Visiting Industry Professional (VIP) Series

Visiting Industry Professional Typographic Logo

Launched in 2019, Johnson & Wales University developed the Visiting Industry Professional (VIP) speaker series to highlight a more interdisciplinary approach to invited guests on campus. Our chosen VIPs are industry thought leaders from their respective fields who share in the university’s mission, quest for innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit. These leaders speak on topics of interest to include diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), ethical citizenship, humanitarian efforts and sustainability.

John Hazen White, Jr. in conversation with JWU Providence President Marie Bernardo-SousaOur 2023 VIP was John Hazen White Jr. '96 Hon., the executive chairman and owner of Taco Group Holdings Inc., in Cranston, Rhode Island.

He has overseen Taco, a world-class manufacturer of heating and cooling equipment, since the early 1990s. “Taco is a community that strives to create and put forth products, solutions and people that will help make a better world,” says White, who has led the company through a period of strategic acquisition and organic growth.

The presentation was livestreamed to the JWU community. You can read all about the event here:

‘Love Is My Skill Set,’ Reveals John Hazen White, Jr.

Past VIP Speakers

2023: John Hazen White Jr. '96 Hon.

John Hazen White head shotJohn Hazen White, Jr. is one of the most prominent business leaders in Rhode Island. He is the executive chairman and owner of Taco Group Holdings, Inc., a $500 million world-class heating and cooling equipment manufacturer leading its industry.

White was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1958 and is the fifth child and only son of John and Happy White. He attended Williston Northampton School and graduated from The College of Wooster in Ohio with a degree in English Literature.

He represents the third generation of his family to own and operate Taco. He started his career with Taco in 1980 after serving in sales with manufacturer representative agencies. During his career at Taco, he has held various positions of increasing responsibility. He became executive vice president in 1991, president in 1997, and is now executive chairman. Taco has been grown and developed with a focus on the love of people and community.

White is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, where he endowed an annual program on the re-emergence of manufacturing in the United States.

He is a visiting professor at Johnson & Wales University and a member of its Board of Trustees. He serves as Board Chair of the Williston Northampton School Board; in addition, he has served as chairman of the Hydraulics Institute Board. He also served for many years on the Wheaton College Board.

He founded Lookout RI, a public watchdog advocacy group, and writes periodic op-eds for Go Local

The White Family has been long known and recognized for their philanthropic mission and giving. Through the White Family Foundation, hundreds of grants have been made to multiple nonprofit organizations and community-based agencies to support the arts, education and healthcare.

He is married to Elizabeth White and lives in Barrington, RI. He has two sons, Benjamin, who is in the business, and the late John Hazen White III. He has two granddaughters, Madison Marie White and Winona Rose White, which now brings the White family’s involvement in Taco to five generations.

2021: Chip Wade '83, '06 Hon.

Chip Wade '83, '06 Hon., CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG)As CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group, Chip Wade is responsible for further enhancing and evolving the company’s culture, driving an even greater experience for guests, and bolstering the profitability of its businesses.

Most recently, Wade spent 17 years in leadership with Darden Restaurants, where he oversaw all operating functions, drove best-in-industry people metrics, and enhanced financial performance for several of Darden’s high-growth brands. He also served as chief operating officer for Legal Sea Foods in Boston, Massachusetts, in which capacity he led all operations for the family-owned group’s 31 restaurants and oversaw the launch of the Legal Test Kitchen concept. Earlier in his career, Wade spent 13 years with TGI Fridays, where he progressed through various management positions in operations, human resources, and new business development.

Wade also serves on the following boards: Cracker Barrel; Johnson & Wales University; Share Our Strength, a national organization working to end childhood hunger and poverty in the United States; and Youth Villages, a nonprofit offering services and support for families of children with emotional, mental and behavioral problems. He is also a senior advisor for Junzi Kitchen, a Chinese fast-casual restaurant and concept based in New York.

Wade received an associate in science degree in Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales in 1983. He has a bachelor of science degree from Widener University and an MBA from the University of Texas, Dallas. In 2006, he received an honorary Business Administration doctoral degree in Food Service Management from JWU. Read more of his JWU story and life advice.

2020: Kamilah A’Vant

Kamilah A’Vant, JWU 2020 Visiting Industry Professional

Kamilah A’Vant is the director of diversity programs for Color Magazine, a publication that celebrates corporate America’s diverse workforce and empowers communities. She is president for the New England chapter of the National Association for Multi-ethnicity in Communications (NAMIC), a member of the Southern New England Association of Black Journalists, a community advisory board member for the “Reflection in Action” program at Harvard Medical School Office of Diversity Inclusion & Community Partnership, and a board member of the Children’s Friend.

Discussing the challenges of navigating work spaces as your authentic self, A’Vant explains that it is critical to understand the place where you work. “Diversity blooms in an environment that welcomes and serves as an incubator for an array of thought, expression and perspectives,” A’Vant notes. “ I would first suggest finding allies and/or those people where you share commonalities. Build a support system with others that encourages/supports a workplace that focuses on belonging. If you cannot find it internally, then I would suggest channeling efforts to get a support system outside of where you work.”

Read more of her insightful 2020 presentation here.

Cindi Bigelow '19 Hon. speaking to JWU students in 2019.2019: Cindi Bigelow '19 Hon.

As the third-generation president and CEO of the family-owned Bigelow Tea, Cindi Bigelow knows that keeping a brand thriving and growing takes hard work: “But I think we were able to do it because we’re very much focused on mission over self. When self gets in front of mission, it’s a real issue.”

To Bigelow, every day offers up opportunities to learn: “Obstacles are coming, every single day. How you handle them will define who you are as a person.” Likewise, the seemingly big decisions we take in life — like a new job, or a move to a new city — are often less crucial than the lessons we take to heart. “Whatever you’re doing — yes, it’s important — but it’s almost secondary to who you’re going to become,” she said. “Everything is a building block. It’s a journey of twists and turns, and often you have no idea how they’re going to connect until later on.”

Read more of her illuminating conversation with Maureen Dumas, Ed.D., vice president of Advancement & University Relations.