The idea grew from a discussion at a coffee shop at Pawtucket’s Hope Artiste Village. A group of Leadership Rhode Island students realized that business owners may just move their companies to the state if introduced to successful businesspeople already here.
The students – professionals representing a mix of industries – created a program that came to be known as TryRI.com to lure potential businesses, identify the owners’ concerns and then shuttle them around the state in hopes of soothing their fears.
The students describe the new endeavor as part class work, part economic development and part simple hospitality. But it is also represents a move to nudge the 29-year-old organization into undertaking more structured projects and corralling the program’s roughly 1,500 alumni into a unified force that can fight Rhode Island’s persistent pessimism.
“People tend to think it’s a political problem, it’s the politicians that have to deal with it,” said Tim Bigelow, a Leadership Rhode Island alumnus who graduated last week. “We have 1,500 alumni from this program. What an untapped potential.”
For years, many viewed Leadership Rhode Island as primarily a networking tool complemented with a heavy dose of educating students on acute issues as described by the people at the helm. Leadership Rhode Island Executive Director Mike Ritz, who came on board a year ago, and students say that remains a piece of the 10-month program. But Ritz, a former fundraiser and military interrogator, is driving students to take those connections and education beyond the program’s sessions.
Ritz, a 2007 graduate, has fought to encourage students to think of Leadership Rhode Island as more than just their class. He wants to eliminate the tradition of calling each class “the best class ever,” hoping to break down perceived competition among alumni. He is considering abolishing class names. He wants students to involve alumni during their capstone projects. As a result, he has put teams of students cutting across classes in charge of the curriculum.
“It’s got to be about all these people,” Ritz said. “This is not the Mike Ritz show.”
In November 2009, Ritz became the first non-native Rhode Islander and first man to helm the program that started as an outgrowth of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce. Ritz said his appointment has left some uneasy about putting the organization’s daily operations in the hands of someone born in Indiana and raised around the country. (He now lives in Providence, around the corner from Leadership Rhode Island’s offices).