The oysters spawn each year, helping to repopulate and restore the ecosystem of Narragansett Bay. Neil showed the visitors how large an adult oyster that is not harvested and allowed to propagate can grow, and shared his vision for environmentally sound business practices.

Several groups of students worked together to produce business plans in the afternoons, with guidance and assistance from the adults in the program. As a culminating activity, the groups pitched their ideas to a “Shark Tank”-style panel of local business leaders: John Farber, President at HEYMB Food Enterprises; Lisa Raiola, Founder of Hope and Main; and John Robitaille, Director of the Larry Friedman International Center for Entrepreneurship at JWU.

The panelists were impressed with all of the ideas, which ranged from a restaurant focused on various types of dips, to a farm-to-fork app designed to connect farmers with restaurateurs, to an all-natural water enhancer. One group, which developed a program to teach teens with eating disorders cooking skills to help them regain a sense of control and pleasure from food, is pursuing their idea with administrators at Bradley Hospital.

Thanks to principal donors Diane & Jim Lynch and Davide Dukcevich of Daniele Foods, Chez Innovation was offered free of charge to a diverse group of seventeen participants. Campers were housed at Roosevelt International Academy, and Sage Dining Services provided meals at a reduced rate. David Ahlborn, co-director, feels that the camp was a huge success and he hopes to expand it next year, enrolling more students and further developing the curriculum.

As he reflected on the ten days, Ahlborn mused that the food industry lends itself to the study of multiple disciplines: aside from the mathematics involved in business models and measurements, the camp incorporated science concepts (such as absorption, osmosis, and ecological concerns) and literacy and writing development. “I would be delighted if I could run programs like this for students year-round,” he said.

Chez Innovation demonstrates how both students and the community benefit when academic institutions and businesses partner to develop meaningful programs. I look forward to hearing more from the young entrepreneurs who participated in this camp and to following the success stories that are sure to arise from it for years to come.

This post also appeared at GoLocalProv.

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