TEDx Providence: Mirroring RI’s Rich Culture of Social Entrepreneurship

April 8, 2016

By: Ariadne Ellsworth

On Saturday April 9th TEDx Providence will host its fifth annual conference at the Columbus Theater, where 15 speakers will take the stage to discuss a broad range of issues centered around this year’s theme: “Create, Innovate, and Play.” Like other TEDx events around the country, the speakers include artists, scientists, inventors, activists, athletes, and executives. But perhaps less typical of these events, TEDx Providence also boasts many social entrepreneurs. To those familiar with Rhode Island’s and Providence’s rich culture of promoting social good and entrepreneurship, this probably comes as little surprise; TEDx Providence is a reflection of what Robin Dionne, a TEDx Providence Board Member and Project Manager at Women’s Development Corporation, calls “Rhode Island’s secret hub of social entrepreneurship.”

The audience drawn to TEDx events like the one held in Providence tends to be interested in social entrepreneurship to begin with. However, when it comes to TEDx Providence, there are a few circumstances that have helped secure a particularly large social entrepreneurship presence. For one, the event attracts students from Providence’s wealth of colleges and universities, and these students “seem to have a real interest in social empowerment and bettering,” says Dionne.  Secondly, speakers for TEDx Providence are selected through a public nomination process (TEDx events have discretion in how they choose to select speakers). The public nomination process means that the speakers nominated to TEDx Providence are crowd-sourced and reflective of the audience’s preferences. And, as Dionne phrases it, the event’s audience comes from “a city interested in learning” particularly about social betterment and entrepreneurship. Lastly, Dionne explains that in recent years the event has seen more social entrepreneurs nominated as speakers thanks to the increasing presence of places like Social Enterprise Greenhouse that have helped publicize and raise local interest in social entrepreneurship.

While the event organizers echo the community’s preferences rather than speak out in and of themselves, they do have a crucial role in narrowing down speakers from the nominations. After the nomination period, the board — which is entirely composed of volunteers — is left with the job of narrowing the list down to around 15 speakers. One criterion the board uses is focusing on selecting people they feel are doing things that “deserve more recognition than they’re getting — those tend to be social entrepreneurs,” according to Dionne. Another criterion is simply people who are doing interesting things and “in Providence,” says Dionne, “social entrepreneurs are doing the coolest work, they’re the ones being nominated.”

This year’s event will provide a platform for social entrepreneurs like Yeltisa Jean-Charles, founder of Healthy Roots. Currently a senior at RISD, Jean-Charles founded Healthy Roots to combat internalized racism and colorism through the first doll collection with all-natural hair.  “The public is super excited about work by young entrepreneurs like Yelitsa,” explains Dionne, “within the first two days her TEDx Facbook post had over 11,000 views.” Dionne is also excited for Kimberly Kowel Arcand, the Visualization Lead for NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory in Cambridge, whose research is the “only of its kind in the world.” Jean-Charles and Arcand also speak to another goal TEDx Providence set for itself this year: to highlight women “doing something amazing,” like Sierra Barter. A social entrepreneur, Barter is the CEO and co-founder of The Lady Project, an NGO set up to counter the “Old Boys Club” and showcase women and their achievements.

Speakers like Jean-Charles, Arcand, and Barter speak to the diversity of topics covered at TEDx Providence — everything from fighting racism through childhood toys to unprecedented scientific research — as well as to the event’s ability to broaden its audience’s horizons. “I’m not even a science person,” says Dionne in reference to Arcand, “but the way she presents her topic is fascinating.” Dionne goes on to add that “even if you’re not interested in a specific topic, you can relate to the way the speaker is going to present their talk.”

This January, SEG gave TEDx Providence membership to the Hub. Consequently, SEG became an official sponsor of the event and the Hub became TEDx’s headquarters. If they’re not at the Columbus theater in the run-up to the event, TEDx organizers are working in the Hub. “We love that space,” says Dionne, “we eat dinner in there, fight with each other in there, drink a lot of coffee, hashing out this program before the event.” In addition to providing a private and accessible space for working, the Hub allows TEDx organizers to interact with other community members, Dionne explains that “they help promote us and we know what they’re doing,too. It’s nice to know that there are people there who are supporting similar goals.”

In so far as social entrepreneurs, this year’s line up includes: Yeltisa Jean-Charles, founder of Healthy Roots; Meg Sullivan, Executive Artistic Director at the Manton Project; Erminio Pinque, Founder of Big Nazo; Sierra Barter, CEO and co-founder of The Lady Project; Perry Raso, owner of Matunuck Oyster Bar/Matunuck Oyster Farm; and Richard Culatta, Rhode Island’s Chief Innovation Officer. These speakers will appear alongside activists Dr. Eshun Mirza and Meghan Kallman; artists Mike Townsend, Sokeo Ros, and Sydney Skybetter; X Games medalist Kevin Robinson; Former Executive Director of the Providence Children’s Museum Janice O’Donnell; NASA scientist Kimberly Kowel Arcand; and inventor Nicholas Tragnark. The event will be emceed by Curt Columbus, the Artistic Director at the Trinity Repertory Company; Elizabeth Stefanski, Chief Market Maker, Business Innovation Factory; and Torey Malatia, President, CEO, and General Manager, RI Public Radio.

For full speaker bios are available at the TEDx Providence 2016 Event page. Tickets are sold out for the event on Saturday April 9, 2016 from 9 am to 5 pm at the Columbus Theater.



Ariadne Ellsworth
Journalism Intern

Ariadne Ellsworth is a junior at Brown University studying Political Theory and English. She is interning in the journalism program under Crystal Rosatti. Originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico, she has previously worked in publishing and was the Editor In Chief of the Brown Political Review. She is using this opportunity to explore the junction between journalism and social entrepreneurship.

Contact: ariadne_ellsworth@brown.edu