Eleven years ago, Molly Hahn lost the support of a family and her home, but on Tuesday night she had a chance to rewrite history.
“I was a homeless teenager 11 years ago with mentally ill parents,” Hahn told a crowd of about 300 at Women’s Economic Ventures’ graduation held at the Montecito Country Club. “I have an opportunity to rewrite that today and make our dreams come true.”
She said it was her dream to be a cartoonist, and after 14 weeks of learning how to develop a plan and start a business under the instruction of WEV, it is coming true. But most importantly, she established a family.
“There are people in this crowd I have chosen to be my family, and I have WEV to thank for that,” said Hahn, who concluded with three parting words before the crowd erupted in applause: “Onward with bravery.”
WEV has been providing self-employment training, technical assistance and loans to primarily low-income women since 1991. Those honored Tuesday night graduated from a 14-week self-employment course or an accelerated six-week Business Plan Intensive course through which they built a support network to launch their business.
“They learn the technical skills to build a business but also build a support network that will continue to grow and one that will always use,” WEV founder and CEO Marsha Bailey said, adding that one graduate said it was a cross between boot camp and an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Whether it’s out of necessity or a long-held dream, Bailey said more people have started a business in the past year than in the past 15 years because they are creating jobs for themselves.
“That’s why WEV is more important than ever,” she said. “It’s not only about starting an enterprise, but one that supports a family and provides future assets.”
Aside from the business and technical training, each student emphasized the lifelong relationships they created through the program.
Michelle Stevens is running a business called Refill Shoppe, where customers come in with empty bottles and refill them with customizable bath care products and can choose from other locally produced products.
“It helped me write a business plan and is convenient because it offers loans, but what helped the most was the support of the other women,” Stevens said.
Beth Grant developed aesthetically pleasing athletic tops called UVTUBE for female outdoor enthusiasts. The fashionable, strapless tops are made from a stretchy, sweat-wick material that doesn’t leave unwanted tan lines, so a hiker can seamlessly transition from a run to a classy dinner.
“The class got me to come out of my shell because we’re all in the same boat,” Grant said. “We start as individuals, but we become a little family who are all trying to get their baby off the ground.”
There were seven elected class speakers: Anaya Cullen represented the BPI class of Santa Barbara, Bianca Martinez represented Ventura, Shauna Robinson represented Thousand Oaks, Molly Hahn represented the Santa Barbara Tuesday class, Rachel Harvey represented the Santa Barbara Thursday class, Shirley Eyre represented Buelton and Ricardo Berumen represented the Santa Maria Spanish-speaking class.
Instructors Paula Crutchley and Lori Ann David also were honored.
“Spending six hours on a Saturday trying to establish the next phase of my business was an invaluable way to spend my time — it was priceless,” Cullen said.
Harvey said that even if the business doesn’t get up and running, each student learned valuable information about themselves.
“Some start a business or take their knowledge to use in other endeavors, but most importantly we were able to learn a lot about ourselves and each other,” she said.
The discrepancies between men and women in the workplace are still vast, Bailey said. Only 2 percent of women who start a business reach the million-dollar mark vs. 6 percent of men’s businesses. Also, small businesses founded by women earn 25 percent of the annual revenue of businesses run by men, according to Bailey.
“We try to teach them to think bigger, but we still have a long way to go,” she said.
WEV has helped create or expand more than 2,000 local and national businesses in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties and add or retain more than 3,000 local jobs.
“Ones who don’t start a business get better jobs because they understand how to run a small business,” Bailey said, adding that two-thirds of the graduates start or grow a business. “They learn economic empowerment and self-sufficiency.”
“We learned more we could ever imagined and formed relationships that will last a lifetime,” Robinson said.
Citibank offered WEV two checks of $25,000 and $13,000 at the graduation ceremony.
Other corporate partners include Bank of America, CAMEO, Chevron, Comerica Bank, Community West Bank, Fashion Forms, JPMorgan Chase, Lynda.com, Montecito Bank & Trust, Nasif, Hicks, Harris & Co., Northern Trust, Rabobank, Santa Barbara Bank & Trust, Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth, Union Bank of California, Union Pacific Foundation, US Bank, Venoco Inc., WE Invest, Wells Fargo, Yardi Systems and ZBE Inc.