Cultivating Connecticut’s women entrepreneurs

Founded in Stamford in 1997, the Women’s Business Development Council educates women about starting and developing their own enterprises.

Prior to the arrival of Covid, American women were poised to outstrip men in the professional labor force, dominating colleges, graduate schools and even medical schools. But the year 2020 – the height of the pre-vaccine pandemic – proved a dismal one for women workers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women lost 5.4 million jobs nationwide that year – a million more than men did. They accounted for 100% of the job losses that December alone, 156,000.

These losses, which disproportionately affected women of color, represented professionals who were laid off or quit, unable to combine working and educating children at home, as well as workers in such industries as hospitality and retail.

Yet out of this disaster has come a new — or perhaps continued — entrepreneurial spirit for women that sees them starting and scaling careers in childcare, health care, hospitality and manufacturing, among other sectors.

“There is no area of business that women are not moving into,” says Fran Pastore, founding CEO of the Women’s Business Development Council (WBDC).

Pastore understands just how crucial the pandemic job loss has been for women. When she moved to Stamford in 1990, she soon found herself divorced and jobless with two little girls to raise. She subsequently discovered that Connecticut was the only state that didn’t have a women’s business center.

Nevertheless, Pastore says, “I had a network of very amazing, giving friends who…helped me figure out what I wanted to do.”

What she wanted to do was help educate women about starting and developing their own businesses. Today the Women’s Business Development Council, celebrating its 25th anniversary, has three offices (in Stamford, New Haven and New London) and 25 employees. Among its former employees is Caroline Simmons, who last November was elected Stamford’s first female mayor. (See story on Page 12). Pastore served as chair of the Economic Development Committee on Simmons’ transition team.

The new mayor’s ascent crystallizes Stamford’s role in cultivating women in the workforce. “From the woods of the Mianus River to the beaches of the Long Island Sound,” Pastore says, “Stamford is a great place to work, play and send kids to school, and it’s so close to New York City.”

But WBDC’s mission extends beyond women from all walks of life in Stamford to those in the Nutmeg State’s other 168 municipalities. (In 2021, WBDC served 86 out-of-state clients as well.) The resulting numbers are impressive:  Through its workshops, one-on-one coaching and training programs, the WBDC has seen 6,500-plus businesses launched or scaled, more than 8,750 jobs created or sustained, $355 million in client-earned revenue, $24.9 million in client-accessed capital and 18,000 clients served. Among the businesses WBDC has nurtured are Creative ME Childcare LLC in New Haven; Dough Girls pizza truck in Greenwich; Good Morning Cupcake in Milford; Koko Floral Design in Guilford; Komfort Zone natural skincare products in Bridgeport; Trailing Twine Photography in Pomfret; and Unbakeables, an egg-free, edible cookie-dough company in Norwalk.

Working with private contributions and state funds, WBDC is a grant-making nonprofit as well as an educational one, Pastore says. Its Equity Match Grants have distributed almost $1 million to 98 businesses for shovel-ready projects. (To be eligible for a grant, which can range from $2,500 to $10,000, a business must be in operation for two years, have revenues between $25,000 and $2 million and match 25% of the grant, unless the business is located in a distressed municipality.)

Knowing that safe, reliable, affordable childcare is crucial to women’s — and the country’s — economic success, WBDC’s Child Care Business Support Program, in partnership with the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood (OEC), has awarded nearly $2 million in grants to 197 licensed childcare providers.

Pastore’s work on behalf of women entrepreneurs ranges far beyond WBDC. A New York City native — she was raised in Brooklyn and graduated from Pace University in Manhattan, where she majored in communications — Pastore has served as a member of The National Women’s Business Council (NWBC), an independent source of counsel to then President Barack Obama, Congress and the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA). She has also served on the board of Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP) and as a member of the YWCA Greenwich Leadership Council and of Pace University’s Women’s Business Leadership Council. 

In 2018, Pastore served on Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont’s transition team as co-chair of The Jobs and Economy Policy Committee. Most recently, she has served on the Governor’s Workforce Council’s BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) Committee. She is chair of the Connecticut Paid Leave Authority and a member of the Governor’s Economic Advisory Council. 

While Pastore has also been instrumental in the passage of legislation benefiting women entrepreneurs — testifying numerous times before Congress as well as the state legislature on women’s entrepreneurship — her achievements have also affected the wider world. She was U.S. delegate to the 2018 Global Entrepreneurship Conference and the 2015 Women’s Summit, both in Istanbul. In Turkey, she shared practices on women’s entrepreneurship. In Ethiopia, she taught young women how to launch their own businesses. In Rwanda, she trained genocide survivors, resulting in the opening of that country’s first ice cream parlor. And in Costa Rica she showed rural women how to grow their businesses. 

When it comes to women entrepreneurs, Pastore thinks and acts globally as well as locally.

“What do I envision for the next 25 years of WBDC? I would like to see WBDC evolve along with what I sincerely hope will be an expanding role for women — in society, in business and in leadership. We will continue to advocate for the issues that are critical to the success of women entrepreneurs and to develop the programming and resources that support them in a changing landscape to become the leaders that our world needs.”

For more, including WBDC’s podcasts, visit

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