The Give: Edwin Gould Foundation’s CEO Never Stops Pursuing Educational Access for Minorities

cynthiariveraweissblum300x300Increased access to higher education through empowerment of students and their families has been Cynthia Rivera Weissblum’s lifetime calling. Along the way, she also married her college sweetheart, and they successfully pursued their own careers while raising two children. With their son now in college, she and her husband are exploring how they will move beyond their empty nest. But Rivera Weissblum says that, for her, there will always be people seeking guidance with educational access. “Really, college completion for first-time college goers has been my vocation and avocation,” she said. “I don’t play golf. I don’t knit…” “I meet students and their families everywhere, in the supermarket and the hair salon. I sit with them and talk and help them to make intelligent, well-thought decisions, based on good information, she added. “We get the information around the kitchen table from our aunts and uncles, from amigos and amistades. There is just so much information, and so many families that need it.” Her own parents never made it to college. Rivera Weissblum and her two older sisters were taught by Dominican nuns with students of all faiths at Christ the King Roman Catholic parish in New York City. She says that their school and parish provided structure, discipline, fun and a strong sense of community. “I would not trade it for anything,” she said. “It was a wonderful way to grow up.” Their father was born in Cienfuegos, Cuba, and their mother was a native of Coamo, P.R., who moved to the mainland as a teenager after her own mother passed away. The couple met in Manhattan and subsequently lived with their growing family around the Tri-State Area. They were very committed to putting their three daughters through college. “My job is to put a roof over your head, and your job is to bring home good grades,” Rivera Weissblum remembers her father telling them. Rivera Weissblum’s father was a short-order cook who worked in as many as three restaurants at the same time. His wife started caring for neighborhood children in their home. Eventually, he bought a taxi and she went through a government-sponsored Manpower training program that enabled her to become a billing clerk at John F. Kennedy International Airport. She passed away in 2006. “I watched her shift from child care to entering the workforce,” Rivera Weissblum recalled. “It had an impact on the three of us. We realized that drive for upward mobility, striving to get into the middle class.” Rivera Weissblum obtained undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate degrees from the State University of New York in Counseling Psychology and Student Development. She went on to work for the state government, in philanthropy and in the private sector. She started in Minority Student Affairs at the university level in the early 1980s, focusing on firstgeneration college goers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and at Rutgers University. “It was my role to give them access to other services, like the career development services,” she said. “It was my job to make these students comfortable’ in that learning environment.” She also learned to focus on where each student’s preparedness level, motivation level and opportunities intersect. She was one of only three employees at Sponsors for Educational Opportunity when she started there in 1983. She went back and forth, between serving as executive director of that educational nonprofit and a two-year stint as director of the New York State Mentoring Program, as well as four years as president of Results Collaborative, her own business offering advisory services to foundations and philanthropists about their giving. She returned to serve as Sponsors for Educational Opportunity president. She finally left the nonprofit in 2001, when it had grown to 50 part-time and full-time employees. Sponsors for Educational Opportunity had become an Edwin Gould Foundation incubator project, so they were already sharing space when she joined the foundation staff. The Edwin Gould Foundation encourages nonprofit leaders with entrepreneurial spirit to grow their organizations by literally giving them space unencumbered by the usual concerns of paying overhead for rent and utilities. The foundation also provides monetary grants. “We believe in contributing to the organizations that we support,” said Rivera Weissblum, who has served as president and CEO of the Edwin Gould Foundation since 2005. “There are just a handful of organizations that incubate, and there are just a few that incubate and focus on one issue. I think it’s important for the foundation to be nimble and adapt to the needs of those you serve.” In addition to helping to open doors to minority college students and nonprofits that support them, Rivera Weissblum is very focused on her family, which includes her husband, who was her college sweetheart, their daughter Lianna, 24, and son, Evan, 21. “As an empty nester, my husband and I are enjoying getting re-acquainted,” she said. “We just moved from our family home to an apartment [in White Plains, NY], so it’s a different stage of life that’s very exciting,” she said. She was also inspired by a family trip to Cuba that included her sisters, the children and her 87-yearold father, who had not returned to the island since he had left as a young man. They visited every home he could remember having lived in growing up. “My father was very poor in Cuba, and he moved 15 times in Cuba,” Rivera Weissblum said. “And we stood in front of every one, and he said: ‘I wasn’t very successful here, but these are my children and grandchildren.’ “From my children’s perspective, they understand him now. He showed us where he sold vegetables in Havana, where we carried textiles from door to door, where he shared one room with his mother and grandmother,” she added. “It was an opportunity.”

The Interview

CB: What issues do you see on the horizon in the area of higher education for minorities?
CRW: I think that today important issues include financial aid and the cost of college. The onset of certificates and how the certificate plays into community college and four-year college admissions. There’s a lot of conversation about students earning certificates instead of pursuing a [college] career ending in a job. Cost of college is prohibitive. Will students move toward these certificates instead of college degrees, and what impact will it have on them in the long run? It’s important that families have the information they need to understand the impact of college, the costs, and to transfer that college degree into a career to move the family ahead. I think [the certificate program idea is] complex and new on the scene, and we just have to examine it.
CB: What needs to happen to increase degree attainment for Latino students?
CRW: The demographics tell us that Latino youth are going to be so important to driving America’s economy and America’s success. And I think that, overall, we need to all be intentional in how we focus on Latino youth. There are going to be so many young Latinos and young Latino families in low-income situations. And we need to be intentionally focused on helping them get educations and advance, because it’s good for America. History tells us that philanthropy basically has not served Latinos well. History tells us that. But looking to the future, I think there is intentionality, and there is a focus because we all understand where the demographics are and what we need to do to contribute to America. And, like I said, I’m really optimistic about the future.
CB: What does philanthropy mean to you?
CRW: It means not being focused on the self, but focused on others, and the young people that these organizations serve and what those organizations need. And, having the intimate relationship of focusing on what those people need, makes me feel so fortunate. Here at Gould having that exchange with the organizations’ leaders and dealing with their specific goals or their strengths and their outcomes. It really embodies for me everything that Edwin Gould is.
CB: How do you see the situation of Latinos in the philanthropic sector?
CRW: I enjoy spending time with Latinos and Latinas like me on their career development. Obviously, they’re not well represented in the foundation world. That’s changing, I hope. I counsel a lot of young people on their career paths, and I think that really focusing on your strengths and demonstrate your successes no matter what field you’re in. We’re seeing how important it is to understand how one advances. For me, not only as a foundation executive but as a woman in this field, I’ve seen the incredible strength of women in this community and to help support one another in navigating both our professional lives and our personal lives. As a mother, daughter, partner and sister, that all comes down to developing a fruitful life.