Ginnie Dunleavy: Cultivating creativity

Ginnie Dunleavy believes ingenuity is the key to RISD Dining’s success.


Ginnie Dunleavy has revolutionized dining services at the Rhode Island School of Design by:

  • Transitioning dining services from contracted to self-op, which increased cash revenue by 300% and meal plan participation from 58% to 86%
  • Focusing on building relationships by training her staff to understand the unique demands of the RISD student
  • Showing ingenuity by connecting with students who are working on projects that align with dining services’ mission
  • Designing a program based on embracing community, common sense and a high-risk, high-reward mentality such as allowing unlimited dining access to first-year students

Of all the things to come out of a chaotic situation, creativity wouldn’t seem to be at the top of the list. But that is exactly what Ginnie Dunleavy has been able to do as director of dining at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. Dunleavy was able to take a program that was reeling from a switch from contract to self-op and turn it into a program that, since she came to RISD in 2005, has increased cash revenue by 300% and meal plan participation from 58% to 86%.

“Part of that just shows how bad it was,” Dunleavy says with a laugh. “RISD dining had been struggling for a year to get footing after they decided they didn’t want to be outsourced. I was working at Brown University and RISD asked me to come consult. I did a couple of presentations and then they were like, ‘can you just come run the program?’ The first thing that I did was put down a road map with our mission, our vision and our values. It may sound corny, but I have been here six years and we talk about those things all the time.”

It is to those values that Dunleavy attributes all her accomplishments. David May, assistant vice president for business affairs at the University of New Hampshire, a close colleague to Dunleavy, agrees.

“When I think about Ginnie the words cheerleader, coach and mentor come to mind,” May says. “She strives to motivate her team to greatness. You can see this from the core values her department is committed to: relationships, ingenuity, sustainability and design. She recognizes that dining’s role is as more than just a place to eat; it’s a place where friendships are forged.”

Relationships: Dunleavy recognizes the unique situation that is RISD, and teaching her staff to understand what the art and design school is all about is a big factor in helping them build relationships with each other and the students.

“We are a studio-based, critique society,” Dunleavy says. “When I came from Brown I thought it was going to be the same experience but it’s very different. We brought the president and faculty members in to explain to our staff what it means for these students to be in studio for six hours. When a kid comes in and they are cranky and covered in charcoal, we need our staff to have some empathy. We brought our staff to the senior grad show so they [would be] exposed to our students’ work. I really believe that having our staff understand this environment is really important because it is unique.”

The focus on relationships also feeds into the department’s internal employee training.

“I think we do an incredible job with employee training,” Dunleavy says. “We do two all-employee trainings a year. The last one we did was kind of a Myers-Briggs-type one for everyone about how do you talk to people and how do people listen to you and what’s the perception you give off? A lot of our students were rock star artists in high school. When they come to RISD, they are no longer the rock stars. So our staff needs to provide a real grounding.”

Ingenuity: Building relationships with students segues into the next of Dunleavy’s values, in that she takes her cues about how to be creative from working with her students, rather than them working for her.

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