Our History

The Idea

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.

Expanding Services

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.

New Locations

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.

New Programs

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.

New Leadership

Beth Williams, Roxbury Technology and Susan Rittscher, President & CEO, Center for Women & Enterprise

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 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.

Dream Builders

In the fall of 2012, CWE embarked on a $1 million Dream Builders Campaign to raise funds that would propel CWE to meet the diverse needs of future entrepreneurs through three initiatives: Community Classrooms, Online Learning, and a Mentor Program. At the Center for Women & Enterprise 20th Anniversary Year Kickoff in the fourth quarter of 2014 it was proudly announced that the goal was exceeded and $1.411 million was raised.

Now Serving New Hampshire

CWE New Hampshire Ribbon Cutting Ceremony

CWE was honored to be selected by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to establish and operate the Women's Business Center for New Hampshire. CWE officially opened it's Fourth, SBA Women's Business Center on Monday, June 29, 2015 in Nashua, NH. The 30 Temple Street site saw clients, Board, volunteers and staff from all the Centers join together with women entrepreneurs, organizations, and State and Local representatives. 20th Anniversary Year Closes with the Awarding of Vermont Women Business Center.

20th Anniversary Year Sees Microloan Program to be Piloted in Rhode Island and the Awarding of Vermont Women Business Center

CWE celebrated it's 20th Anniversary in 2015 with events throughout the year. As part of this banner year the Rhode Island Foundation provided funding to pilot a Microloan Program in CWE Rhode Island for low-to-moderate income entrepreneurs. This culminated with the announcement that the Center for Women & Enterprise was selected to operate the Women's Business Center for Vermont in partnership with the SBA.

Relocation in Central MA

The CWE Central MA started 2016 with a move from Worcester to Westborough, MA. Although still serving Worcester through Community Classroom the relocation of the offices allow CWE to offer more programs and services to the growing number of professional women and women entrepreneurs working in this Central Massachusetts region.

Veterans Business Outreach Center of New England (VBOC of NE)

In 2016, CWE expanded it's services to New England and proudly began operating the Veterans Business Outreach Center of New England in partnership with the U.S. Small Business Administration. The VBOC equips veteran and active duty service members and their families with the resources to help them start and run their businesses. VBOC of New England serves veterans in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.