About Leadership Rhode Island: A History

Leadership Rhode Island (LRI) has been a recognized leader among organizations of its type from the beginning in 1981. At that time, there were only a scattering of community leadership programs across the United States, while today there are hundreds.  LRI has been an innovative pioneer, serving as a model and mentor for many of the groups that have followed.  

Leadership Rhode Island recognized early the importance of incorporating technology into the workplace, as well as the value of including a respect and appreciation for diversity into any leadership curriculum. What follows are highlights from LRI's 30 years as a leadership organization, making a difference in the little state and very big community of Rhode Island.


1979:  At the behest of future Rhode Island Governor Bruce Sundlun, the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, then headed by Sundlun, first begins research on a community leadership association. At the time, Rhode Island’s economy had endured a series of setbacks, including  military-base closings, factory relocations, and the energy crisis.  At the same time, longstanding divisions between business-management and labor groups as well as other socioeconomic concerns and differences made a unified response to the challenges then facing all Rhode Islanders problematic.  

The researching team saw the need and the potential community benefits of an organization that would bring together leaders from all economic sectors and all racial and ethnic groups as respected and welcome stakeholders in charting Rhode Island’s future.  A proposal was submitted to the Executive Committee of the Chamber.  

Governor Sundlun brought aboard People’s Bank President Bob Kline to serve as the organization Chairman. Eric Weiner of the Chamber staff became Program Director.  From the outset, a high priority was given to including leaders and groups not traditionally associated with the Chamber and its membership.  Organized Labor in Rhode Island quickly saw the merit in the Chamber’s initiative, particularly Edward McElroy, state head of the AFL-CIO.  The President of Rhode Island College, Dr. David Sweet became the first chairman of the curriculum committee.  

1980:  A project called “Leadership Greater Providence” is brought forth by the Chamber with a budget of $10,000 for the year.  Funded with grants from the Chamber and the Rhode Island Foundation, the budget includes a promotional brochure to engage leaders to solicit participation from across the community, including the business, nonprofit and governmental sectors.

1981:  The first Leadership class is admitted inaugurating the second leadership program in New England and one of just 28 nationally.  The class of 45, though made up of only ten percent women, brings together individuals from many traditionally divided segments of the community.

1982-84:  The first Alumni Association forms, holding four events and launching a two-page quarterly newsletter.  Leadership Rhode Island formally incorporates as a 501(c)(3) organization.

1985:  The first David E. Sweet Leadership Award is presented to John Foley ’81.  The award recognizes outstanding community leadership of a LRI graduate.

1986-87:  Leadership Rhode Island begins taking steps to expand its activities and formalize its role as a valued and vital leadership network.  The organization holds its first overnight event, buys computers, and begins offering promotional merchandise for sale. LRI is one of 6 community leadership programs nationwide to be selected for inclusion in A Colorful Quilt: The Community Leadership Story.

1988:  The class size is formally increased to 50 participants and LRI hosts the National Association of Community Leadership Organizations (NACLO) annual conference and NACLO board retreat with the theme “Leadership for Change,” dealing with diversity issues.  

1989:  The 1989 class consisting of 52 individuals is the first to be 50 percent women. Since that time the number of women participating has fluctuated from between 35 and 50 percent. The class also inaugurates a mentoring program with inmates at a Rhode Island women’s correctional facility.

1991-92:  By this time the community leadership association has taken off worldwide with over 400 groups around the globe. LRI develops new strategies to promote and market itself to the community at large with corporate sponsorships and a promotional video.  

1993:  LRI holds minority recruitment information sessions to improve the level of diversity in the LRI applicant pool.  In addition, two of LRI’s promotional materials receive awards from NACLO.

1994-95:  LRI publishes its first Annual Report and the Program Coordinator becomes a full-time position.  LRI also launches an Alumni Speakers Bureau.  A Community LINC program is proposed to the RI Foundation to increase presence in the community.

1996:  Leadership competencies are incorporated into the program and LINC is expanded with a Program Coordinator.  LRI is awarded a planning grant from the Rhode Island Foundation to develop a neighborhood leadership program. In addition, LRI formally separates from the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and moves into an independent office space.

1997-98:  LRI launches a three-year “21st Century Leadership” campaign and is awarded a grant from the Rhode Island  Foundation for scholarships to boost minority participation.  LRI also receives three national awards for excellence and is chosen to mentor three other leadership programs as part of the Leadership Initiative of the Lilly Endowment.  A Leadership library is begun and LRI hosts recruitment in all five RI counties.

1999:  The class size is increased to 55 and women outnumber men in a class for the first time.  LRI is recognized with four NACLO awards, the most ever for a single organization. LRI works with Providence College to arrange academic credit for completion of the  LRI Core Program and partners with several other organizations for the “Rhode Island  at the Millenium Project” at URI.

2000:  LRI’s “Founders and Catalysts” are recognized for their contributions to LRI over the years at a Scholarship Luncheon.  Among those honored is Kathy Hartley, LRI ’84, who served as Executive Director of LRI for over 15 years.

2001-02:  Research results in the Futures Report, later approved by the LRI Board of Governors.  The report calls for LRI to expand programs to enable participation from new populations in Rhode Island, such as college students, and to increase the focus on alumni participation in Leadership Rhode Island activities. New staff is hired to support the planned expansion of LRI programs and alumni activities.

2003-04:  LRI moves to 4 Richmond Square.  Leadership in Action Mentors are added to Program Committee.  The Emerging Leaders Program is piloted.  The Gallery LRI is established at 4 Richmond Square with the first exhibit being hung in December.

2005:  LRI begins planning its 25th anniversary activities and a research project to measure and evaluate its community impact. Alpha II Class, LRI’s 25th class, has 65% women and 20% minority enrollment.

2006:  LRI celebrates its 25th Anniversary with a gala on November 3rd and launches a new program: Women’s Leadership Series: The Political Process. Twenty-nine women graduate from the program, three later becoming members of the Gamma II Class.

2007:  LRI hosts a Community Issue Forum in conjunction with Blue Cross & Blue Shield of RI. The half-day program is called “Are Our Children Healthy Enough to Learn?” The highly informative panel brings together some of the state’s most renowned experts on children’s health and education for a discussion on the health threats children face.

In addition, The State of Rhode Island is named the first Well State in the U.S. by the Wellness Councils of America (WELCOA), a project for which LRI partnered with the Worksite Wellness Council of Rhode Island.

2008:  The LRI Board of Governors adopts a communications plan for 2008-2009, which includes the creation of Leadership Surveys to gauge alumni perceptions and opinions on statewide issues. The board also engages in a strategic planning initiative and moves to a new home at 1570 Westminster Street in Providence.

2009:  LRI hosts an Economy Forum to address the many financial challenges facing the state. Mike Ritz (LRI '07) becomes LRI's Executive Director and re-evaluates the staff/volunteer structure through an analysis with every previous LRI Program Director from the past 28 years. Jane Nugent, Ed.D. (LRI '95) and Sharon Collier (LRI '09) co-chair a newly structured Program Committee.

2010:  During a year when cynicism in the state is at a all-time high due to financial challenges and unemployment, LRI launches "Positively Rhode Island!" - a themed curriculum designed to identify the state's innovations and assets. Participants of the program are required to complete Leadership In Action projects that enhance the image of the state. TryRI, an initiative "to showcase the tremendous assets of Rhode Island through a network of enthusiastic and knowledgeable ambassadors who provide personal experiences that prove why Rhode Island is the best place" for new businesses, is pilotted and adopted by LRI.

LRI's Executive Director receives the 40 Under Forty Award from Providence Business News. Jane Nugent, Ed.D. (LRI '95) becomes the Curriculum Director and Jillian Stone (CLRI '10) becomes Program Coordinator. The organization completes a new Strategic Plan in anticipation of its 30th Anniversary.

2011:  Sixty leaders (LRI's largest class) are selected for the 30th Anniversary Program under the theme of "Rhode Island: The Center of the Universe." Participants are required to conduct projects that strengthen relations between Rhode Island and their selected locations around the world. John Mulattieri (LRI '09) and Carol Young (LRI '92) co-chair a diverse Program Committee of 60, representing LRI graduates across LRI's 30 year history who also possess expertise from a wide range of stakeholder groups.

TryRI, co-chaired by John Surrette (LRI '10) and Stephanie Federico (LRI '10), officially launches its initiative with LRI at the Annual Inspiring Leaders Awards Luncheon on March 17, 2011. They encourage all alumni to become RI Ambassadors to attract new business/financial opportunities to the state.

2012:  Fifty-nine leaders are selected for the Theta II class with the theme "IDEAS: Imagine.Discuss.Engage.Act.Solve."  LRI's Program Co-Chairs are John Taraborelli (LRI '10") and Anne Szostak (LRI '85).  LRI led an ambitious Leadership in Action project effort in the then bankrupt city of Central Falls, which included facilitating the Charter Renewal Commission for the city.  Also, LRI hosted a special 6-month version of its core program for twenty leaders from the community of Central Falls, called  Leadership Central Falls.  LRI would go on to win numerous awards for the highly regarded community work performed in Central Falls.  LRI was featured in the August edition of Yankee Magazine with a full page back cover for the Eta designed ad: Rhode Island - So Small You Can Do It All.

2013:  Fifty-nine leaders join the Gamma II class with the theme of "Quonset: Who Are We?"  Program Co-Chairs Christine McDermott (LRI '11) and Ed D'Arezzo (LRI '08") lead the alumni program committee.  Danielle Gaboury (CLRI '12) comes on board as LRI's Development and Special Events Coordinator.  Examining the image of Quonset, the class constructs projects that showcase one of Rhode Island's leading economic engines.  Katie Varney, LRI's Program & Special Projects Manager, is named "one of 10 to watch" in Providence.  LRI wins the following awards:  Common Cause selects LRI for its Excellence in Public Service Award.  Bryant University selects LRI for its Distinguished Leadership and Accomplishment Award.  College Leadership Rhode Island expands to include more students and moves to full day sessions.

2014:  Sixty-two leaders join the Kappa II class under the theme: "LRI Crosses the Line".  Program Co-Chairs are Don King (LRI '02) and Jeff Techentin (LRI '10).  LRI launches its multi year effort called Make RI Stronger, piloting StrengthsFinder by gaining profiles for 1,000 Rhode Islanders.  LRI wins a national innovation award from the Association of Leadership Programs for its work in Central Falls.  LRI receives the RI Press Association Award for Community Outreach for Publick Occurrences.  Matt Coupe (CLRI '12) comes on board to assist with programs and alumni engagement.  Mike Ritz, Executive Director, is awarded a place in the Harvard Business School Summer Program for Strategic Perspectives in Non Profit Management.

2015:  Seventy-five leaders (the largest class ever) joined the Lambda II class under the theme "ReCasting Rhode Island."  Program Co-Chairs for the year are Cicely Dove (LRI '13) and Scott Seaback (LRI '14).  Michelle DePlante (LRI '14) comes on board as the Program Director.  LRI celebrates its 35th anniversary.  StrengthsFinder Initiative continues.  Major local community engagement to culminate in a statewide strengths-based convening scheduled for the fall of 2015, the Lambda II's Leadership in Action Project.  Since 2010, thirty-nine Leadership in Action Projects have been designed that have benefited the state of Rhode Island.