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Rita Azar illustration for entrepreneur article for 360 MAGAZINE

Art and design incubator at FIU develops entrepreneurial leaders in the creative sector

Quincy Chery is an artist, professional barber and a self-proclaimed “jack of all trades.” Growing up, he had a knack for creating one-of-a-kind products you could not find anywhere else. He has mass-produced a myriad of things ranging from phone cases and basketballs to his own original clothing line. 

While earning his undergraduate degree in art, Chery found a place that allowed him to not only structure and lay out his designs more clearly, but also to develop his own brick-and-mortar-store where he could sell his work. That place was the Ratcliffe Art + Design Incubator (RA+DI) at Florida International University

FIU’s Ratcliffe Art + Design Incubator is an innovative arts entrepreneurship space for teaching art and design students how to turn their ideas into profitable businesses.

Chery is now the proud owner of the Cutting Gallery, a barbershop and art gallery storefront in Miramar, Florida, where he cuts hair professionally, and sells his original creations and the work of other local artists around South Florida.

“Being involved in the incubator allowed me to meet and connect with some truly talented artists,” Quincy says. “And now with my store, I get to showcase and expose their work to the community. As an artist, one of the things that hinder us the most is, you can be talented, but no one sees your work. I have been able to take what I learned in school, and the connections I made, and combine them to benefit the art community.”

And he is just one of many success stories to come out of the incubator. 

The Ratcliffe Art + Design Incubator launched in 2017, in collaboration with FIU’s College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts and The Philip E. and Carole R. Ratcliffe Foundation, with an initial cohort of eight fellows. 

Each year, the incubator selects a new cohort of fellows for a one or two-year residency to work with two faculty designers who operate their own on-site studios while also overseeing the fellows’ development of startup businesses or patents. Each fellow also receives a full scholarship during their residency.

The incubator is now on its fourth cohort.

Bridging the gap between talent and entrepreneurship:

The incubator’s focus on art and design sets it apart from other incubators. Fellows learn about the business side of an artistic operation, including marketing, running a company, seeking venture capital, scaling and packaging. They come to understand how their practice as designers and artists translates directly to business as they design, demonstrate, pitch and sell their products, combining experiential learning, fieldwork and professional networking.

“Entrepreneurship education within academic art and design departments has been introduced into our university curricula to prepare graduates to actively participate in the process of building creative economies in our distinct communities,” said Jacek Kolasiński, director of the RA+DI. “These initiatives have focused on a search for new strategies and prospects to empower young artists and designers to create more sustainable economic futures for themselves and foster their creative energies to re-envision our future and prepare them to solve society’s most pressing challenges.”

RA+DI trains students to become employers who will create jobs instead of having to seek employment. Additionally, there is a focus on developing entrepreneurs with diverse backgrounds who design products for underrepresented communities.

Fellow Latricia Russell joined the incubator in 2018 and launched LR Beauty Co., her namesake beauty brand that offers professional makeup, skin therapy and hair braiding. She discovered the RA+DI while on her way to class one day and asked Kolasiński about renting out space for a beauty event she was hosting. Kolansińki ended up explaining how the fellowship program could actually grow her business and encouraged her to apply.

“I’m a thinker. I like to plan everything before taking action but participating in RA+DI has helped me to not just plan, but also how to act on my plans,” Russell said. “I feel more confident about testing my ideas and now affectionately refer to the incubator as ‘a space for doers.’”

After completing her fellowship and graduating from FIU, Russell had the skills she needed to convert her business from a travel studio experience, where she drove to and serviced clients on-location exclusively, to opening her own beauty studio. 

Art, design and technology all come together:

The Ratcliffe Incubator also uses its platform to help others understand how art, design and technology shape our world. And it is bringing these conversations right to people’s homes with its new podcast series titled “Ratcliffe Technology Conversations.” 

RA+DI director, Kolansińki, leads the series where he, along with guests, fellows, other artists and designers explore how technology merges in our world, our communities and all around us with topics ranging from NASA design and technology, to mangroves and the future of art and design during these unprecedented times.

“’RA+DI Technology Conversations’ is a program for everyone interested in technology and new tools to transform creative practices, business endeavors and personal lives,” Kolansińki says.

Its first episode “Mission to Mars” featured NASA project manager Andrew Johnson, who worked on Terrain Relative Navigation (TRN). TRN enables the Perseverance rover, which is set to land on Mars on February 18, 2021, to send back vital information of life on the planet. 

“Ratcliffe Technology Conversations” can be streamed on Spotify

 Philanthropic ties:

The late Philip and Carole Ratcliffe created the Ratcliffe Foundation in 2003 with a vision to provide access to education and training for aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners to grow their ventures, create jobs and expand economic opportunities in local communities.

Based in Annapolis, Maryland, the Ratcliffe Foundation provides funds to institutions to encourage entrepreneurship in non-traditional business fields such as skilled trades, arts & design and aquaculture & environmental sciences. It strives to integrate its programs with local communities through mentorships and business involvement. 

“The FIU Ratcliffe Art + Design Incubator aligns closely with our foundation’s vision and we are deeply pleased to support its mission to provide students in creative fields with the tools necessary to succeed as entrepreneurs,” said Carlene Cassidy, chief executive officer of the Philip E. & Carole R. Ratcliffe Foundation.

The Ratcliffe Foundation donated an initial gift of $831,000 in 2017 to open the incubator at FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus in North Miami, followed by a secondary gift of $631,000. The gifts provided funding for the incubator for a three-year period, $450,000 in scholarships, monthly lecture series, state-of-the-art technology, office space, a small business library, market research assistance, legal and accounting support, seed capital programs and training.

Last November, the Ratcliffe Foundation awarded the incubator another $2.5 million gift to aid in the incubator’s mission of developing diverse, entrepreneurial leaders in the creative sector and boost South Florida’s economy. 

The gift also supports micro-credentialing, co-curricular and experiential programming, and competition and entrepreneurship showcases, among other initiatives.

“This new four-year commitment from the Ratcliffe Foundation is a testament to the success of the early stages of this program and to its bright future. We are deeply grateful to the Foundation for its partnership as we continue to elevate and expand the Ratcliffe Art + Design Incubator,” said Oliver Ionita, CARTA’s senior director of development.

Helping in a time of need:

Early last year, the foundation also provided an additional emergency grant of $10,000 for the purchase of five 3-D printers that allowed the incubator to print more than 1,000 face shields for local healthcare workers in conjunction with FIU’s Miami Beach Urban Studios and College of Engineering & Computing

It gave the RA+DI fellows a unique opportunity to learn how to produce essential personal protective equipment (PPE) and serve the community.

Some RA+DI fellows also used the opportunity to expand their own fellowship business projects to help the community during the height of the pandemic.

Arina Polyanskaya took her business project, Re-dress — which focuses on repurposing second-hand clothing into custom fabric squares for furniture designs, pet beds and more — and created face masks for the community. With the help and support from the Ratcliffe Incubator, Polyanskaya created more than 50 masks in just four weeks. 

“A family member of mine works in a local hospital and, since the beginning of quarantine, she’s been really concerned with the amount of protective wear available for health care workers, as well as for the general public,” Polyanskaya adds. “Making fabric squares felt inappropriate with this pandemic going on, so I thought there must be a way to utilize my skills and materials in assisting with controlling the spread of the virus. And I found it through sewing face masks.”

Other fellows provided the community with a much-needed escape amidst the pandemic through their art.

Denis Rovinsky opened his own art studio and shared virtual exhibitions for the public to enjoy. His work focuses on kinetic installations that use sound and light as a means of expression. Growing up in Russia, Rovinsky didn’t think a career as an artist was in his future, but he says the incubator helped him learn to think like an entrepreneur and “show him the path to becoming an artist without starving to do it.”

Whether it is current or former fellows, this one-of-a-kind incubator based in South Florida, is giving artists and designers a look into the business world and a space to turn their ideas into reality while creating their own employment opportunities.