Dr. Anthony Wheeler got into management consulting because he wanted to help people, and to solve problems. Believing that academic work might allow for a more direct way to guide his work towards fixing issues and finding opportunities he wrapped up his PhD in business at the University of Oklahoma. Oddly enough, the position he found for himself is in the state that we might argue to be most in need for “help” on the entire east coast: Rhode Island. I sat down with the University of Rhode Island’s energetic Dr. Wheeler to talk about how RI is aiming to overcome it’s limitations, marshall it’s resources, and remain an active home of business and innovation.
The first efforts of Dr. Wheeler upon arriving to URI involved chairing the re-vamp of it’s MBA program. His aim was to change it’s focus and put an emphasis on involvement in the business community and critical thinking. “Step one was to move the MBA program up to Providence,” says Wheeler. In addition to housing over 15% of the small state’s population, Providence is where most of the bigger business happens, and there the majority of the limited startup activity (events, groups, accelerators) take place.
The benefit if being in Providence is proximity to businesses that the MBA program can partner with. Companies like Hasbro are introducing URI’s new MBA students to problems and then giving the students a chance to research and present potential solutions back to the company. In their 1-year accelerated MBA program, students complete three product improvement projects, and three process improvement projects – much of which involves feedback and collaboration with local businesses here in the state.
Providence also offers opportunities to “get osmosis to happen.” At URI’s Kingston campus, it’s rare to have entrepreneurs around to mingle with faculty and staff. Anthony uses the city to bring these groups closer together to embed Rhode Island’s budding businesspeople / entrepreneurs in a community of like-minded and successful individuals. In cities like Boston or New York, Anthony explains, this pooling of expertise and ambition is part of the fabric of the entrepreneurial ecosystem, a facet of business life that “little Rhody” is sorely lacking – even now.
As of now, says Dr. Wheeler, there’s no overarching vision for building an entrepreneurial culture in Rhode Island, or fostering an ideal ecosystem for startups. There are, however, “factions” such as URI’s MBA program Beta Spring accelerator in Providence, and a number of companies like Alex and Ani and Swipe.ly keeping their business operations humming right here in the state. None of the efforts are top-down, however, and Anthony seems to believe that the fumble of Curt Schilling’s “38 Studios” (who lost a reported 75 million dollars in loans from the state in it’s bankruptcy) will continue to keep the state tentative about supporting new business. “In the government, at least in this state, it seems that moving forward really involves looking backwards,” say Anthony. He believes that the state is more eager to not be duped by other startup than it is to encourage entrepreneurial success within it’s own borders.
Despite a an administration that might not be ideal for new business, Dr. Wheeler sees that Rhode Islandhas what it takes in terms of infrastructure (ports, trains, airport, roads) and location (between the two major hubs of Boston and New York), and it’s got pockets of smart people who ardently work to see improvement (with Wheeler naming the Betaspring team among some of the best examples). It’s best shot of business success as a state is not just to continue with initiatives to foster innovation and entrepreneurship – Anthony thinks we need more. If the state wants to succeed, more little efforts have to come together, and a grander overall vision for the state needs to be defined. In that direction, Dr. Wheeler will keep on fighting.