Jennifer DaSilva ’94 is founder and executive director of Start Small Think Big, a not-for-profit organization located in the heart of the South Bronx, the poorest Congressional district in our nation. Start Small’s mission is to help low-income individuals build thriving businesses in order to increase their personal financial security and stimulate economic activity in underserved New York City communities.
After graduating from Hotchkiss, DaSilva went on to Yale in pursuit of an undergraduate degree in political science. In 1997, as a college junior, she read Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace, detailing the South Bronx’s crippling poverty. Compelled to action, she contacted East Side House, an established nonprofit in the Bronx, and volunteered to start a parent support program. The following year she was hired to direct its Youth Leadership Program.
Three years later, DaSilva left the Bronx to pursue her law degree at Cornell Law School, but she vowed to return to serve the community that she had come to know and respect. Her subsequent professional experiences – clerking on the District of Columbia District Court for the Honorable Gladys Kessler, working as a litigation associate at Debevoise & Plimpton in New York (which, unbeknownst to her, was founded by Eli Whitney Debevoise, Hotchkiss Class of 1917), volunteering for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights to coordinate its Election Protection program for the 2008 national elections, and working in Cambodia with a Cambodian microfinance institution to design a new micro-insurance product – gave DaSilva the skills, perspective, and vision to build her own organization. It was DaSilva’s time in Cambodia that solidified her interest in the intersection between small business development and community development. She reflects, “The courageousness of the Cambodian people, living against such overwhelming odds, was truly breathtaking. Living in Cambodia inspired me, compelled me really, to try to look past those things in my own life that made me afraid to think bigger, and that suddenly seemed so small in comparison.”
Providing support and access is key to the success of Start Small Think Big, which is now entering its fifth year of operation. The goal of Start Small, according to DaSilva, is to “change the expectations of our low-income clients from one of disempowerment to one of empowerment, from one of living in and for the present moment to one of planning for the future and the long term. We do this by arming our clients with the knowledge and skills that they need to start and grow small businesses and by providing them with the expert supports that are typically available to only their wealthier peers. In this way, we help them to accumulate assets that give them a real and meaningful stake in society.” And, with only five employees (including DaSilva) and a budget just shy of $400,000, Start Small does a lot with a little, something of which DaSilva is immensely proud. In the last year alone, Start Small helped over 1,000 low-income entrepreneurs build thriving businesses in New York City by providing them with access to more than 4,300 hours of free financial and legal services, valued at more than $3 million.
DaSilva arrived at Hotchkiss as an upper mid. Her years here truly changed the course of her life. “My experience at Hotchkiss opened my eyes to just how big and awesome this world can really be, just how full of possibility and opportunity. Hotchkiss instilled in me the confidence to go out and try things really bold.”
Community service is deeply and firmly engrained in DaSilva’s blood. “My dad was a parole officer. My mother was a social worker. Both taught me, each in their own way, that my job here was, is, and will be, to actively work to make this world of ours a better place. At the end of the day, that’s what all of our choices are, or at least should be, about.”
To learn more, visit: http://startsmallthinkbig.org/