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Giovanni Feroce, CEO of Alex and Ani, at the conference.
Below left, students at one of a dozen workshops on leadership.

Values and Leadership Explored by Students at School of Business Conference  

The CEO of the 13th fastest-growing retailer in North America told a Providence College conference audience that his life experiences have been key to his success. “Utilize your war story,” he advised. 

On the same stage, the “pragmatic idealist” who founded a financial services company to benefit the poor declared that “true societal change takes place in the middle ground between cynicism and idealism.”

And the social entrepreneur whose organic coffee company returns a percentage of its profits to growers in Third-World countries argued that for-profit companies can make positive change in the world, too.   

Seventy students from eight colleges and universities in Rhode Island heard those messages during the second annual “Leading with Values: The Rhode Island College Conference for Values-Based Leadership,” hosted by the Providence College School of Business.

The conference, held in Slavin Center ’64 Hall and the Feinstein Academic Center, was open to student leaders from throughout Rhode Island. Those who attended were nominated by their schools. In addition to the speaking programs, they were able to choose from a dozen workshops on leadership development presented by professors, college staff, and representatives from such organizations as Teach for America, Year Up — Providence, and Common Cause Rhode Island.

“As a small state we need to continue to bring our young leaders together to collaborate and connect because they are the future leaders of this country,” said the student coordinator, Jennifer Anello ’13 (Basking Ridge, N.J.), president of the Future Friar Executives, a student business group.

“By informing young leaders that you can make a difference and still be ethical and value-conscious, the hope is these leaders will make the world a better place for generations to come,” Anello said. 

Alex and Ani CEO: "We are not equal"

Participants were welcomed by Dr. Sylvia Maxfield, dean of the School of Business, who said the Dominican tradition at PC encourages “reflective self-awareness,” with students mentored by adult teachers and taught to think from a variety of perspectives. 

“It’s just as important to me that you step up to a leadership role in a club on campus” as it is that you get an “A” in accounting, Maxfield said.

Kristine C. Goodwin, PC’s vice president for student affairs, talked about the importance of leadership.

“Leadership, and leading with values, is really, really hard,” said Goodwin. “It is difficult work. … I tell students that if it’s not difficult, you’re probably not really leading — you just happen to have followers.”

The conference was the idea of Dr. Matthew Eriksen, PC professor of management and department chair, and Dennis Rebelo, president of Alex and Ani University, the event's co-sponsor. Eriksen explained that it arose out of their discussions about "what it means to be human at work in the 21st Century."

Rebelo introduced Giovanni Feroce, the Alex and Ani CEO, who described his life journey. He was as an immigrant who grew up poor in West Warwick, R.I.; joined the Army for leadership training and served in Iraq; lost everything in the Florida real estate crisis; and until recently worked three jobs at a time.

“We are not equal. Forget all you’ve been hearing for years,” Feroce told students. “Utilize your experiences, your war story. It’s all how you react.”

Feroce disclosed news about his company, recently named the 13th fastest-growing retailer in North America by Inc. magazine.  He said Alex and Ani has just acquired the copper left over from the Statue of Liberty renovation in the mid-1980s. The metal, stored in warehouses in Nashville, Tenn., will be incorporated into bracelets, so people can wear a bit of the statue on their wrists, Feroce said.

Feroce said that he expects the company to sell stock to the public for the first time next year and envisions it becoming a lifestyle brand, selling apparel and home goods in addition to jewelry.

“Stay ahead of things — read, read, read,” Feroce told students. “Understand the material. Understand you are as smart as anybody else.”

PC students help Capital Good Fund

During a lunch catered by Amos House, a social service agency in Providence, Andy Posner, co-founder and director of the Capital Good Fund in Providence, described the fund’s mission to “provide equitable financial services to create pathways out of poverty.”

Posner was introduced by Maxfield, who described how the PC School of Business encourages its students to use their skills for the common good. A grant from the Bank of America Foundation is making it possible for PC students to work with the Capital Good Fund to provide one-on-one financial coaching to clients. The fund’s deputy director, Katherine Lyons ’08 & ’11G, is a PC graduate.  

In addition to financial coaching, the fund provides free tax preparation and consumer loans of up to $2,000. Founded in 2009, it recently served its 1,000th client, Posner said. It measures success by increases in credit scores, the number of bank accounts opened, the increase in savings and disposable income, and the decrease in predatory financial services.

“People make a lot of money off the poor,” said Posner, who advised students to maintain their ideals while being practical.

“You need a business model that can tackle a problem in a sustainable fashion,” Posner said. “You don’t have to choose between what you love and what you do.”

Dean Cycon, owner of Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Company in Orange, Mass., and author of Javatrekker (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007), told students that their professional values should align with their personal values. As consumers, they should be aware of where products come from and what they support.

His company pays growers above the fair-trade price for their coffee as part of a "buy high, sell low" strategy.

The idea that only a nonprofit can influence change in the world is false, Cycon said. Change can occur even when a company is growing and making a profit. A company’s goal is to preserve shareholder value, not maximize profit, and each company must determine what it considers to be value to the shareholder.

“You, as a leader, can create the culture you want in your organization,” Cycon said.

Students appreciate perspective

Juliette Weiss, a sophomore at Rhode Island School of Design, said she attended the conference because she will one day have her own business as a graphic designer.

“I have to know how to market myself as a leader” to attract clients, she said. 

Yvette Rodriguez, a sophomore studying history and economics at Brown University, said the workshops and speakers helped her to reconnect with the concept of leadership. She was involved in leadership in high school, but not as much in college, she said.

“I think from every speaker, you take away something,” said Chris Baker ’15 (Framingham, Mass.).

“I really enjoyed it. I didn’t expect what I heard,” said Kelvin Oppong ’16 (Bronx, N.Y.). “I’m definitely taking in a lot of people’s perspectives and how they managed to be successful at what they do.”   

 

— Vicki-Ann Downing

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