July / August 2010 – Merrimack Valley Magazine
Susan Leger Ferraro started what would become Little Sprouts early education centers 28 years ago at the age of 17. Today, its 11 Massachusetts schools — most of them in the Merrimack Valley — continue to get national attention and federal grants as a result of their commitment to mingle kids from every income level and improve early childhood literacy.
But if the business has grown up, so has the boss. The lady who strolls into Lowell’s On The Road Coffee House enters with a serious and well-earned swagger.
And why not? It’s early June, and she has owned the spring, accepting one of two awards as Entrepreneur of the Year at Enterprise Bank’s Celebration of Excellence Awards and a Women of Action award from the Boston Women’s Fund. She was also named the U.S. Small Business Association’s 2010 Massachusetts Woman in Business Champion.
As she continues to oversee Sprouts’ continued expansion in Massachusetts, and eventually beyond, she hopes, Ferraro has taken on a bigger national role with American Education Group, the Michigan- based private school company that bought Little Sprouts and took her on as shareholder and employee in 2008.
It is the next chapter of one of the most successful Valley-born business stories ever.
MVM: You’re being recognized for your work helping young women start businesses. Do you wish there had been more support when you got started?
SLF: Absolutely. Especially for young, young women like that. I mean, when I started, obviously I was really young, and to have someone say: “You can do this. This is not out of your reach to be able to grow a business, get funding. Believe in it, work hard, grow your own wealth.”
But there weren’t any models at all, and the exact opposite, actually. They discouraged me from doing it. They said, “What are you, crazy? You’ll fall on your face.” Everybody. My father wanted me to go to college full time because that’s what all my sisters did. So there weren’t a lot of role models, and I did it more out of defiance. I didn’t want to be working for someone else, was a little bit of a pompous ass.
MVM: You’re also being honored for a commitment to social justice. What’s your focus?
SLF: Right now the thing near and dear to my heart is the political courage issue that our country is facing, especially in regards to early education. So many opportunities to do what’s right for children and families, and they need to put their money where their mouth is and recognize that it’s in early ed that it all starts. All of the juvenile justice issues we’re dealing with, the lack of proficiency in third-grade reading, the test results. We have not raised our reading test scores in our country in 30 years. Who would invest in a business that didn’t improve its result in 30 years?
But it doesn’t start in third grade. They’re not funding universal pre-K. If you want your child to be exposed to good early education, you have to pay for it, and it should be a right of every human being to have the type of educational start that we know is best for children.
How long are we going to keep thinking that doing it on the other end — sticking them into prisons — is where we need to be putting money in? We need to have the political courage to say that our kids at 5 and under are our most important human resource. Never mind save the damn whales. How about save our kids?
MVM: What’s been the biggest change with the sale of Little Sprouts?
SLF: I have a partner who is a man that I need to call my boss. That’s the most impactful change in my life. Because I’ve never had to answer to anybody, never mind a man.
MVM: You couldn’t find a woman?
SLF: I tried. I toured 17 different investment and capital firms — not one woman. That’s a whole other story.
MVM: What was your goal in making the change?
SLF: It was to grow. I wanted the additional talent, to be exposed to new talent so I could grow as a leader, so that I could have more impact on a national scale. Because our model is doing so well I wanted to bring it out there.
MVM: Are you still adjusting to sharing the reins?
SLF: I’m still adjusting every day, yes. I really am. I’m laughing because it’s funny, but I put myself in this.
It’s taught me how to run with the big boys. I’ve had this great opportunity to be able to watch them make decisions and the political happenings of decision at a higher level. These guys manage $100 million in funds, so it’s very interesting where their priorities are.
It’s not all the bottom line with them, it’s really not, but you have to convince them, and so the expectation is, “Put your big girl shoes on, honey, because you’re going to need to influence these guys.” And I did.
by Chris Markuns
photos by Adrien Bisson