How Disney Supports Small Businesses: The Russell Innovation Center for Entrepreneurs

Disney is committed to investing in small businesses of different backgrounds, sizes and industries, because providing opportunities to entrepreneurs creates a domino effect that positively impacts individuals and communities nationwide.

Small businesses are nimble and provide fresh perspectives, which helps Disney constantly evolve and expand the way business is conducted. Disney’s support of the Russell Innovation Center for Entrepreneurs (RICE) is just one of the many ways the company supports small businesses and benefits from an exchange of innovative new ideas. This support has a profound effect on the communities in which Disney operates, as shown in a new study released by Oxford Economics about the Walt Disney World Resort’s economic impact on Florida.

What is RICE? Supporting Small Business Growth

The Russell Innovation Center for Entrepreneurs (RICE) is a nonprofit created to support Black entrepreneurs in overcoming the unique barriers they face in building thriving businesses. One of the RICE programs Disney supports is the Supply Chain Accelerator Program (SCAP). This initiative serves Black-owned small businesses, 66% of which are women-led, that are ready to take the next step in doing business with Fortune 500 companies.

Disney has renewed its commitment to SCAP for the third consecutive year and has expanded its support to sponsor the development of Digital RICE, a virtual platform that will broaden the nonprofit’s reach to benefit entrepreneurs across the country. These newest investments bring Disney’s total contribution to over $1 million to date, solidifying the company as the lead sponsor of both RICE initiatives.

Black entrepreneurs attend RICE

Hands-on Learning: RICE Small Business Owners Visit Walt Disney World Resort

In addition to financial support, Disney provides a unique 3-day immersive learning experience where entrepreneurs receive tailored technical assistance and capacity building resources. With the help of Disney Institute and a little bit of magic, Disney shares knowledge and experience to help SCAP participants grow and scale their companies.

48 businesses visited Walt Disney World Resort this week to experience hands-on, experiential learning opportunities, emphasizing the development of skills and strategies essential for thriving in today’s dynamic business environment. During the sessions, Disney Institute shared insights and best practices in leadership excellence, employee engagement, quality service and business excellence used across Disney parks and resorts—many of which began with Walt Disney himself. Disney Institute regularly offers professional development for individuals and organizations to learn the Disney approach to customer experience.

“All of the workshops were amazing, but if I had to pick one, the Disney Institute was my absolute favorite. As an entrepreneur, we’re trying to build businesses like Disney. I want the women who I’m serving with Essence Tree to feel as special, as magical, and as seen and heard, as Disney makes their guests feel.” said Charmaine Gibbs-West, RICE stakeholder and Founder and CEO of Essence Tree. 

Participants had a full schedule of activities specifically catered to scaling their small businesses including a storytelling presentation called “Pitch with Pixie Dust,” a “Nemo Tank” workshop on pitching to investors and a session on quality service with a visit to EPCOT for exclusive viewings of the Candlelight Processional and “Luminous: The Symphony of Us” fireworks. The event culminated in a graduation ceremony where participants celebrated their program completion with special guest Mickey Mouse.  

Some of the most impactful sessions for both RICE stakeholders and Disney employees were the networking mixer and small business vendor panel. 

Making Connections: Networking with Top Disney Leaders

30 Disney cast members from various industries such as sourcing, construction, marketing and consumer products attended a networking mixer with RICE participants. The session proved to be an enriching exchange of ideas and the entrepreneurs were able to make vital connections and receive business advice.  

“The level of innovation and creativity of the people in the room was so motivating,” said Courtnee Collier, senior manager of public relations at Disney Experiences. “I was so impressed by their abilities to come up with ideas for businesses that I’d never even considered” 

“My favorite moment was seeing the number of moms and children, owning companies running companies and kind of passing on generational wealth and generational experience” shared Joni Wilson Ferguson, director of Disney Experiences Learning and Development. Joni was particularly inspired by Founder of Play Pits Chantel Powell, who needed a product specifically catered to her son, then started a company around it. 

women RICE attendees network with one another at the event

A Touch of Inspiration: Disney Small Business Vendors Panel

The Walt Disney Company contracts 8,500 small businesses across the country, 2,500 in Florida alone, to supply products and services. RICE participants had the opportunity to hear from a few of the small business vendors who are currently working with Disney. The panelists included Michael D Young, president and CEO of ACY Constructors, and Dr. Lisa Williams, founder and CEO of World of Epi. 

“Disney is a company that knows about storytelling, masters storytelling, and has done it to the highest level. We want to make sure that our dolls fit into the Disney storytelling process” said Dr. Lisa, sharing that working with Disney taught her about the importance of efficiency and creativity, inspiring her to prioritize storytelling when it comes to her products. 

Michael imparted his own advice about succeeding as an entrepreneur and supplier, sharing “Maybe your business model will change, but it’s all about you knowing who you are, how you can navigate business challenges and continue to thrive and do what you feel like you’ve been called to do,” After the panel concluded, Michael added “it means everything to me to be able to come back and pour into others who look like me.”  

panelists at RICE speak in front of attendees

Since 2022, Disney has been working with RICE to help grow talent and develop the workforce of the future, especially within diverse communities. With the new investment in Digital RICE, Disney will unlock the nonprofit’s knowledge and expertise for entrepreneurs beyond just Atlanta, expanding access nationwide.  

To learn more about how Disney works with and supports small businesses, check out Michael’s story.