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Updated: October 16, 2023

Outstanding Women in Business: Russo overcame an old boys network to build her furniture business

a photo of Claudia Russo Photo | Christine Peterson Claudia Russo

Claudia Russo has never backed down because of roadblocks in her way, and it’s a good thing since she’s faced countless obstacles on the road to running her now multi-million-dollar office furniture sales firm, Workplace Resource.

After finishing her undergraduate school as a single mom at Clark University in 1982, Russo got a job in office furniture sales on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester. Starting off with a $12,000 annual salary, Russo said she didn’t expect to keep the job for longer than six months.

“Back then, they didn’t let women in sales,” she said. “They let you in retail, but they weren’t going to let you be in the commissioned, high-paying jobs.”

Sure enough, she soon found out some of her male counterparts were making around $250,000, so she began to look around for a commissioned-sales job. She climbed the ranks to a management position at Creative Office Pavilion, a Boston-based firm with an office in Worcester. Of the 12 people on the management team, Russo was the only woman.

In 2000, after 17 years of constantly facing denial for the work she wanted to do at her company, Russo decided to leave and start her own business. She opened a one-room office on Route 9, where she began to try to build a client base, but it was an uphill battle. “My boss [at Creative Office Pavilion] told me it was going to be like a divorce, and it wasn’t going to be amicable,” she said. “He proceeded to blacklist me from all the manufacturer reps groups. He called them and told them not to sell to me.”

She went around individually to prospective clients to make her case and eventually locked down her first big manufacturer customer, Teknion, in 2002.

“She was very forthright, and I think that what really sold her to people is that she was always upfront, very honest,” said Margaret Guzman, Russo’s friend and a judge in the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts. “She was very capable in her business, and she has a backbone.”

Russo has since built up a client base with customers including the Hanover Theatre, the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Clark University, and Williams College.

She moved out of her one-room office to a building on Prescott Street, which was on the brink of demolition, but she chose to renovate and revitalize. It now houses a team of seven.

Workplace Resource remains the only woman-owned office furniture sales company in Massachusetts, and one of two with that designation in New England, according to Russo, who called the industry an old boys network.

She has been denied financial support from institutions, often being told she didn’t look like an entrepreneur. “That kind of enduring, constant put-downs and attempts to make you fail, it hardens you,” said Guzman. “But it also hardens you in the sense that she was successful, and people responded to her.”

Along with her work as a business owner, Claudia is a single mom of two and has been a strong advocate for her son, whom she adopted from Romania, in navigating education and support for his special needs.

She founded the Walking Around Money scholarship providing funds for college students in need and regularly donates to local organizations like Abby’s House, Worcester Area Drug Coalition, and Jana’s Place, often donating furniture for philanthropic auctions.

Through it all, she has remained a strong advocate for diversifying her industry, hiring the first-ever Black salesperson in the office furniture sales sector at her dealership this year.

“You’ve got to voice your opinion and know that, when you do, there’s ramifications,” she said. “People say, ‘Oh, you’re whiny.’ No, this is the truth. The only way you can make change happen is if you tell the truth.”

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