February 21, 2024

You could say that Tina Clinton’s choice of name for her baby sister was prescient. Then 18, Tina was the oldest of 15 siblings — six biological, nine adopted. She knew that for the newest member of her Liberian-American family, she wanted a name that was special. She chose Sterling. 
Fast-forward 38 years, and the words used to describe Sterling Clinton-Spellman are, indeed, sterling: excellent, outstanding, exceptional. Whether Sterling grew into her name, or her name happened to perfectly suit her personality, we may never know.
“I live very boldly,” Sterling said, with her infectious laugh. “My siblings will tell you I’m the biggest risk taker. I know that each and every one of us has gifts that we’re meant to share with the world. So, I’m always asking: How can I help? How can I make this situation better and make a bigger impact?”
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That mantra has led Sterling and her husband of 11 years, Russell Spellman, to think big about their successful food truck business, called Incred-A-Bowl. Since launching the business in Providence in 2013, the couple now own two food trucks, and on Oct. 22, they will open their first brick-and-mortar restaurant on South Broadway in East Providence. 
“We are true foodies,” she said. “We try every type of food at least once. We feel food connects you to culture. If people would just try things and learn about other cultures, it would do away with racism and so many problems.” 
For that reason, the couple chose to make Incred-A-Bowl a culinary United Nations. Glance at the menu and you’ll find bowls inspired by Korean, Cuban, Mexican and Greek cuisines, among others. 
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“Russell is really the mastermind behind the creation of the bowls,” said Sterling of her husband, who grew up in New York and is of Native American and West Indian heritage. “He is a very talented chef who works tirelessly to ensure things are perfect. We’re making food from other people’s cultures, so we want to give the food respect.”
While Russell wears the chef’s hat, Sterling focuses on the marketing and business side of things. And, although they’ve managed to survive the pandemic and continue to grow, for these entrepreneurs, building a successful business also means having a profound social impact. From the beginning, they knew they wanted to upend the hiring paradigm by giving employment opportunities to people who are all too often shut out of the workforce —  like those without high school or college degrees, or the formerly incarcerated. They call their new employment program Fresh Start.
“What do we need to build a successful business?” Sterling said. “We need people who are willing to learn. We need people who have the heart and want to grow and do different. We don’t need you to have 5 million degrees or have so many years of experience. You can teach a skill set. We want to build a business that will not only benefit us, but that will also benefit our community and be a change agent.”
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For help in developing their Fresh Start program, they turned to the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, a nonprofit accelerator in Providence that works with “impact entrepreneurs.”
“Sterling has got great vision,” said Kelly Ramirez, CEO of Social Enterprise Greenhouse. “I love the way she thought about this social mission. She’s a thinker and a doer. She’s also an amazing connector and relationship-builder. And, since she knows what she’s trying to accomplish, she can inspire people by that vision and bring them along.”
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Kelly was herself so inspired by Fresh Start — and Sterling’s communication skills — that she asked Sterling to make the ultimate pitch: share Incred-A-Bowl’s social impact business plan with Vice President Kamala Harris and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo during their joint visit to the Social Enterprise Greenhouse in May 2021.
“I knew she would be incredibly inspiring, and she was,” Ramirez remembered.
Sterling and Russell’s goal is to launch Fresh Start when they open their restaurant  in October. (A job fair will be held at the restaurant before its opening, but no date is set for that yet.) In addition to on-the-job training, they’ll work with community partners to provide whatever social services their new employees may need. They also plan to teach financial literacy and the ins and outs of running a business.
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“Five years from now, I would hope that we have between two to five employees that will be ready to manage their own Incred-A-Bowl,” she said. “And, at least one [who’s] ready to open the first franchise. Our goal is to have our employees be our first franchisees of the company and really build that out. We want to go down in the history books as the first African-American organization to have their employees start from scratch and become owners.” 
Julius Searight, who has worked for years at Incred-A-Bowl, is certain that Fresh Start will be a success.
“Sterling comes from a teaching and personal coaching background,” he said. “So, I feel she has the tools and the knowledge to share those resources with others. And, to do it around food is a great way to accomplish that goal.”
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When you meet Sterling, it’s obvious that she lives life fully. That’s because she’s painfully aware of how fleeting life can be. Her family moved from Liberia to the States in the 1970s, desperate to find treatment for two of her brothers who had sickle cell anemia, a blood disorder that is almost always incurable. They ended up in Providence because they found that the best doctors were here. While her two brothers lived much longer than expected, one died when Sterling was 6 years old and the other when she was 24. 
“When my first brother passed away, I was young and didn’t really understand death,” she recalled. “But, when my second brother passed away, it really affected me. And, still does to this day, because I understood that death is final in this realm. There’s no seeing them again.”
Rather than withdraw, she drew inspiration and courage from her brothers’ example. She continues to honor them by making the most of each and every day.
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“Whatever time I’m given, I need to be purposeful with it,” she said. “And, I need to make sure that every room I step into, every space I step into, I leave it better than I found it.”
Years after graduating with a degree in communications from the College of New Rochelle in New York, Sterling brought her outsized energy, curiosity and passion back to her hometown of Providence. Once here, she channeled her varied work experiences — as a teacher, at a welfare agency and nonprofits — to launch not only Incred-A-Bowl, but her own coaching and consulting business, Polished By Sterling. Her aim is to help women “have profitable lives,” she said. “I’m not just talking about money. I mean, is the work you’re doing fruitful? Are your relationships fruitful?” 
In her personal relationships, Sterling is equally motivational. Just ask her husband.
“I told her at our wedding that she basically changed my life,” said Russell. “She definitely has made me a better man. She is a beautiful and special person.” He confessed that he couldn’t see himself in business with anyone but his wife. 
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In addition to being life partners and business partners, they are also the proud parents of 7-year-old Hasana and 2-year-old Harmony. And, in true Sterling fashion, she’s helping Hasana realize her dream of opening her own ice cream shop in the new restaurant.
“She’s a force — a generous force,” said Kelly. “She does an amazing job in balancing so many priorities in her life. None of us can do it all and wear all the hats perfectly. But, she does a pretty good job at doing it near perfectly.” 
And when things start to feel overwhelming, as they sometimes do, Sterling takes a piece of her own advice. One that we can all use. 
“I always try to remind myself: You’ve survived 100% of your bad days,” she said. “And, what you think is a bad day is usually the setup of amazing things to come.” 
To learn more about Incred-A-Bowl, go to incredabowlfood.com.
— Patricia Andreu, a freelance journalist living in Providence, writes Women In Action, a periodic column. Reach her at WomenInActionRI@outlook.com and follow her on Twitter: @ri_women


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