It’s a mantra the public has heard over and over for the last several years — we need to create more jobs! With Ventura County’s unemployment rate on the rise from 9.5 percent in May to 10.7 percent in July, economic progress seems to be on a slippery slope. Be that as it may, inspirational success stories about local business owners and entrepreneurs are still being made on a daily basis.

Marsha Bailey, founder and CEO of Santa Barbara-based Women’s Economic Ventures (WEV) that serves Ventura, Santa Barbara and southern Kern counties, would be the first one to tell you not to let shocking headlines get you down — the world is anyone’s and everyone’s oyster. WEV, which Bailey founded in 1991, has helped thousands of women start and expand their own businesses through various programs and services, including providing loans.

Thanks to WEV and its programs, Fresco Café, started in 1995 in the city of Santa Barbara, now has franchises in North Santa Barbara County. In Ventura County, Michelle Hirrel of Shell’s Petals off Telegraph Road started her business in 2004 and is still going strong.

Though not so specifically geared toward helping just women these days, over the last two decades, WEV has served more than 13,000 clients through its programs, including more than 4,000 people through the self-employment training program. WEV’s loan fund has provided more than $2.5 million in loans to local, pre-bankable businesses. The success of WEV and its clients has translated into more than 2,000 businesses that have started or grown with WEV’s help, creating or sustaining an estimated 3,500 jobs.

Bailey spoke with the Reporter this week about WEV’s two-decade anniversary, success in business and how times have changed.

VCReporter: It’s been 20 years since you began WEV. What inspired you to start this nonprofit?
In graduate school, I studied the feminist and anti-feminist rhetoric of the suffrage and ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) movements, and I was struck by how little progress we’d made in some areas since the “Declaration of Sentiments” was written and signed at the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848. One of the things they noted was that a male tailor earned more than a female seamstress and a male teacher more than a female teacher. When I graduated from college in the ’70s, there was still a huge earnings disparity between men and women, which, although it has shrunk, exists to this day with women earning 77 cents for every dollar men earned . . . It appeared to me that the feminist movement was focused on social equality but wasn’t paying much attention to economic equality. Financial security is so basic. I felt that if women had more money of their own, they would have more power to change other social and political inequities.

How have the world of business and becoming an entrepreneur changed over the years?
Certainly it is no longer unusual for a woman to start up her own business. When we started in 1991, there were few visible women role models who owned or ran large businesses. We’ve made progress since then, but still only 12 Fortune 500 companies are run by women, down from a peak of 15. Women have been starting businesses at a faster rate than men for over a decade, but they still own only 27 percent of all businesses and women-owned businesses generate only 25 percent of the annual sales that male-owned businesses generate. Less than 2 percent of woman-owned businesses get to the $1 million annual sales mark, compared with 6 percent of male-owned businesses, and less than 5 percent of all venture capital goes to women-owned businesses — mostly because women don’t ask for it. That’s why we still need organizations like WEV — to help women think bigger and build more significant businesses.

How has your nonprofit grown and changed since it began?
We started with a budget of $75,000, two staff members and a $30,000 loan fund. We made microloans of up to $1,500 and very little training. Within a year, we realized that the need for training was much greater than we’d anticipated and that our loans were too small . . . Now, with a staff of 11, over a dozen consultants and an annual budget of $1.1 million, we provide training, consulting and loans of up to $50,000 to both women and men throughout Santa Barbara and Ventura counties as well as the mountain communities of Kern County. We’ve made over $2.6 million in small loans to pre-bankable businesses. Twenty years ago, we worked primarily with startups but today we’re working with more existing businesses, helping them stabilize and grow, and we’re also working with more men.

Last year, 19 percent of our clients were men.

What is the secret to your success? To the success of those who have come through WEV?
Tenacity. My mother once told me she hoped I’d have a child as stubborn as I was. There have been many times over the past 20 years when I’ve been discouraged and questioned my ability, but I never gave up. There’s a book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. I think that’s a great philosophy to live by. As a business owner or the director of a nonprofit, no task is ever beneath your dignity; you need to be willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.
Vision. People often talk about vision and ask me if I ever imagined WEV would be as successful as it has been. I never had a distinct picture in my mind of what WEV might become.  What I’m good at is balancing what needs to get done today with thinking about where the organization is going in the future. You need to anticipate what needs are emerging and how you will fulfill them. I’m a firm believer that no organization can stay the same and survive. You have to be constantly changing and growing, and I like change.

Love of learning. I’ve always loved to read and learn new things. I think that being a lifelong learner is essential to success in any field.   

WEV will be holding orientations for the upcoming fall session in Ventura on Aug. 28, from noon to 1 p.m., and in Thousand Oaks on Aug. 30, from 6 to 7 p.m. For more information on WEV and/or to register for the orientations, go to www.wevonline.org or call (805)667-8004.