VENTURE CAPITAL: Kelly Ramirez, executive director of Social Venture Partners R.I., transformed the organization into a valued resource for nonprofits.
PBN PHOTO/RUPERT WHITELEY
By Sarah Parsons Contributing Writer
Just a few years ago, Social Venture Partners Rhode Island was struggling. Participation had plateaued, and the majority of the social-enterprise organization’s funds came from partners’ membership dues. “The whole model was in jeopardy,” recalled Chuck Holland, board treasurer of Social Venture Partners.
But that was B.K.R. – Before Kelly Ramirez. She first joined Social Venture Partners as a consultant in 2008, assuming her current role of executive director in January 2010. In three years, she’s helped revolutionize Social Venture Partners, transforming the lagging social-services organization into a bustling enterprise that helps nonprofits and social entrepreneurs develop financially viable businesses. “We became this one-stop shop,” said Ramirez.
“We were at maybe a couple dozen partners, and we’re at three-to-four times that at this point,” said Alan Harlam, a Social Venture Partners board member and director of social entrepreneurship at Brown University. “We have nearly 100 ventures on our list, and we are working with 100 social entrepreneurs in Rhode Island.”
Social Venture Partners also tripled its budget and developed eight new programs since Ramirez took the reins. “It was really all sparked by Kelly’s thinking about social enterprise as a sector and not just a bunch of projects,” Harlam said.
Ramirez certainly has enough experience assisting socially responsible businesses. She first got her feet wet in social services when she joined the Peace Corps in Slovakia in 1993, teaching English and working in orphanages for three years. After getting her master’s in public policy and urban planning from the University of Michigan, she returned to Slovakia as a foreign service Fellow. “It’s where I first learned about social enterprise,” said Ramirez, who worked with nonprofits developing revenue-generating enterprises after Slovakia became a democracy.
Ramirez then returned to the U.S. and joined the William Davidson Institute, a think tank affiliated with the University of Michigan’s business school. For the next five years she helped create and direct a social-enterprise research initiative, eventually developing a network of more than 100 NGOs in Eastern Europe and Latin America.
Ramirez left Michigan in 2008 to move to Rhode Island with her husband, Andres, and their children. She first joined Social Venture Partners as a consultant, often working long hours.
In addition to beefing up Social Venture Partners’ investments and pro-bono technical assistance, Ramirez helped develop mentoring initiatives – called “incubator programs” – for new social enterprises. These burgeoning operations are paired with an experienced Social Venture Partners mentor who offers advice and training to help enterprises grow and generate revenue.
Ramirez also expanded Social Venture Partners’ reach. The organization now offers grants, engages in advocacy work, works with college students and youth groups, and organizes a statewide social-enterprise summit each year. Social Venture partners most recently launched “Buy with Heart,” a matchmaking program that pairs Rhode Island groups and consumers with organizations that provide socially responsible goods and services.
Ramirez’s co-workers marvel at the strides Social Venture Partners has made under her leadership, but according to Ramirez, the organization’s growth is far from finished. “Our vision is to make Rhode Island a hub for social enterprise nationally and even globally,” she said. •