Orlando, FL. – The Russell Innovation Center for Entrepreneurs, or RICE, participated in a two-day in-person session at Walt Disney World on Nov. 15-16 to announce the continuation of their supply chain accelerator program.

The RICE pilot program includes 35 Black-owned companies, of which 66% are women-owned and allows diverse entrepreneurs and small business the opportunity for in-person learning with companies that can help prepare and position stakeholders for long-term success. Photo courtesy of Adrian Shelby Photography

What is the RICE Supply Chain Accelerator Program and how is Disney involved?

The RICE pilot program includes 35 Black-owned companies, of which 66% are women-owned and allows diverse entrepreneurs and small businesses the opportunity for in-person learning with companies that can help prepare and position stakeholders for long-term success. 

RICE describes themselves as a “Black business generator”. RICE invests in and teaches Black entrepreneurs the building blocks to create successful companies to innovate, grow, create jobs, and build wealth.

RICE refers to their “members” as stakeholders to ensure entrepreneurs feel a sense of ownership and belonging. 

RICE president and CEO Jay Bailey said the program was cultivated through navigating how the organization could provide “access, opportunity, and exposure” to their stakeholders. 

“In Atlanta, we’re fortunate to have lots of fortune 1,000 companies, but in every case, a lot of these large companies do very little business with Black businesses and so how can we create something that gets businesses to appoint ready ones to do business with these big companies,” Bailey said. 

Through the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC), Bailey said he met Leonard Spencer, who at the time was over supplier diversity for Disney. 

Bailey said Spencer took a tour of the RICE building in Atlanta and was impressed with RICE’s vision.

“We hadn’t even started doing the work yet, but he was impressed enough with our vision and said he wanted to start introducing and socializing us with some of his other stakeholders at Disney and that’s where the collaboration between RICE and Disney was born,” Bailey said.

He also said for a company like Disney to get involved with their program, Disney also gains exposure from Black companies. 

“They’re (Disney) able to give our stakeholders input on what they’re seeing, how they’re feeling, what they’re not seeing. I think a partnership with organizations like RICE, from a diversity standpoint, gives them the kind of insight they need to be a successful company that’s equitable and inclusive and gives opportunities to all,” he said.

Additionally, the program is expanding into its second year and Bailey said the first year was “an extended pilot program” trying things and seeing what stuck. 

In year two, Bailey said, RICE has started to define how they go about creating programs, how they look at readiness, and how they look at experiences that they can share with their stakeholders. 

“It’s a beautiful thing to go from year one to year two because a lot of organizations don’t get that opportunity,” he said. “In year two, you’re going to see a lot more collaboration, strategy, and more experiences to help entrepreneurs live while we’re teaching.”

Additionally, Bailey said he is excited about the opportunity and seeing Disney support their vision and program is “powerful”

Zoe Oli, 10 (right), and her mom Evana, started their company Beautiful Curly Me, which sells dolls with curly and braided hair and other items, to inspire confidence in Black and brown girls. Credit: Photo courtesy of Adrian Shelby Photography

“They have committed their time, treasure, and talent in every conceivable way and for us to culminate that with 60 entrepreneurs at Walt Disney World is a powerful statement to the company’s commitment to our community,” he said. “Disney literally opened the doors and pulled back the curtain to let us get a full view of how they operate and make the magic. That’s been very humbling, never would’ve dreamed we’d be here a year or two years ago.”

Ralph Sagaille, Disney director of supplier diversity, said Disney is supporting RICE’s program because they want to be a part of “the initial dream and aspiration in helping accelerator programs like RICE to encourage companies, especially in the Atlanta area, to have an opportunity to grow.”

“It’s important for us as a large company to realize where we started from, and we all have a story. Walt Disney himself started the company off drawing a mouse and we realize that every company starts with essentially a goal, a dream, an aspiration,” Sagaille said. 

Also, Sagaille said organizations like Disney can help small businesses grow by focusing on corporate social responsibility. 

“As your business grows, you need to make sure people in the communities are satisfied because they’re watching, consuming your contents and products, so it’s inherent to us to have the responsibility to make sure that the people that are keeping us in business and successful, we’re giving that to them in return,” he said.

Disney inspires RICE stakeholders

While on the trip, RICE stakeholders were able to join in on various in-person sessions such as speed networking, a Disney Institute tour, a speaker panel with Disney executives, a storytelling session, a diverse supplier panel, and more to further network and gather information on progressing their own businesses. 

Zoe Oli, 10, and her mom Evana started their company Beautiful Curly Me, which sells dolls with curly and braided hair and other items, to inspire confidence in Black and brown girls. 

Zoe said her purpose and passion comes from her “personal experiences with low self-esteem”. 

“Being able to reach other girls all over the world to talk to them and encourage them fuels me to continue to do what I’ve done so far,” she said.

The Disney experience, Zoe said, was “amazing” especially because it was her first time at Disney. 

“Meeting so many new people and making new connections have been amazing. I’m grateful that RICE and Disney have taken the time to amplify Black voices and really give us a chance to shine,” Zoe said. “Getting to see all of Disney, it’s very magical.”

Evana said the supply chain program has been “really great” for their company. 

“It’s given us a lot of tools, resources, and information to help us accelerate as we think about our operations and opportunities for our department such as Disney to upscale our business,” she said. 

The in-person sessions, Evana said, were “really inspiring”. 

“All the sessions that we experienced have been very inspiring for us because we go back and think about things like being intentional about the values of our company and how we can make sure those values show up every day and ensure what our purpose really is,” she said.

Additionally, Evana said she has a “huge appreciation” for the level of detail and intentionality Disney put into each session.

“We’re excited to be building alongside people that look like us and being a part of a bigger vision and legacy and knowing that we’re able to make change in our community and provide jobs and create something that will live beyond us,” Evana said.

M-T Strickland, CEO of Metric Mate, which offers wellness and fitness services, said the supply chain accelerator program “has been amazing”. 

“It’s a lot of dope opportunities and great exposure. The biggest problem, I think, in our space that entrepreneurs have is access,” he said. “So, with the program, we’ve gotten access to UPS, Disney, Delta. All these large corporations that are crucial for businesses in our state and where we are, those types of relationships are the things that you don’t have the opportunity to get into and to be able to have this conversation, sitting on panels to get that feedback, even if it’s not something the corporation wants to use.”

Bianca Kiovanni, CEO of Simplicity Beverage which produces craft cold teas and lemonades, said what surprised her most about the in-person sessions with Disney executives was “learning the Disney way”. 

“Things like optimism, consistency, and confidence are interwoven in everything they do,” Kiovanni said. “How they run their textile services, how they run and train their cast members, it is something that is a core part of what they do, and you see it in every aspect of the Disney company.”

Louis Deas, CEO of Try Deas and Other Treats, a family-inspired snack nut company that specializes in cashews, almonds, and pecans, said one memory he’d keep from the trip is the after hour down-time they all shared. 

“I really enjoyed the after-hours ride we went on (Disney’s Soarin’ Around the World), not just because of the ride, but the sense of excitement we all had,” Deas said. “Even though we were all tired, we watched beautiful fireworks, and was like ‘oh, there’s more’, and I’m all about experience, so it gave me a glimpse into what I want to create for myself and my company.”

As advice to new businesses and those looking to grow, Sagaille said to have patience. 

“You’ve got to be patient. As the RICE stakeholders witnessed, we are a large operation, we’re complex and there’s a lot of moving pieces, so be patient. Build those relationships as well. We are a relationships company times 10. Relationships are important in every organization,” he said.

For more information about RICE, visit https://russellcenter.org/.