Women’s Economic Ventures’ annual fundraising event, “Empowerment Is Priceless,” demonstrated that empowerment is not only priceless, it’s pervasive among Santa Barbara’s smallest and newest businesses.
The concept of starting or sustaining a business during a pandemic is daunting, yet WEV proved that with its support, it’s also possible.
“The pandemic has accelerated a generational mind-shift for women,” Kathy Odell, CEO of WEV, said as she welcomed nearly 200 guests to the outdoor gathering. “This new wave of business owners represents a cultural reset that might just change the American workplace.
“Women are walking away from workplaces that demand long hours and fail to honor employees’ needs for child care and family flexibility. They are starting with a core belief that work should be financially rewarding but also psychologically and emotionally fulfilling, and that work should enable us to care well for our families and still have time to enjoy our families.”
Above all, many women want personal control of their careers, and this desire often outweighs career advancement and pay, leading more women to start businesses of their own.
The proof is in the numbers. From 2005 to 2019, there was an average of about 2.4 million new business starts per year. Yet, according to Odell, the COVID-19 crisis has turned that stat on its head.
The Census Bureau reported that through the end of September, there have been 4.1 million new businesses created, and the country is on track to experience 6 million new business formations this year.
“That is a staggering statistic,” Odell said. “And guess what? Forty-nine percent of those businesses have been created by women.”
WEV has been helping the next generation of business owners get their ideas off the ground. The nonprofit organization provides training, business advisory services, financial knowledge and funding, and during the past 30 years has helped launch more than 5,500 local businesses.
Two of those businesses were honored at the afternoon affair.
Lili Muñoz, founder of Colibri LA and co-founder of the Mujeres Makers Market, received the Community Champion Award, a new honor celebrating collaboration and inclusivity.
Muñoz shared her personal journey as a child of immigrant parents who watched her father wake at 5 a.m. to work two jobs as a gardener and a janitor, while her mother also had two jobs — cleaning a home in Montecito and taking care of her own family.
“I had a dream of becoming an entrepreneur, but I had no idea where to start,” she said. “I didn’t grow up around business owners and I lacked social capital, so it was all very intimidating.”
Muñoz enrolled in WEV’s program and credits that experience with giving her the confidence and skills to succeed.
“The WEV program was the catalyst and reason that I am here today as a proud business owner,” she said. “I am living out my dream, collaborating with women artisans around the world, selling their products following fair trade practices.”
Muñoz found success representing those goods at pop-up markets, until COVID-19 forced them to close. So, she and her partners rolled up their sleeves and created their own market — the Mujeres Makers Market, where they showcase the products of small-business owners and women of color in Santa Barbara.
Elsa Cisneros, owner of Daily Greenz Etc., was honored as WEV’s Client of the Year for her resilience and adaptability.
During the past 18 months, Cisneros opened and closed her healthy catering company repeatedly, as the pandemic dictated. Her journey with WEV began 10 years ago, and she said that experience provided an invaluable business foundation and inspired confidence.
When COVID-19 struck, Cisneros reached back out to WEV to help redefine her business model.
“Thanks to the help of WEV, and Better Together funds, we evolved our business, creating a new website and ordering system that met our changing needs,” she said.
Soon after enrolling in WEV’s digital marketing class, Cisneros watched her website traffic soar, even landing her a spot as Google’s No. 1 search option for healthy food.
As WEV helped clients adapt, it, too, was forced to modify its business model.
“In responding to our clients’ and communities’ shifting needs, WEV broadened and deepened its offerings,” said Nikki Parr, WEV’s director of programs, services and strategy.
“We increased capacity and reach, expanded online training programs, offered specialist business and financial coaching, provided innovative entrepreneurial funding and organized small-business community meet-ups, offering all of these services in both English and Spanish.”
Parr credited the strength of her team along with WEV’s Trailblazer supporters, who inspire and sustain the organization through their passion, commitment and grit.
“When I think of a trailblazer, this year’s recipient couldn’t be more emblematic of that word,” Duva said. “Hannah-Beth has dedicated her life to creating an environment for women to succeed. She has accomplished major legislative achievements, increased participation among women in C-suites and board rooms, and established the most far-reaching equal pay laws in the state of California.”
Jackson was moved by the breadth of WEV’s recognition.
“I am blown away by the creativity, determination and confidence that come from WEV and those represented in this room,” she said. “But it also comes with being a woman.
“The challenges over the past 18 months that were particular to women, pushing them to be caretakers, teachers, breadwinners and partners, was just extraordinary.”
Jackson commended WEV for empowering women, helping them gain control over their personal and professional lives.
Other award recipients included the Santa Barbara Public Library, recognized as Partner of the Year, with acceptance by Ahmad Merza, lead librarian of the Eastside Branch. Presenters also included Irene Kelly, WEV financial education and community engagement manager; Michelle Apodaca, director of Deckers Brands and the Santa Barbara Better Together Fund; and Junemarie Justus, WEV board member and founder of The Acorn Project.
The event was held at the rotunda of the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort, and table sponsors included WEV clients who shared their business ventures through clever centerpieces.
Nearly 40 small businesses were represented, including Sol Seek Yoga, Board & Brush, Amador Matchmaking, Andersen’s Danish Bakery, Mindful Eating Institute, Wine Cult, Lisa Braithwaite Speaking Coach, Apply Well College Consulting, Kind Cup, Hook & Press Donuts, Monarch Institute, Daily Greenz Etc., Coast Design Collective, Réves de Sabine, Santa Barbara Equestrian Academy, La Segunda, Dana Halverson Garden Design, Asher Market, Maison K, Dresden Body & Wellness, Jane Reaction Fitness, (IN)LARKIN, Felicia Lew, OD, Students for Eco-Education & Agriculture, Colibri LA, Kawaii Body Wax, Local Bath Box, JR Bookkeeping, Goleta Coffee Co., Float Luxury Spa, Aliz Ruvalcaba Photography, Stik N Stuk, Tinkle Belle Diaper Service, the Goleta Education Foundation, Paradise Found, New Dawn Consulting, Marley Confections, Got Paella LLC and Sun Pacific Solar Electric Inc.
Sponsors included Cox Communications, LinkedIn, American Riviera Bank, City National Bank, Ventura County, JPMorgan Chase & Co., La Arcada, Pacific Western Bank, Ventura County Credit Union, Jaffurs Wine Cellars and Willa Kveta Photography.
— Ann Pieramici is a Noozhawk contributing writer.