Kristina Bengtston uses Reiki, an ancient Japanese energetic healing system, on people and animals, particularly horses. (Sonia Fernandez / Noozhawk photo)

In this atmosphere of a slowing economy and rising oil prices, stepping out on one’s own to start a business can be scary. But it didn’t stop Women’s Economic Ventures’ latest crop of graduates from plunging into the world of self-employment through the nonprofit’s Self Employment Training Program.

“Some things new business owners have to know are what resources are available and what their limitations are, so they can fill these gaps,” said Judy Hawkins, WEV’s executive director. “A few of the key indicators for a successful entrepreneur are persistence, competence and a passion for your business or your business idea.”

With that in mind, here are three of Santa Barbara’s newest entrepreneurs:

The healer

For Kristina Bengtston, a debilitating health condition was what turned her onto her path now.

“I was, as (my nutritionist) called me, a limp noodle in the corner,” Bengtston said. After a few sessions, her nutritionist turned her onto Reiki, an ancient Japanese energetic healing system.

“I started doing Reiki with her once a week, and after a month I was hooked,” she said. It soon became obvious to her that Reiki was what she wanted to share, and not just with people. Animals, particularly horses, are her specialty, but all creatures, she said, could benefit from the energetic healing, which does not discriminate between human and beast.

“Animals communicate in the way they move their bodies,” she said. A lifelong horsewoman, Bengtston learned to pick up on her horses’ moods and states of mind. It wasn’t a big leap to translate that into other animals and humans.

Probably the best thing about WEV for Bengtston, an anthropologist by training, was the holistic approach, and its method of business from a more feminine point of view. 

“Testosterone-based beings more readily compartmentalize,” she said, a trait that complements the traditional way of doing business. Estrogen-based people, she said, tend to want to connect with everything: the financial, the creative, even the spiritual.

“I think it’s very much the way businesses are heading,” Bengtston said. But it’s not just about making money, although obviously the business would have to be profitable to sustain itself. For Bengston, the reward is also in the notion that she’s able to heal herself and others.

The runner


Jill Harper hit the ground running with her venture, Running Tours of Santa Barbara. It incorporates exercise, tourism and green sensibilities. (Sonia Fernandez / Noozhawk photo)

It all began for Jill Harper when she walked into her boss’ office and found a picture of her triumphantly crossing the finish line.

“I said, ‘This is how I want to feel.’ ” While she was an active woman, Harper hadn’t really considered taking up running until she moved to Santa Barbara. Once she started, though, she couldn’t get enough, and the city opened up to her as she ran along miles of shoreline, through beautiful neighborhoods and around the city’s many landmarks. Running became a passion that took her out of the country to races on other shores.

This passion, however, stayed a hobby even when she first went to WEV with her business and running partner to start another kind of venture.

“It really wasn’t working out,” she said. “Something was missing.” After WEV instructor Laurie Ann David asked them where their passion lies, the answer became simple: They needed to be running.

Running Tours of Santa Barbara was born. It’s a venture that incorporates exercise, tourism and the emerging green sensibilities.

How did she know it could work?

“The program taught us how to do the research,” Harper said. After consulting with the Santa Barbara Chamber of Commerce, Hunter discovered that an average of 30,000 people visit the city every day for business and pleasure. Surely there are a few runners in that number, she reasoned, and came out with a service that caters to the newest of runners who can run short distances and to the most dedicated ones in training, running up to 20 miles per tour.

Harper says that in the long term, she wants small groups of four or five people taking tours throughout the day, with the help of other tour guides/runners from around town.

The artist


Artist Ian Putnam had been making money with his paintings but needed help learning the financial and legal sides of the business. (Sonia Fernandez / Noozhawk photo)

For some of the self-employed, it’s the business aspect of business that’s the mystery.

Ian Putnam had no problem envisioning what his business would look like. As an artist, he was used to being creative, and he had no shortage of ideas. But when it came down to the nuts and bolts – the cost analyses, the budgets, the spreadsheets and the like – his confidence wavered.

“I didn’t have the legalities in place. I didn’t get the paperwork in place,” he said. “I was sort of doing it in a haphazard way.”

Putnam was already making money with his paintings. He had been an art teacher in New England and had written several screenplays in Los Angeles before coming to Santa Barbara. His wife, Rebecca, a hypnotherapist was the person who joined WEV first. After Putnam saw his wife’s success, he signed up, too.

“Probably the most intimidating thing for me was the math,” he said. For Putnam, it was almost like another language, one he wasn’t so sure he could pick up. But the program forced him to face his anxieties and come out the better for it, he said.

“I always saw (business) as a left-brained kind of work,” he said. “Other people did that kind of work, but not me.”

Learning the not-so-scary-after-all financial and legal sides of being self-employed, Putnam said, also took the stress out of wearing all the hats he needs to wear: artist, manager, publicist and events coordinator, to name a few.

WEV has come a long way since it started as a nonprofit organization to help women who had to work outside the regular 9-5 schedule to support themselves. According to Hawkins, the graduates who started businesses with WEV increase their household income by an average of 49 percent, a rate that increases if the business was already in operation when they started the program. Sixty-three percent of graduates continue to be in business 18 months after they start. A more longitudinal study is in the works to track graduates over a longer period of time.

But with all the new entrepreneurs, the Internet and the big businesses moving into town, is the local market big enough to support the dreams, wishes and passions of all the people who want to go into business for themselves?

According to Hawkins, yes.

“It’s a bit of a mistake to take a look at a city like Santa Barbara and think because it’s a smaller community it could only support so many new ventures,” she said. “I think the key for entrepreneurs is to know who really is their niche market, who do they serve … and it’s known and accepted that these days, even small businesses are not limited to their geographic location.”

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at