‘Not all innovation comes out of business school:’ A new incubator program at Providence College for liberal arts students

She said the Ryan incubator has already started supporting innovation minors and other entrepreneurship-related activities across campus.

Kelly Ramirez, the former co-founder and CEO of Social Enterprise Greenhouse, in June 2021.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

How is this incubator program different from your work in the past at SEG or elsewhere?

The Ryan Incubator will be a broad-based entrepreneurial support initiative where students and alumni in local and global entrepreneurial initiatives aimed at creating economic and social value. So of course, the big difference will be that the incubator will be more student centric.

Are you hoping to collaborate with SEG?

I am a big believer in the ecosystem approach that we developed at SEG, and we hope to bring some of what we learned and developed there to a campus environment. At this point, we envision that some of the work will be student-led, and some will be student-supported. Of course, my hope is that the Ryan Incubator will collaborate closely with SEG and many of the other leading business support organizations in Rhode Island.

But we have also started researching other successful university-based entrepreneurial initiatives and plan to learn from what is working elsewhere. [Ramirez also helped built a social enterprise initiative at the University of Michigan Business School]

Has PC ever had an incubator before?

Not a formal incubator program, but students have been participating in entrepreneurship courses and entrepreneurial activity for some time. I have been teaching social entrepreneurship at PC for almost 10 years now and have witnessed firsthand the growing entrepreneurial spirit and talent on campus. And PC students are being recognized for entrepreneurial initiatives. For example, in 2021, a PC team won first place with their venture “UMeal” at the BIG EAST Startup Challenge [an annual competition where teams pitch product ideas to a panel of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and BIG EAST alumni].

What kinds of new products, services, or organizations are you hoping that students present?

We expect a wide range of ideas to come from students and we are open to all types of innovation. That being said, we already know that there are some areas where there is interest in including environmental and sustainability issues; science and healthcare technology; social entrepreneurship and community engagement; family business; and nonprofit entrepreneurship, especially those that support the College’s Catholic and Dominican identity.

How is this incubator space closely tied with the Ryan family, who donated $2 million for this program?

Ryan was a political science major who went on to become a successful business owner in healthcare technology [Ryan was chairman and CEO of CareCore National in South Carolina, which is a company he co-founded to provide benefit management services to health care providers.].

He was a champion for the value of a liberal arts education and believed that his PC education — without a business degree — provided him with the foundational skills and mindset, such as critical thinking, effective communication, love for learning, expansive worldview, and intellectual curiosity he needed to be a successful entrepreneur. [Providence College’s] business innovation minor and the incubator are specifically designed to support those students who are pursuing liberal arts or other non-business degrees but who want the fundamentals of business and entrepreneurship.

How is this program helping students who are not majoring in business?

The business and innovation minor is specifically designed for non-business [students]. The logic is that students pursuing a business major would have adequate exposure to business fundamentals making the minor unnecessary.

The hope is that the incubator programming and physical space will provide an opportunity for “collisions” between business faculty and students and other non-business faculty and students interested in entrepreneurship. The Ryan Incubator can also serve as the “clearinghouse” among all PC entrepreneurship-related activities.

Can you give an example?

Imagine a chemistry major interested in developing a test strip that detects nitrogen and phosphate in stream runoff entering the Narragansett Bay working with a biology major studying fertilizer-induced “dead zones” in commercially important shellfish habitat. This student may use resources in the incubator to explore ways to commercialize the technology, get a patent, do a market analysis, find grant funding, deal with state regulators, etcetera. The Ryan Incubator and staff would facilitate connections between the science students and faculty that have the technical expertise, and business students and faculty on the business side all while making the necessary community connections.

What’s the benefit of non-business students participating in this incubator program? What skills could they take with them in non-business-centric careers?

In my view, the most successful entrepreneurial ventures have diverse teams that bring different perspectives, strengths, and skills to the venture. Innovative ideas are often developed in response to the needs of specific industries. Our vision is that this incubator breaks down traditional silos and that student teams come together from various schools across campus, partner with community leaders, alumni and others to come up with the most innovative and effective innovations to solve complex challenges.

Although successful business ventures need individuals with business skills, we know that not all innovation comes out of a business school.


The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Alexa Gagosz at [email protected].


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.

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