P.D. Soros Fellowship for New Americans


Women's Entrepreneurship Day: Paola Prestini's Journey to National Sawdust

Jasmine Singh

What do women, immigrants, and entrepreneurs have in common? Unparalleled vision, an ability to take on risk, and a deep belief in one's own ideas. Each of these groups of people face unique obstacles to success, and living at the intersection of all three identities only intensifies the boldness required to advance and prosper. We’re proud to have many women just like this in the ranks of our Fellowship.

An immigrant from Italy, 1999 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow Paola Prestini is a co-founder of National Sawdust, a dyanmic cultural instituion championing innovation in the arts. Through National Sawdust, Paola started the Hildegard Competition mentorship initiative highlighting outstanding women and other marginalized genders in the early stages of their composition careers, and the Blueprint Fellowship for emerging composers with the Juilliard School.

We caught up with Paola to learn about her journey as an woman in entreprenurship.

What was the inciting incident behind the development of National Sawdust? 

I was called by my cofounder Kevin Dolan! He chose me to fulfill what was for him a dream of creating space for emerging artists, which for me became a dream about marrying the work I had been doing in the city in terms of my collaborative visions,  with a physical home. I will never forget what Paul Soros said to our group of fellows: if there is one piece of pie left, don't divide it-make more- we have to make more opportunities in order to be a healthy society.

What holes did you see in the market and what encouraged you to think you were the right person to fill the need?

In my own classical music training I was missing mentoring and transparency. I knew that mentoring would have a large role at National Sawdust, and that we would investigate and work on gender equity in music, and try to demystify the music industry which has been so rife with gatekeeping. This meant revolving curation, and providing tools for how to thrive in a complex and ever evolving musical ecosystem, plus the basics-which for us means great acoustics and a feeling of community.

In 2019, immigrants and New Americans made up 21.7% of all business owners in the United States, despite making up just over 13.6 percent of the population. In your eyes, what is the thread that ties the entrepreneurial spirit with immigration to the US?

It's that you have no ties-no roots, and so you desperately want to make them. You have no preconceived notions of the country in terms of family experience, and so you are building on a blank slate. While that can be scary, it is also liberating. Borges said, you must build as if the sand were stone, and I try to continue with this understanding that impermanency and evolution are our only constants.

What would you say to other women currently considering starting up their own businesses to encourage them to take the plunge? 

Don't waver in the belief in yourself, and know when you need to rest. Don't make decisions when you are tired, and find what you need to feel safe and at home when you need a break from the struggle. Everyone you meet is important, and valuing humanity, and living with integrity is key-treat every moment as a potential break, and it will happen. ■

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