Showing the Way: WEV helps women business owners overcome systemic barriers to entrepreneurship

Martha Cantos (right, with her dogs, Grogu and Mando, and Nicki Parr) took business classes at WEV before opening her Ecuadorian imports store, Ecugreen, in Downtown Ventura.

By Alex Wilson | Photos by Viktor Budnik

Martha Cantos has proven herself as a successful downtown Ventura business owner with her charming and colorful boutique Ecugreen since opening in 2017. Her entrepreneurial path to success included years of selling Ecuadorian goods from a booth, and a boost from Women’s Economic Ventures, a nonprofit that’s been helping people launch small businesses since 1991.

Cantos told Ventana Monthly that she was born in Nicaragua, where she fondly recalls her mother and grandmother supporting her family by selling fruit from a cart outside her school. While some of her peers teased Cantos about being the daughter of the “fruit ladies,” she learned to take pride in hard-earned money, and later realized the privilege they had by being their own bosses.

Cantos, 56, who moved to the United States when she was 15, said she’d been “obsessed” with “exotic” Ecuador since she learned about the country at her Nicaraguan elementary school and daydreamed about visiting the Andes Mountains. Her dream came true after she married into an Ecuadorian family and lived there for a time around the early 1990s. Cantos also fell in love with the colorful clothing, rich coffee beans, relaxing hammocks and artistic jewelry produced by locals, including her extended family members.

After returning to the U.S., Cantos had a career with a major food services company, but never lost her passion for Ecuador. She started selling eco-friendly goods sourced from the South American country at festivals including Ventura’s Fourth of July Street Fair on Main Street.

“And of course, my product was well received because, simply, the fact that there is history behind it and it’s a good product that I import,” said Cantos, adding that she maintains close contact with all her suppliers. “I always have my hands in planting the coffee, developing the patterns of the products. So, everything is relational and has history, the background from where the artisans started making the product, and it’s all family based.”
In 2015 a friend encouraged Cantos to take classes with Women’s Economic Ventures to improve her side business and prepare for possibly opening a brick-and-mortar retail shop, a dream she’d had since she started selling Ecuadorian goods at age 21.

Hardships and resilience

The following year, her life ran into some significant turbulence. Cantos broke her ankle and was let go from her full-time job since the company couldn’t accommodate her mobility needs. Not only that, her husband, Lino, had gone blind, which made it hard for him to find work. He eventually passed away in 2020.

Classes she took at Women’s Economic Ventures gave Cantos the courage to launch her boutique at 243 West Main Street, next to Mission San Buenaventura.

“I had to take a leap of faith and not be afraid anymore. And that’s when I started really relying on what I learned from WEV. They gave me the empowerment that I needed not to be afraid and to just go head for it,” said Cantos, specifically mentioning lessons on business taxes, liability insurance and having a solid business plan as being helpful.

Cantos also enjoyed the camaraderie, celebrating successes with other business owners and commiserating during hard times like pandemic-related shutdowns.

“I surrounded myself with people that have taken the course from WEV that were in my group, and we motivated ourselves to continue on,” Cantos said. “Times have been hard, but we have been able to move on, you know, to continue on. Doesn’t matter how low we fall, we are able to get up again.”

These days Cantos is a big WEV supporter and even speaks at WEV events, where she shares her passion for improving the world through business. She also expresses thanks to WEV for covering a portion of her class fees through scholarships.

“If it had not been for the scholarship I had through them, I would have not been able to take the course when I did, and I would not have been prepared when I was prepared to open my brick and mortar,” Cantos said. “That happened all of a sudden without planning. So, the sponsorship that they gave me was a big push for me to really go after my dreams.”

Leveraging a finance background to help others

Nicki Parr was born in an English town called Beaconsfield about 30 miles northwest of London, and settled in Santa Barbara about 20 years ago, following other family members who had already moved to the U.S. Parr earned a master’s degree in psychology, but ended up working in the finance industry for much of her life, including for consulting company PricewaterhouseCoopers International. Parr made a big shift six years ago when she started working for WEV, where she currently serves as chief operating officer.

“What I love about my work at WEV is that it kind of marries the two,” Parr told Ventana Monthly. “You know, there’s the business aspect of what I do, but then there’s the psychology of it in terms of working with people and clients and the team and, you know, it really brings it all together pretty neatly.”

Parr was director of finance and operations for a design company when the Thomas Fire and Montecito debris flows of 2018 devastated the community and claimed many lives, and Parr realized she wanted a job that had a more meaningful impact on people’s lives. That’s when Parr started working for WEV on a program to help business owners recover from disaster.

“Some actually had physical damage. Some had lost inventory because it’s gone up in flames,” Parr recalled. “The government does have emergency provisioning available for people post-disaster but it’s complicated. And so, what WEV did was offer a resource in the community that small businesses could work with, and that was me. So, I would go and talk to the business owners and figure out if they needed to apply for emergency funding. WEV also put in a grant program at that time, so we would give out, you know, $5,000 and $10,000 grants to help businesses very much in the short term.”

Decades of community involvement

WEV has offices in Ventura and Santa Barbara and has helped train over 5,500 local business owners since 1991. Many classes are taught in Spanish as well as English. Another aspect of WEV’s mission is providing business loans, generally between $5,000 and $50,000. Some $9 million in small business funding has been invested through WEV’s loan and grant programs.

“That’s a really important element of the work we do because, you know, I think people think you just go to a bank to get a loan to start a business and that’s not the case,” Parr said. “Often banks really don’t want to touch that kind of business loan; it’s just not worth their while. So, what we do is kind of act as a bridge. And, the banks will lend WEV money and then WEV lends that into the community. We’re much more scaled to be able to do that on a highly individualized basis with our clients.”

Even though WEV was created to support women becoming economically self-sufficient through entrepreneurship, about 20% of WEV students are men. Parr said that while more and more women are becoming successful in business in Ventura County and elsewhere, barriers and inequities still remain. It wasn’t that long ago that women needed men to co-sign business loans and weren’t allowed to apply for their own credit cards, she noted.

“There were a lot of systemic barriers. You know, one could argue that maybe those aren’t still there, but women still come to us for a reason, you know? As long as that’s the case, then we’ll be serving them.”

Parr said Ecugreen is a great example of a thriving business that’s been helped by WEV.

“What I love about her business is that she’s creating a space not just for the store, but she opens it up to groups to gather in as well, so it’s like a meeting space as well as the store,” Parr said. “And Martha just has a very, very warm and welcoming personality. There’s just a lovely energy when you go into that store. It’s welcoming and vibrant and,
you know, the products she has in there are just really interesting and beautiful.”

Women’s Economic Ventures
4001 Mission Oaks Boulevard, Suite K, Camarillo