The S.B. Questionnaire: Marsha Bailey

Talking Empowerment with the Founder of Women’s Economic Ventures

Women's Economic Ventures CEO Marsha Bailey at La Calenda on De La Vina Street.
Paul Wellman

Twenty-seven years ago, Marsha Bailey established the nonprofit Women’s Economic Ventures (WEV) to help women start their own businesses, empowering participants with micro-loans and self-employment training programs.

As we sit down for lunch, I ask Marsha what inspired her to create the program. “My own personal experience growing up in the ‘60s,” she answers. “I was steered in traditional ways for education expected for a woman. A teacher or a dental hygienist was what my mom envisioned.” Plus, her parents grew up in the Great Depression, so they wanted her to make safe choices, and Michigan was in the midst of a recession when she went to college, with unemployment over 12 percent.

“It was difficult to make decisions that I knew they wouldn’t approve,” she explains, “but I still made them.” When she got her degree in fine art and sociology from Michigan State in 1972, Marsha says, “I found it hard to support myself. I wanted to do something.”

She moved to California in 1976 and got a Masters from UCSB in speech communication and rhetoric; her thesis was on feminist and anti-feminist rhetoric in the suffrage movement compared to the equal rights movement. She also worked at the Rape Crisis Center for five years, where she met many women who didn’t have financial options of their own. “I wanted to do something that was proactive,” she says. “Economic development was the way.”

In 1988, she started researching economic development for women and found four typical barriers: socialization, education, access to capital, and access to affordable childcare. She created a business plan, sent it to the Irvine Foundation, and got a grant to test strategies. ”We learned that our target would be low-moderate income women,” she tells.

Marsha launched the loan program in 1991, but clients quickly told her they needed training as well. “I used my network to find volunteers to help us train,” she says. In those nascent years of WEV, Marsha did everything else as well. “I designed the logo,” she explains. “I had a lot of skills and I put them to use.”

Today, WEV offers training to help early-stage entrepreneurs learn sound business practices and write a business plan. The nonprofit also provides startup and expansion capital of up to $50,000 to small businesses that can’t qualify for traditional bank financing. With 18 staff members and three offices — in Santa Maria and Ventura as well as Santa Barbara — WEV has served more then 14,000 clients and given out $4 million dollars in loans. Although WEV focused on women, 15 percent of their classes include men.

“I was always focused on growing the organization,” Marsha says. “I was always busy putting one foot in front of the other. Now I have more things I want to do than I did then. I thought I was going to be an art teacher after graduation.”

Marsha Bailey answers the Proust Questionnaire.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Escaping the narrow confines of the gender stereotypes and family expectations I grew up with.

Who do you most admire?

Single moms. Because they have to do everything and keep it all together. They get little support or respect and if the kids do anything wrong, it’s always the mom’s fault. We never ask, “Where was the father?”

What is the quality you most dislike in people?

Pretentiousness. I don’t like being around people who think they’re better than others by virtue of their birth, their wealth, their education, their job, their gender, or anything else. I especially dislike people who think they work harder at their high-paying jobs than people who work for low pay and often juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet. The whole “maker vs. taker” thing infuriates me.

What do you like most about your job?

It fulfills a personal mission. I love being able to help women realize how much ability and power they have. There are always challenges that require me to learn new things and stretch outside my comfort zone. It keeps the job interesting.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

I think happiness consists of moments, not a perpetual state of being. The key is to recognize those moments and be grateful for them, which I don’t always succeed at. Happiness for me includes things like reading a great book, seeing my sons grow up and find their own way, having a stimulating conversation, achieving goals. And of course, laughing. Out-of-control laughing.

What is your greatest fear?

That I won’t do everything I want to do before I die. Which is totally rational and going to happen.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Buying art. Especially ceramics. I love functional, handmade things that I can use every day – like dishes. I love to drink my morning coffee out of a beautiful vessel. I’ve carried home many fragile pieces from all over the world and never broken one yet. I know I’m jinxing myself by saying that.

What is your current state of mind?

Urgency. As I get older, I’m much more aware of time compressing.

What is the quality you most like in people?

It’s a tie between humility and a sense of humor. I think the two traits often go together because the funniest people are often the ones who can be self-deprecating.

What do you most value in friends?

Reciprocity. I don’t mean that in a keeping score kind of way, I mean that there has to be an equal investment in the relationship. Sometimes one person is going to need a lot of care and attention and the other person needs to be willing to give it. That needs to go both ways. My best friends are the ones who love me pretty unconditionally and make me laugh and I hope I do the same for them.

What is your most marked characteristic?

Probably my outspokenness. I rarely have a problem speaking my mind and I have an opinion about just about everything. It’s much harder for me to speak up when it’s personal and potentially hurtful to someone. I hate doing performance reviews.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

I can tell you which words and phrases other people overuse that drive me nuts. Like “curate.” Or “literally.” Or “let’s unpack that.” When my 75-year-old aunt started saying “bummer” in the ‘80s, I was appalled. There’s nothing worse than an old person using slang, especially after it’s gone out of fashion. I don’t want to be accused of that, so I’m pretty circumspect about my language.

Which talent would you most like to have?

I’d love to play the piano well. I took lessons when I was a child, but my teacher was a bit of a tyrant and it came down to a battle of the wills, which I lost, since my mother was paying the bill. In college, I found another teacher and paid for my own lessons. But honestly, I’m not great at practicing regularly or breaking things down into small pieces. I like to take on a big project and power through it.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I’d be a better listener. I’m a problem solver by nature and am always ready to jump in and tell people exactly what they should do. I have to keep reminding myself to listen and ask questions. Sometimes, probably most times, people just need to vent or think out loud and don’t want someone else to solve their problems. It’s more useful to help them recognize that they already know the solution.

Where would you most like to live?

Other than Santa Barbara, Paris. It’s such an aesthetically beautiful city and I’d love to become fluent enough in French to do more than order a croissant and ask for directions.

What is your most treasured possession?

That’s a hard one. I tend to collect things — if one thing is great, 10 is better. I’m trying to break that habit. When something as devastating as a fire comes along, it makes me realize that my priorities are people, pets, family heirlooms, and art. Things that are irreplaceable.

If I had to choose just one thing, it would probably be the watercolor portrait of my twin sons by Wendy Jamison. She painted them in their Peter Pan costumes when they were 3 or 4. It truly is precious to me.

Who makes you laugh the most?

My friend Dianne. I’ve known her since the Seventies. The stories she could tell. (Please don’t call her.) She can find humor in anything. Many years ago she called me to tell me she had breast cancer and had me laughing about her biopsy so I wouldn’t cry.

What is your motto?

I don’t really have one, but if I did, it would be: Get over it.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

I think “identify with” may be too much of a presumption, but the historical figure I most admire is Elizabeth Cady Stanton. She was a leader of the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S. and educated primarily by her father at a time when girls didn’t have access to higher education. Although she was the mother of eight children, she devoted her entire adult life to enfranchising women, but died before the 19th Amendment was passed. She was a prolific writer and speaker, what we’d call a “thought leader” today.

On what occasion do you lie?

When it’s about something inconsequential, but will make someone feel better, including myself: like about my weight or that thing you’re wearing.


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