Yale News

More than two years after creating the position, Yale and New Haven have announced Dawn Leaks Ragsdale, a local nonprofit leader, as the new executive director for the collaborative Center for Inclusive Growth.

Yale and New Haven announced the Center in November 2021 as part of an agreement to increase the University’s financial contribution to the city. The agreement also included an increase in Yale’s voluntary contribution by $52 million over six years, the conversion of a portion of High Street into a pedestrian walkway and a commitment by Yale to partially offset city revenue lost on buildings taken off the tax roll. 

New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker, University President Peter Salovey, School of Management Dean Kerwin Charles and Board of Alders President Tyisha Walker-Myers announced Leaks Ragsdale’s new position at a press conference on Tuesday, held at the Center’s new  headquarters at 65 Audubon St. 

Leaks Ragsdale, who started the position on March 4, will be tasked with directing the Center’s operations, designing programming and fostering connections with local organizations. The Center’s mission is to promote economic growth in the city.

“I am excited to be entrusted with this great responsibility,” Leaks Ragsdale said at Tuesday’s press conference. “This center has the potential to do so much good here in New Haven, and I’m ready to hit the ground running. My experiences as an entrepreneur myself, and witnessing firsthand the challenges and the triumphs of people starting and scaling businesses, solidified my belief in the power of inclusive growth.”

The specific responsibilities of the executive director role are still unclear. While answering questions at the press release, Elicker emphasized the importance of collaborations with Yale but, when asked, did not tell attendees with what exactly the executive director will be charged. Neither Elicker nor Leaks Ragsdale provided a concrete answer about Leaks Ragsdale’s next steps in the position, though they both expressed excitement about developing new plans.

“I think the world is Dawn’s oyster and our oyster, and I am confident that we’re gonna find things that probably none of us in this room have imagined that will come out of the center,” Elicker said.

Before assuming her current role, Leaks Ragsdale was the executive director of Collab — a New Haven-based nonprofit that provides support to entrepreneurs so they can build their businesses. Collab primarily supports female, Latine and Black entrepreneurs, connecting them to a network of support and resources as part of their business accelerator. 

Some of Collab’s past clients include Havenly, a cafe that has a job-training program for immigrant and refugee women, and Threads by Tea, which sells “wearable art.”

According to Leaks Ragsdale, her work at Collab will help inform her work at the Center, as she understands the struggles entrepreneurs face. This knowledge will better help her forge connections between New Haven entrepreneurs and Yale that will benefit both parties and sustain economic growth.

Leaks Ragsdale cited the allocation of American Rescue Plan Act funds as well as Yale research funds as ways she’s considering supporting entrepreneurship around New Haven. In his speech at the press conference, Elicker mentioned Yale buying food from local producers and art from New Haven artists as two examples of possible collaborations.

The Center will also collaborate with the Yale School of Management and its students to expand entrepreneurial connections around New Haven. The School of Management, or SOM, is expected to contribute to the Center’s programming, and it launched an Inclusive Growth Fellowship program in January that will connect SOM students to various projects.

“We insisted upon values of a collaborative engagement, mutually beneficial engagement, and lastly, a deeply respectful one,” Charles, the SOM dean, said. “So that when Yale and its faculty and staff and students interacted with the city, we would be doing so not presuming that we had the answer to every question.”

Charles will be leading the board of directors that Leaks Ragsdale will be working directly under. The board is composed of the four people who spoke at the press conference — Charles, Salovey, Elicker and Walker-Myers.

Yale and New Haven launched their search campaign for the Executive Director in April 2023, over a year after announcing the creation of the Center. On Tuesday, the lack of updates during the search raised questions about delaying the search, and how it would impact the Center once opened.

According to Walker-Myers, the position received many applications, and each candidate had to go through two thorough interviews, which extended the recruiting process. Walker-Myers said that finding someone whose goals aligned with the Center’s goals was time-consuming and that the board of directors took their time to make sure the candidate selected would be the right fit for the position.

“Dawn understands what it’s like to be an entrepreneur when you’re not getting the type of support that’s needed,” Walker-Myers told the News. “When you ask me what I think is going to come out of this Center the most exciting thing is that we will be able to move families out of poverty in this city. For me, it’s always important to have somebody that comes from that experience, from that struggle, to actually know how people are struggling in order to be able to help them.”

Currently, eight SOM students are working as Center fellows.

Mia Cortés Castro covers City Hall and State Politics, and previously covered Cops and Courts. Originally from Dorado, Puerto Rico, she is a sophomore in Branford College studying English.