Idrees Lanre Ajakaiye labels himself as a visionary, and as a speaker for the 2023 Honors Colloquium, shared his experiences with social entrepreneurship at Edwards Auditorium on Tuesday.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the University of Rhode Island’s College of Business and the 60th anniversary of the Honors Colloquium, Ajakaiye spoke on behalf of his entrepreneurial experiences toward visions of equity in his speech: “Black Ambition, Inclusive Community Development While Reducing Inequalities & Driving Economic Growth!”Ajakaiye is currently the chief development officer for United Way of Rhode Island, where he works to uphold their mission of uniting the community and resources to build racial equity and opportunities for all Rhode Islanders.
As a URI alum that studied English, Ajakaiye made the connection through Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” that unchecked ambition without a moral connect leads to one’s demise. Without the moral consideration of the balance between profit and purpose, he explained that we neglect inequities of the past and inequities of today.
He argues that the social good required to implement business for the common good cannot exist without a balance between ambition and morality.
“I’m very competitive,” Ajakaiye said, as an inductee to the Classical High School Hall of Fame for track and football. “But I’ve learned to take that competitiveness and think about the social good, to think about what the community and society needs, and most important, to center the voices that are most impacted, or the target audiences and listen.”
He built off from this, stating that each person should feel empowered to bring their unique traits and individual talents to the table, the only way in which URI’s students can collaboratively create change in the workforce.
As a first-generation American, graduating from Classical High School and later from URI, Ajakaiye recognized that social shortcomings and inequity in surrounding communities existed on a large scale. He referenced his roots as a driving force behind his passion, stating the importance of centering voices and perspectives to highlight and empower communities.
He shared his primary motivations behind his actions and ambitious projects, stating that by giving back to the community and listening closely to these voices, young professionals in the workforce can fight historical headwinds.
“If things are swept underneath the rug, in any society, at some point you’re going to have to open the rug and clean it,” Ajakaiye said.
After noticing that the city of Providence did not have a travel basketball team for its youth, Ajakaiye took this as an opportunity to integrate social impact and establish one. He decided to teach financial literacy, real estate and wealth to fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth graders on the team. Despite four state championships and two New England championship wins, he explained that this success doesn’t equate to the other valuable lessons that he was able to teach these children.
“Of course that’s success in a six-year span, but the success of that is the young men who are part of it holistically learn concepts that school is not teaching them: APR, FICO, Law of ‘72,” Ajakaiye said.
He additionally pushed, alongside his wife, to establish the RISE Women’s Leadership Conference, which stands for Realizing Inspiration & Sustaining Excellence. This became a driven movement for Ajakaiye after noticing that there were no diverse events that celebrated the women in the city of Providence or the state as a whole. As RISE goes into its seventh year, high school women can attend this event for free, which Ajakaiye orchestrated to further cement a push for social good.
Ajakaiye shared with the crowd his 25 Bough St. vision, where he plans to implement a community empowerment center in Olneyville. This project established Ajakaiye as the first person in New England to be approved by the United States Securities and Exchange Commission for Regulation Crowdfunding, where individuals can help raise money for the real estate development.
“The common thread is that it looks at the gaps in the community,” he said when discussing what these social and entrepreneurial efforts have in common.
By addressing questions from nearby professionals in a multitude of fields, such as finance and health departments, he can tend to adult education and youth issues that other people are seeing.
“I’m listening to learn, and I’m incorporating the community,” Ajakaiye said.
He began to close out his time on stage by sharing community solutions. These solutions included tips on centering, involving and amplifying stakeholder voices, providing resources with an understanding of historical backgrounds, providing technical assistance and access to capital, and finally, paving the way for innovation.
“There are always moments of doubt that you have when you start things, and when you hear the ‘no’s, but being grounded in my ‘why’s and my core values, and especially if I do the research and my data tells me it’s right… now I’m even more comfortable with it,” Ajakaiye said when the room opened up for questions.
Ajakaiye was the first mayoral selection to the Reparations Commission in 2022, which funded $10 million for BIPOC, which stands for brown, indigenous people of color. In the same year, Ajakaiye was part of the team on the African-American Ambassador Group that got rid of “Plantations” in the official city name of Providence and state name of Rhode Island. He was also a semi-finalist for Pharrell Williams’ Black Ambition Competition this year.
The full livestream of Ajakaiye’s Honors Colloquium speech can be viewed on the URI Honors Colloquium YouTube Channel under the name “URI Honors Colloquium 2023 – Idrees Lanre Ajakaiye,” or with the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvEH2bV-jlA&ab_channel=URIHonorsProgram