Riverzedge Arts: Designed by Youth

The mission of Riverzedge Arts, based in Woonsocket, R.I., is to improve lives and places through art, design, and creative problem solving. Their arts and entrepreneurship studio programs are nationally recognized for helping to expand horizons for local youth. Since 2002, the organization has been providing teen artists with an afterschool hands-on job-training experience led by studio directors who are experts in their fields.

Students involved with Riverzedge Arts acquire skills in disciplines such as screen printing, graphic design, photography, and video, and learn how to interact with clients and manage projects. They are also paid for their work. Approximately 25 students are studio members during the fall-spring session, and 40 during the summer session.

Rhode Island graphic designer Christopher Fagbayi was hired to teach graphic design to students at Riverzedge in 2016, when he joined as the Design Works studio director. “Every year I’d manage a group of five to ten students, teaching them the fundamentals of design from concept to completion,” he says. “We’d work with clients that needed creative services such as logo design, branding system design, collateral & print, and packaging design.” Students learned the process by collaborating with Chris on developing a design brief, participated in client meetings, research/discovery, brainstorming, sketching, design execution, and presentation to create a cohesive and high-quality project.

“What sets us apart is that we have teens who think different. They have an edgier mindset, a think-out-of-the-box mentality that you would not necessarily get from a seasoned professional. It’s a fresh perspective.”

Chris was soon encouraged by Riverzedge leadership to apply to Social Enterprise Greenhouse’s Impact Accelerator. “Our executive director, Karen Barbosa, had made a connection with SEG and thought it would be a great idea to apply and take that on,” he says. “At the time, we didn’t have a marketing person, so all studio directors were responsible for finding their own clients. She wanted to have someone on staff who had those kinds of skills, who could go out to pitch our value to new clients in order to bring in revenue to our Arts & Business micro-enterprise studios.”

It made sense to him. “It really intertwined with what our studio did,” he explains. “Design Works was responsible for marketing, not only internally marketing our services but also offering our services to clients. So I thought it fit really well with that part of my job.” He applied and was accepted. As a member of SEG’s 2018 Impact Accelerator, Chris began to work on building out the marketing function at Riverzedge.

The SEG Network Effect 

As is traditional for every participant in an SEG Accelerator, Chris was assigned an advisor to meet with as he progressed through the program. He was paired with SEG advisor Scott Schroeder, who has extensive experience in business development, marketing, and strategy, especially for nonprofits. They got together once a week.

“Scott definitely helped us with developing marketing strategies, figuring out how to position ourselves in the community, how to get more visibility, how to build strategies, and how to sell and pitch our services,” says Chris. A big question arose over what the primary message about Riverzedge should be: is it primarily a youth mentoring organization or a creative services organization?

“We are both,” says Chris. “Yes, teens are first because we want to build them up to prospering adults in society. But we are a creative environment, a creative organization that offers creative services. So if we want to market ourselves as a business offering these services, how do we visually position ourselves as a business as opposed to a teen support program?”

Scott also offered advice on the Riverzedge business model and how to pitch customers. “He definitely helped me out with pitching,” says Chris. “Who to pitch to, how to pitch our services, how to build our costs effectively so we’re not undercutting but positioning ourselves to be competitive in the market. There are a lot of design firms out there, primarily in Providence, that are our competition. But what sets us apart is that we have teens who think different. They have an edgier mindset, a think-out-of-the-box mentality that you would not necessarily get from a seasoned professional. It’s a fresh perspective.”

“We’ve definitely made a lot of improvement in earned income from our four studios, and we’ve been able to meet new clients who had no idea who we were and to build great rapport with a lot of them.”

After completing the SEG 2018 Impact Accelerator, Chris was promoted, and Business & Marketing Developer was added to his title. He began to split his time between managing the Riverzedge Design Works studio and pitching and selling the organization’s services to potential clients. As of early 2020, his work as studio director has ended, and he is now a Business Manager focused solely on business and marketing.

“We’ve definitely made a lot of improvement in earned income from our four studios, and we’ve been able to meet new clients who had no idea who we were and to build great rapport with a lot of them,” Chris says. “We are also positioning and zoning in on the target markets we want to focus on. Out of all the businesses I’ve either visited or cold-called, I find that nonprofits are our target.”

Thanks to Chris’s experience in the SEG Impact Accelerator, Riverzedge has been able to develop a business model that identifies their unique selling proposition, their customer profile, and revised price points based on their capabilities. They are hoping to increase their budget with more grants and retail sales within the next year or so. Chris continues to access the social impact ecosystem around SEG by attending pitch presentations and connecting with other businesses. A new brand launch for Riverzedge is underway.

Sometimes, selling the mission can be a challenge. “Pitching what we do at Riverzedge is a work in progress,” says Chris. “Convincing a potential client that a 14-year-old can actually design a high-quality product is a challenge in itself, with clarity that it’s a collaborative effort. The ideas really come from the teens, and the studio director is directing and managing the whole process and finalizing the output. The clients we have are the ones who believe in our mission. They believe in helping students grow as artists and designers.”

So does he. “I believe that sharing my artistic and design knowledge with teens and helping them define their own vision is very important,” he continues. “I believe that if you have knowledge you can’t keep it to yourself, you have to share that knowledge with others. Just living in Woonsocket and working with teens, I’ve found it’s definitely needed. They really come alive in an environment that is creative and artistic.”

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