Marsha Bailey is the CEO and Founder of Women’s Economic Ventures, a non-profit organization whose mission is to create an equitable and just society through the economic empowerment of women. WEV provides training, consulting and capital to help both women and men — but primarily women — start up and expand small businesses. She is also the Chair of the Association of Women’s Business Centers which advocates on behalf of the 106 SBA-funded Women’s Business Centers across the country.
What motivated you to start your business?
I started WEV both because of my own personal experiences and because of the needs I saw around me. I worked for a crisis intervention program and repeatedly saw that low-income women had the fewest options and least security in their lives. On a personal level, I grew up in a middle-class family and graduated from college with an advanced degree, but still found it difficult to earn enough money to support myself. My last job before moving into the non-profit sector was doing PR for an architectural firm that employed mostly men. When I told the owner, my boss, what I wanted to be paid, he said, “Oh, we can’t pay you that much. It’s more than any of the other women make.” He didn’t see anything wrong with having a different pay scale for women than he did for men.
In graduate school I studied the feminist and anti-feminist rhetoric of the Suffrage and ERA movements. That was the first I’d heard of the “Declaration of Sentiments” which was presented at Seneca Falls, NY in 1848. The Declaration was based on the Declaration of Independence and one of its objectives was to ensure that women received equal pay for equal work. 167 years later, we still have not achieved that objective.
My primary goal in starting WEV was to provide women with more opportunities to become economically self-sufficient and financially secure by creating their own businesses and building assets. I believed that financial independence would lead to greater integration of women in leadership roles throughout our society and ultimately result in greater equity and equality.
What is the greatest barrier you faced in launching your business and how did you overcome it?
When I started writing the business plan for WEV in the late eighties, there were few high-profile women business owners and only one running a Fortune 500 company. Many women had a hard time seeing themselves as business owners — and so did everyone else. Less than 5% of foundation funding went to non-traditional women’s programs. Because it was such a new idea we faced a lot of skepticism. I often found myself on the defensive, explaining why business ownership was important for women and why women needed targeted services that differed from the business development services that had traditionally been provided primarily by men for men. I used a lot of census data to show how many female-headed households lived in poverty and also to demonstrate the lack of opportunities for women in the mainstream workforce. I overcame these obstacles by appealing to individual women donors and to progressive foundations. After three years, we started collecting outcomes data to demonstrate the effectiveness of our programs. Once we could establish that, we were able to bring in more mainstream and government funding. My mother would have chalked up my success in launching WEV to stubbornness. I prefer to call it tenacity.
Do you have a mentor? How did you find him/her?
I never had a mentor, but one of my male bosses said something to me once that made me see myself in a different light. He told me I was “smart and intimidating to men.” I was flabbergasted. I didn’t think of myself as much above average and didn’t believe I could intimidate a flea. I grew up in a family that held back on positive feedback because they thought it would lead to a swelled head. Getting that positive feedback was really important to me. Helping women understand that they are smart and capable is one of the core tenets of our program philosophy.
If you could go back in time to when you were first starting, what would you tell yourself, with the intention of avoiding mistakes and heart ache?
I would tell myself to never be afraid of making mistakes or taking calculated risks. Mistakes and failure often provide the most profound learning opportunities. Early in my working life, I learned that sometimes life gives you a kick in the rear and sometimes you need to give yourself one. If you aren’t getting promoted in your job and don’t see any opportunities for promotion, then you must promote yourself by finding a new job — or by creating one by starting your own business.
What does success look like for you?
Getting up every day, doing something I love that makes a difference in the world and getting paid a respectable salary to do it. I’m also proud to have created a supportive and flexible work environment that develops women’s leadership and professional development.
What do you do to recharge?
I’m good at compartmentalizing and try not to bring my work home. I swim laps at 6:30 in the morning, work in the garden, read, travel, write and do home improvement projects. I rarely watch television and am definitely not attached to my devices. A perfect weekend is one in which I never get out of my sweatshirt and workout pants.
What’s your advice for a woman that’s considering starting her own business?
Do something you love and are good at. Make sure you have plenty of experience in your field before launching off on your own. Don’t be afraid to think big. Seek out the support and advice of your peers. A great place to start is at your local Women’s Business Center.