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Conversations with the Inspiring Marsha Bailey

Today we’d like to introduce you to Marsha Bailey.

Marsha, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
Being self-sufficient and paying your own way provides a level of freedom you often don’t have when someone else is footing the bills. I put myself through college and graduate school with savings from summer jobs, by working part-time during the school year, and with the help of scholarships and student loans. I was fortunate: tuition was cheaper and financial aid more plentiful in the seventies and eighties than it is today.

Paying my own way meant I was able to study what truly interested me: fine art and sociology as an undergrad at Michigan State University and communication in graduate school at UC Santa Barbara. Fine art satisfied my creative side while sociology spoke to my interest in social justice. As a graduate student in communication, my area of emphasis was rhetoric – the art of persuasion. My thesis compared the feminist and anti-feminist rhetoric of the suffrage movement compared with the ERA movement. People often asked me what I was going to do with degrees in art, sociology, and communication, and at the time, I didn’t really know. But those things I studied – the things I loved – have all played an important role in what turned out to be my life’s work in the non-profit sector.
The research I did for my Master’s thesis profoundly politicized me regarding issues of equity and equality for women. After graduate school, I went to work for the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center. I loved working with women, but after five years, I needed a change. Women who work every day with other women in crisis – in sexual assault and domestic violence programs – pay a heavy emotional toll. They work every day with women who could be and often have been them. The stress is unrelenting. It changes your view of the world.

What I observed in those five years was that women who were poor or unable to support themselves were often more vulnerable to violence than women who were self-sufficient. From 1988 – 1991, I worked with a small group of women to identify and launch an economic development strategy that would help women become economically self-sufficient. At the time, we called it self-employment. Today, it’s called microenterprise.

In 1991, Women’s Economic Ventures was launched with approximately $150,000 in seed money. Thirty thousand dollars was set aside for a microloan fund. As a non-profit founder – like any business owner – I had to be able to do everything: raise money, develop programs, design marketing materials, recruit volunteers and manage the organization. Although I’d never run an organization before, my instinct – long before I read “The E-Myth” – was to work on rather than in the business. I felt my job was to build a program and an organization. That meant finding the right people, people more qualified than myself, to provide the business training and support women needed.

During our first year, we had a budget of $75,000 and one part-time staff member in addition to myself. Today, WEV has a staff of twenty full-time employees and several more part-time instructors and consultants. We have offices in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties and an annual budget of $2.2 million. We’ve helped more than 4,500 emerging entrepreneurs – mostly women – start or expand businesses and provided over $5 million in microloans.

WEV’s mission and mine are to create an equitable and just society through the economic empowerment of women. Over the past 28 years, WEV has proven not only that self-employment can provide a viable pathway out of poverty, but that it can build family wealth and stability and contribute to the economic well-being of our communities.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
I can attest that there have been many challenges along the way, many doors that had to be pried open. Some people thought the small enterprises we were helping women create weren’t “real” businesses. Others didn’t want us to help moderate-income women because they weren’t “needy” enough.
And of course, there was always the need for funding.

I was taught that polite people didn’t talk about money. My parents guarded family financial information like it was a state secret.

So, asking for money was the hardest – and most important part of my job. At the first fundraising training I attended, the trainer asked us to share the worst thing that could happen if we asked for money. I said, “They’ll hit me.”

I’m happy to say that’s never happened.

I got over it. I got over it because we had a promise to keep. A promise to every woman who walked through our doors. We believe in you. You can do it. We’re banking on you.

There are a few pieces of advice that I often share with younger women:

1) Ask for what you want. As girls, too many of us are taught to be nice and let’s face it, there’s still a double standard for women and men when it comes to assertive behavior. But you can’t expect people to be mind-readers. If you want a different job or more money, speak up.

2) Ask for help. It’s a lesson that I preached long before I practiced it. My family invented DIY and applied it to everything from plumbing repairs to self-improvement. We did not ask for help. Asking for help meant you needed help. Needing help indicated some kind of character flaw. But mostly, it was hard to ask for help because, to be perfectly honest, I thought I knew best. WEV was my baby and I wanted to raise it my way. I learned my lessons the old-fashioned way – I earned them. But I paid attention to the pain and I did learn.

An early board member used to tell me “all things are possible for those who can delegate.” It’s easy to delegate things you don’t like to do and aren’t particularly good at, but it’s much harder to give up doing the things you love and excel at.

As a founder, letting go has been the hardest and most important lesson to learn. If I hadn’t learned that lesson, WEV wouldn’t be where we are today.

3) Love it or leave it. If you don’t love the majority of what you do every day, it’s time to move on. Life is too short. Change is scary, but a very wise friend and coach told me, “just because you don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, doesn’t mean it’s going to be bad.” If you are confident in your competence and capabilities, you can figure out the solution to any challenge.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into Women’s Economic Ventures (WEV) story. Tell us more about the business.
WEV provides a continuum of training and consulting services as well as loans of up to $50,000 to help women plan, launch and grow businesses.

People often ask me if I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. But I really don’t think of it that way. It’s not about what I’ve accomplished. I didn’t do this alone. It’s about what we’ve accomplished.

I’m proud of every woman who has walked out of WEV with the courage, the confidence, and the knowledge to make a life-changing decision and follow through on it.

But what I’m most proud of is my staff and the culture of our organization. I want everyone who works for WEV to know that they are smart and capable and above all, trusted to make the daily decisions that enable them to do their best work.

I trust them because I know that each of them has made WEV’s mission their personal mission.

When we started WEV, we wanted women to hear one message loud and clear: You can do it. Our goal was to create a safe learning environment. An environment where women weren’t afraid to ask questions, to express their fears and to share their dreams.

WEV’s programs provided more than technical business training, they provided a support system.

When clients talk about how WEV helped them, the words we hear most often are “you helped me believe in myself,” or as one client put it “You opened the door to what else I might be.”

If there’s a greater reward than that, I don’t know what it is.

What are the biggest barriers to female leadership in my industry or generally?
The non-profit landscape has changed dramatically over the course of my career. Non-profits are expected to document the need for and the effectiveness of their programs. Competition for funding is fierce and financial models and reporting requirements are complex. Today, it is not unusual for a non-profit to be led by someone with a Ph.D. or an MBA. The non-profit sector plays a significant role in our economy, employing as many people as the banking sector in the U.S.

Women are often drawn to work that creates meaningful social change and increasingly, non-profits are led by women, however, women still represent only 45% of non-profit leaders even though 75% of non-profit employees are women. Women often continue to put their own needs last and labor more for love than pay. There is a significant pay gap in the sector with women leaders earning only 66% of their male counterparts. Just because you love your work doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be compensated well for it.

Long hours and dealing with the politics surrounding your particular organization can easily lead to burnout – especially if the pay is inadequate. Regardless, working for a non-profit can provide excellent prospects for women who are committed and passionate about an issue and ready to lead.

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Image Credit:
Staff photos: Women’s Economic Ventures, Goleta Chamber of Commerce, Ontrapalooza

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