When Andrea Silbert returned to her hometown of Boston in 1994 after a two-year stint in South America, she brought with her an idea for a non-profit micro-lending institution for women entrepreneurs. She joined forces with co-founder Susan Hammond. Andrea and Susan's vision was to create an inclusive organization to help women from every imaginable background and orientation to start and grow their own businesses. Most importantly, they wanted to build a community that included disadvantaged women and women with greater experience and education so that they could learn from one another.
| CWE Co-founders, Susan Hammond and Andrea C. Silbert
After extensive research and discussions with various aspiring women entrepreneurs, it became clear that women really needed education and training as much as access to capital. In particular, for economically disadvantaged women with limited formal business training, it seemed that education was the essential ingredient. Education helps empower women to become economically self-sufficient and breaking the cycle of poverty. Furthermore, when coupled with training, education provides women the skills to launch and build successful businesses.
Founding of CWE
On October 23, 1995, the Center for Women & Enterprise officially opened in Boston with founding grants of $150,000 from the U.S. Small Business Administration, $100,000 from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, $50,000 from the Bank of Boston and $50,000 from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. Operating out of donated space at Northeastern University with a budget of just $350,000 and three full-time staff members, this small, local organization served a few hundred women and set the foundation for great things to come.
Under the leadership of CEO Andrea Silbert, during its first year CWE expanded its staff, programs and client base to serve over 500 women.
In 1998, CWE pioneered an initiative to assist women entrepreneurs in accessing equity capital called the CWE Women's Venture Center. Recognizing the need to increase and strengthen corporate supplier diversity initiatives, CWE also became the New England regional women's business organization partner to the Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC), a national organization which certifies women around the country to increase supplier diversity opportunities between women owned businesses, Fortune 500 companies, and the U.S. Government.
CWE continued its expansion by launching the Community Entrepreneurs Program (CEP) in 1999, which was designed to address barriers faced by very low-income women starting home-based businesses. Many of the women enrolled in CEP were single mothers, and CWE made sure to help provide transportation and child care to them during class time. Both the Women's Venture Center and the Community Entrepreneurs Program have been recognized as groundbreaking initiatives that continue to serve as national models.
In 1999, working closely with Congressman Jim McGovern, among others, CWE opened a Worcester, MA office. Initial support came from the Commonwealth, the City of Worcester and the Greater Worcester Community Foundation. After several years, the Worcester office won a 5-year, $150,000 grant from the US Small Business Administration to expand its work.
The year 2000 marked the opening of another regional office in Providence, Rhode Island. The Providence office was opened with the same grant from the US SBA, and matching funds from the Human Resources Investment Council of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Foundation and Fleet Bank.
CWE hosted the first annual Springboard Venture Capital Forum at Harvard Business School in 2000. The program is the first and only venture capital forum showcasing women-led firms.
During the following year, the Community Entrepreneurs Program was integrated into other start-up courses to create a more comprehensive modular program, addressing the needs of women entrepreneurs at each step of their business development. CWE also began offering intensive one-on-one consulting and loan packaging services to help women bring their business to the next level.
2004 was an important year of change for CWE, marked by Andrea Silbert's decision to leave the helm of CWE after nearly nine years. The torch was passed to Donna Mullen Good, a Massachusetts native with years of political, governmental, and nonprofit managerial and fundraising experience. Donna's commitment to CWE's original
Beth Williams, Roxbury Technology and CWE CEO, Susan Rittscher
vision, combined with her energy for positive change, continued to make CWE a stronger agent for the empowerment of women. In 2008 Susan Rittscher was selected to become CWE’s new CEO. Bringing 17 years of experience as a CEO at the YMCA, an expertise in leadership development and passion for creating new opportunities for women, Susan is committed to advancing the mission and expanding CWE’s offerings.
Now in its 16th year, CWE’s staff members and hundreds of volunteers serve approximately 2,500 clients every year. Over 19,779 women (and men) have come to CWE since our inception. The establishment and expansion of our programs could not have been possible without the time, dedication and financial support of all staff, individual donors, funders, stakeholders and everyone who has continued to believe in our mission over the years.
As we move forward, CWE will continue to expand the programs and services to serve a greater number of women in the New England region. We look forward to another year of opportunity, growth, and entrepreneurship.