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Make It Happen RI, two years later
By Jessica David / September 8, 2014 /   Loading Disqus...
Two years ago today, we gathered with 300 business and community leaders at the Rhode Island Convention Center for Make It Happen RI. Our goal was to generate new ideas and specific action steps for improving Rhode Island’s economy. We are frequently asked, so what happened?, and the two-year mark seems like a good chance to reflect.

Make It Happen RI started with a pretty simple idea: Let’s get some smart, creative people together for productive problem-solving and see what happens. Our CEO Neil Steinberg set the stage with three ground rules: look forward, stay positive, and take rhetoric to action.

Since that two-day event, Make It Happen RI has come to represent a cluster of activities and initiatives that are seizing the call to action. We’re very proud of that. The Foundation invested over $1 million in 19 projects, and many of these efforts have truly taken root. (You can view the full list here.)

It will take some time to understand the true outcomes of these activities, but the level of new activity is encouraging and exciting. What’s even more promising is that as a result of these and many more activities, we have sensed a shift in the conversation around economic development in the state. More and more, economic development is understood not simply as a set of government tools. It is about building an ecosystem where activity, investment, and talent come together so that businesses can start, flourish, and grow. (Thank you, Shannon Brawley, for bringing my attention to this article which highlights this new framework.)

There are also more people participating in the discussion, as the circles of influence and ideas have spread to include new perspectives. We don’t always all agree with each other, but people continue to engage in substantive dialogue.

This is especially important, because important planning efforts are underway. While Make It Happen RI was focused on the private sector, the public sector has stepped forward with opportunities for greater scale, investment, and coordination. Commerce RI and the Division of Planning will deliver a state economic development plan to the General Assembly in October. The current draft includes many suggestions that took shape at Make It Happen RI and the subsequent working sessions we convened with Commerce RI in the fall of 2013. The Governor’s Workforce Board is undertaking its second Biennial Plan, and the planning process to date reflects the evolution of workforce development needs over the past several years.

We at the Rhode Island Foundation learned many valuable lessons from Make It Happen RI. Among the most important? When you ask the Rhode Island community for help, they respond. Getting traction depends on many things – perhaps most especially leadership. Rhode Island is compact enough that we have real opportunity to connect the dots between industries, regions, programs, and resources.

Make It Happen RI, our early investments, and the discussions we have participated in over the past two years have shaped our thinking and decisions tremendously. We have come to believe that we can have the greatest leverage at the level of industry and systems. Going forward, our efforts will center around three strategies:


  1. Helping businesses start and grow by strengthening the business ecosystem.
  2. Meeting the needs of the workforce and industry by pursuing improvements to the workforce development system.
  3. Improving statewide self-esteem by promoting assets and enlisting advocates.

We have designed these strategies to work with our partners to increase the number of companies and jobs in the state, to decrease unemployment, and to change the public perception of our state. Significant change will require frank conversations about the scope, reach, and quality of programs. It calls for continued experimentation and iteration. And we need to make sure that the entire community is included in these efforts, that no one is left out.

Many of the projects funded through Make It Happen RI are making progress toward these areas. For example:


  • DESIGNxRI is hosting Design Week RI at the end of this month to showcase local design talent. 
  • Práctico Innovation named five entrepreneurs as winners of its first community-based entrepreneurship competition.
  • The Department of Environmental Management has created a one-stop Permit Application Center for customers.
  • Digital City opened DC206, a co-working space for digital media professionals.
  • bRIdge.jobs has established itself as the resource for internships in the state, with 650 postings online.
  • MedMates is compiling a directory of members working at the intersection of healthcare and technology.
  • Several state agencies, under the leadership of DLT, are partnering on a pilot program to braid funding streams and provide 1,000 people with career coaching and work readiness certification at the one-stop career centers.
  • The College & University Research Collaborative brought together five teams from Rhode Island’s 11 higher education institutions to provide policy makers with research briefs on key topics.
  • This fall, the Foundation will launch a renewed Buy Local RI to promote locally owned independent businesses.
  • The Manufacturing Renaissance Project launched ManufacturingRI.com, a database of companies in the local manufacturing supply chain.
  • It’s All In Our Backyard is taking on the challenge of building pride in Rhode Island. 

So has a lot happened over the past two years? Absolutely. We have seen increased levels of activity, individual and collective ownership, and new relationships. We sense real momentum.

Have we solved Rhode Island’s economic problems? Not even close. The stakes are higher than ever. We must not forget: Rhode Islanders are still struggling. Unemployment and underemployment remain far too high. Inequities persist. Our business climate continues to be perceived as one of the least friendly in the nation.

Most importantly, what happens now? The Make It Happen RI call to action and urgency remains as true today as it was two years ago. The work has just begun. The Foundation is committed to doing what we can to advance a strong Rhode Island economy, so that all Rhode Islanders can prosper.

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