01 Sep 2003
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Andrea Silbert

Blazing a Trail for Other Women
by Susan Young

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As a child growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts, Andrea C. Silbert (MBA/MPA ’92) never hesitated when asked what she was going to be when she grew up. Like her parents, she and her three siblings expected to be doctors. But things didn’t go as planned, and a host of people, including thousands of women entrepreneurs in southern New England, are better off because of it. As founder and CEO of the Center for Women & Enterprise, the energetic Silbert has followed her parents’ example of helping others, not through medicine but by assisting women entrepreneurs to realize their potential.

“I find running a mission-oriented business incredibly fulfilling,” says Silbert, seated in a CWE conference room in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. She is surrounded by posters depicting her organization’s success stories. There is Melissa, standing with a dog in her arms, who took a start-up course at CWE after being laid off from her job as a pet groomer. She now owns Animal Spirits, a successful pet-grooming store in Cambridge. Next to her is Carrie, who came to CWE looking for advice on how to expand her industrial cleaning business and eventually tripled her sales and sold her company. Sarah, a few posters down, used the knowledge gained from CWE workshops to build a $6 million computer-networking company. “We realized early on that we had tapped a real need,” notes Silbert as she takes in the photos with a satisfied smile. “It’s wonderful to feel that what we are doing really counts.”

With a mission “to empower women to become economically self-sufficient and prosperous through entrepreneurship,” CWE provides education, training, technical assistance, and access to capital to women who want to run or expand their own businesses. The organization is now the largest entrepreneurial training center in New England, with offices in Boston, Providence, and Worcester. While Silbert admits she spends more time on raising funds — from individual donors, foundations, and government agencies — than she would like, she is proud of the results and, in particular, the diversity of the population CWE serves: About half of last year’s sixteen hundred clients were low-income individuals.

The variety of the programs and services offered by CWE reflects the diversity of its clients. Those at the beginning stages of starting their own business can sign up for the Community Entrepreneurs Program and attend sessions that cover the basics — business literacy, planning, and launch, for example — while those further along in the process can get help through CWE’s Business Excellence Center or by making an appointment with a loan specialist. There is also a Women’s Venture Center that provides coaching, technical assistance, and access to investors for women seeking equity capital. “When we see something that women entrepreneurs are struggling with, we do everything we can to help them.”

Hard Work

Silbert’s interest in business was first piqued as a Harvard College freshman when she got a job working for the catering arm of Harvard Student Agencies. “I absolutely loved it,” she recalls. “It was a fantastic experience that helped me realize how much I enjoy working hard.” By her senior year, the economics major was working twenty hours a week as president of HSA and knew that she wanted to be an entrepreneur. She was offered a deferred admittance to HBS and took a position at Morgan Stanley after graduation.

Her two years on Wall Street provided a strong foundation. “It was a great education,” says Silbert, who quickly learned that her strengths and interests blossomed more in a creative, flexible environment than in a large, corporate structure. She left Wall Street for a job as a case writer at INCAE, the Central American business school based in Costa Rica. In addition to learning about biodiversity; rain forest preservation; and the coffee, banana, and textile businesses, Silbert developed a strong interest in microenterprise and arrived at Soldiers Field eager to expand her knowledge.

“Initially, I had a hard time trying to share my experiences with others,” she recalls of her early days at HBS. “In Latin America, I saw so many people who were living on the margins of society.” She also found the work at HBS challenging. “I think HBS is a very rigorous place academically, and I think that’s what makes it great,” she observes.

By the time she graduated, with a joint degree in public administration at the Kennedy School, Silbert was ready to return to Latin America. “I was interested in the feminization of poverty. I wanted to use my skills as a businessperson to help low-income women start new growth businesses,” says Silbert, who received a fellowship to work for a nonprofit in Brazil. The organization helped girls living on the streets to launch businesses, and Silbert found the work difficult but worthwhile. “It was the toughest job I’ve ever had,” she says, noting that inflation rose an astounding 40,000 percent in the eighteen months she was there. “Hyper-inflation is incredibly destructive to a society. Not only does it hurt people economically, but it also takes a psychological toll.”

Training Women

Silbert returned from Brazil committed to her vision of starting a nonprofit that would help women entrepreneurs in the Boston area. “I realized that in the United States, the real need that women have in starting and growing their own business is education and training,” says Silbert, who focused more on capital and loans with her clients in Brazil. “In developing countries, the informal sector often comprises up to 80 percent of the economy, so you can get a $100 loan and buy a pushcart and sell on the street. Here, you need to be able to write a business plan.”

With the vision of creating a training center for women, Silbert returned to Boston, took a job at a nonprofit, wrote a business plan, and began raising money to launch the Center for Women & Enterprise. With grants from the Small Business Administration and Bank of Boston, the center opened its doors in 1995. That year the budget was $350,000; today it is $2.5 million. “Our growth has been slow and steady,” Silbert notes with pride. “We don’t plan to expand nationally because the work we do is very grassroots,” she adds, noting that word of mouth is the organization’s best marketing tool.

While the ups and downs of the economy pose a challenge, Silbert says that with careful planning, CWE has weathered the recent economic downturn well. The mother of two toddlers who commutes three days a week to Boston from Cape Cod, she admits her job and schedule are demanding. But as she glances at the posters of the women who have benefited from CWE, she asks, “Can you believe I get paid to do this?”

Susan Young

For more information on the Center for Women & Enterprise, visit www.cweonline.org.

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1992, Section H

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