Five Questions With: Isabella Cassell, Kelly Ramirez and Cayla Mackey

From left, Isabella Cassell, Kelly Ramirez and Cayla Mackey of the Social Enterprise Greenhouse nonprofit network are working to broaden access to healthy, local food in Rhode Island.
From left, Isabella Cassell, Kelly Ramirez and Cayla Mackey of the Social Enterprise Greenhouse nonprofit network are working to broaden access to healthy, local food in Rhode Island.

Social Enterprise Greenhouse recently launched a food accelerator program. Isabella
Cassell, SEG’s food and health venture development manager; Kelly Ramirez, CEO; and Cayla Mackey, university initiative director, discussed the new accelerator with Providence Business News and other initiatives the nonprofit network is working on, including the Changemaker Fellows program.

PBN: Why did you want to launch a food accelerator?

SEG: Access to healthy, local food is a significant social challenge and we believe Rhode Island has the resources and players to address this issue. Through working with an amazing network of community partners active in the Rhode Island food ecosystem (Hope & Main, JWU, R.I. Food Policy Council, Farm Fresh R.I. and many others), we realized that local mission-driven food businesses and growers needed business acumen training in order to become successful and thus contribute to the greater R.I. economy. Over the past six years, SEG has developed a network of 150+ business and community leaders who provide volunteer coaching and advising and a comprehensive menu of business development support services (accelerator, 101 workshops, loan fund, co-working space, financial management, etc.) and we knew we could use these resources to fill this business acumen gap. Through a partnership with the Henry P. Kendall Foundation, we have been able to build our capacity in the food space, most notably the creation of our food accelerator. The accelerator will offer online business training modules, in-person workshops and one-on-one coaching. We are eager to utilize our award-winning accelerator curriculum in the food space.

PBN: How has the response been so far?
More and more businesses are making local healthy food a priority. This desire to create a food business that has both a positive economic and social impact is reflected in the enthusiastic response we have received so far. With the support of other local food organizations, many networks have been alerted of our food accelerator and have indicated interest. Isabella Cassell (, who joined the SEG team a couple of months ago to lead our food effort, has been offering information sessions across the state, and demand has exceeded our expectations. The number and variety of retail, service, agriculture, aquaculture and other food businesses has been immense, and SEG is looking forward to continuing our work in the food space with the help and support of other R.I. organizations, stakeholders and industry leaders.

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PBN: Do you have any other plans for industry-specific accelerators?

SEG: Although we will continue to support do well, do good businesses across every sector, SEG is moving toward a cluster-specific approach. We plan to identify clusters where Rhode Island has pre-existing assets and potential to create jobs; promote stronger, healthier, more vibrant communities; build networks and capacity; and drive strategic venture development in these clusters. We are currently exploring strategic partnerships in health and wellness and design and hope to launch those efforts in early 2016.

PBN: In just four years, you’ve gone from 10 ventures to 150 ventures. To what do you credit that growth?

SEG: We’ve found that people increasingly want to find purpose in their lives and their work. In particular, millennials are driving the demand for social enterprise products and are interested in exploring careers in and/or launching do well, do good businesses. We saw this growing demand and pipeline in this space and started to build the robust networks and services that these businesses needed to thrive. The types and breadth of our services is growing every day. Our amazing network of business and community leaders are the drivers of the success of SEG and the businesses we support.

PBN: Will SEG and the Founders League name Changemaker fellows every year? What do you hope comes out of this year’s program?

SEG: We hope to continue to receive support from the Blackstone Foundation not only to continue, but also grow the Changemaker Fellows program. By having the fellows, who in essence serve as ambassadors and connectors between students on campus and resources and opportunities in the entrepreneurial community, we expect to see more university student-led venture development, more internship and job placements in do well, do good businesses, and ultimately increased talent retention. We hope that students will be connected to and inspired by the businesses launching and growing right here in Rhode Island. SEG team member Cayla Mackey ( is leading this effort.

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