Montecito Journal:  Empowering Women Through Financial Education

Women’s Economic Ventures has been helping women start and run businesses for more than 30 years, helping in a variety of ways to many of the local shops and services that provide the fabric of our community. Indeed, the statistics of its success are staggering: Nearly 50 percent of clients do end up starting a business, and 93 percent of existing ones are still operating. More than 50 percent of clients have increased their income, and nearly 85 percent have moved out of poverty, with the average increase in sales and owner’s draw doubling. 

On average, each WEV-assisted business employs two workers in addition to the owner, essentially tripling the impact of the aid, and those businesses have generated an estimated $15 million in local tax revenue. 

But it isn’t done by smoke and mirrors, or even something as strictly tangible as just handing over money to eager entrepreneurs. 

Instead, WEV’s financial education programming supports local business owners by increasing their financial preparedness, including not only providing access to resources and capital but also helping to improve understanding and create confidence in dealing with money and balance sheets. Plus, the nonprofit helps to ratchet up resiliency and the ability to respond to unexpected events — something quite important in our turbulent times locally that have included fire, floods, and other natural disasters as well as the COVID pandemic. 

In short, WEV helps small business owners feel financially empowered. 

WEV client Reyna Chavez, CEO of Scrubs on the Run

WEV client Reyna Chavez, CEO of Scrubs on the Run

“Our full mission is to breed a just and equitable society through the economic empowerment of women,” noted Irene Kelly, WEV’s Financial Education and Community Engagement Manager, who assumed her position less than two years ago. “If we want to achieve that, financial education has to be at the core of what we do. We have to make sure that all of our clients have access to financial education that is high quality.” 

That’s why financial empowerment and education is embedded in virtually all of WEV’s programs, from its popular signature business training to its advisory services and even the awarding of micro-loans. 

“Everything we do is to support financial education, financial literacy, and financial empowerment,” Kelly said. 

That extends to every aspect of what the organization does, she said, as WEV takes on the role of becoming the support circle for entrepreneurs. 

“Our advisory services, our loan program, and our training programs — in each of those sections there is a financial empowerment piece, because it’s important that a business owner has clarity when it comes to business finances. With loans, you need to understand what’s happening with your numbers before applying for capital, and of course in a training program, even just in developing a business plan, a big part of that is to think about your numbers.” 

In WEV’s and Kelly’s vision, financial empowerment is largely about taking the fear out of money: talking about it, managing and understanding numbers, and even facing a business’ numbers. 

“After what we just went through with the pandemic — and the Thomas Fire and Montecito Debris Flow before that — a lot of our clients experienced so much anxiety just looking at their bank statements,” Kelly said. “It’s like a board game. If you don’t know the rules of the game, how are you going to play the game successfully? That’s why these past two years financial education has been a priority for us so we can help level the playing field and help women have access to how the system works. We can help them answer such questions as, what do I need to know and what are those basics, so that they can customize those lessons to their own financial life.” 

To accomplish those goals, WEV has adjusted its focus to meet the perceived need. Kelly’s hiring was one step — her position didn’t exist prior to her arrival. And WEV is also allocating additional dollars to dialing up financial literacy and empowerment. 

“What has changed is that now we are making that statement that financial education is a social justice issue,” she explained. “We’re prioritizing funding to start more courses directly impacting financial education. We have personal finance courses and QuickBooks courses where we can help people take advantage of software that can help them manage their books and understand their numbers better. What has changed in the past two years is just a deeper priority of funding for these particular courses.” 

The goal is to have its clients understand their numbers and balance sheets so clearly that “you’re going to be able to convey those numbers to investors, to a bank, to a financial institution that you’re asking for a loan,” she said, also noting that the bookkeeping course is geared toward alleviating an area of stress for small business owners who are often spread thin. “You have to wear a lot of hats and one very important one is the CFO. We recommend people to delegate when they can, but it’s important that you understand what’s happening in the business and the principles that they need to apply.” 

Part of Kelly’s position is also to expand WEV’s offerings not only to its clients but to the community at large through its partners. Simple deductive reasoning made that happen, she said. 

“We’re noticing that if our clients didn’t have access to financial education before coming to us, that means that most of our community hasn’t had it either. We see it as our duty. If we want to create a just and equitable society, we at WEV have a role to play here. So, we are partnering with other community organizations so that we can provide financial education for them and for their staff and for their teams.” 

COVID and the fires and flood the two years earlier put all these issues into perspective for WEV, with the organization recognizing the urgent need for making small business owners more resilient. 

“No business owners should be in the dark, especially in a place like Santa Barbara County, where we have to prepare for the unexpected,” Kelly said. “You have to know how much wiggle room you have if something goes wrong, be aware of your emergency savings, and how much it costs to operate if no money is coming in. Knowing that gives you peace of mind that every business owner should have.” 

Women’s Economic Ventures’ website is