10,000 Small Businesses program teaches R.I. owners to focus on growth strategies

By Kate Bramson Journal Staff Writer

CRANSTON — When the small bowl holding Kurt Harrington’s betta fish broke, he scrambled to put something together to get his fish back into water.

Harrington’s the CEO of a Warwick company that creates high-end aquariums, which cost anywhere from $2,000 to more than $100,000, for businesses such as Google and Yale New Haven Hospital. He didn’t think a small bowl holding his Siamese fighting fish was the kind of product he’d sell.

But he was among nearly 60 Rhode Island company owners and executives in the past year who have completed free business classes through the 10,000 Small Businesses program funded by the charitable arm of investment banking firm Goldman Sachs. Last spring, Goldman Sachs announced it would invest $10 million in Rhode Island, the first state where it would bring the program it had only implemented in cities.

On Monday, Harrington said the classes helped him think differently about a small fish bowl that sells for $50. He was among 57 people who graduated Monday from the program at the Park Theatre.

Imagine, he said in an interview, that you’re a guest at a wedding or corporate event, and you pick the lucky number to take home a table centerpiece that holds a betta fish. With an accompanying gift certificate, he said, you just might start thinking about one of those larger aquariums his company could design for you.

During a discussion session with Gov. Gina Raimondo, Goldman Sachs Executive Vice President John F.W. Rogers and other program graduates, Harrington said the new product will build “brand awareness” for his firm — Something Fishy Inc.

Other business owners said they’ve hired new employees, gotten bank loans and learned the importance of exploring how to implement larger goals.

Stuart Flanagan said his Newport Renewables began as “two guys in a pickup truck” six years ago. Now, the solar power provider employs 14 people and has $2 million in annual revenue. The Goldman Sachs classes helped him focus on growing the business, “not just getting the job done.”

“We all spend a lot of time working in our business — and not necessarily on our business,” Flanagan explained.

Semia Dunne, of Flowers by Semia in Providence, said the program helped her take the next big step — selecting a location where she can create a wholesale flower market.

Kathy Moren, of Healthy Babies, Happy Moms in East Greenwich, said the financial lessons prepared her breastfeeding company to seek a bank loan — and her banker noted how well prepared she was.

NBX Bikes co-owner Matt Bodziony said he has launched a mobile bicycle-repair program.

Raimondo thanked Goldman Sachs for going “out on a limb” to bring the program into an entire state.

Rogers said he was asked to talk about the persistence that brought Goldman Sachs here — but told the graduates he scratched off that word and jotted down the word “stalking.” That, he said to laughter, was really how Raimondo urged the firm to bring its city-focused program into Rhode Island.

Now, Raimondo said one of her favorite things to do on her way home in Providence is to drive by Bodziony’s shop on Hope Street, where she and Goldman Sachs announced the program in March 2016. Formerly a tiny shop on a back street, NBX has grown exponentially, Raimondo said.

“It’s a visible daily reminder for me of how this program changes lives, employs people and strengthens our economy on the main streets of Rhode Island — you know, the Hope Streets of Rhode Island,” Raimondo said.