WEV Community Center moving to historic El Centro building
When Women’s Economic Ventures Community Center occupies the entire third floor of the historic El Centro building next to the Lobero Theatre, the goal is to open more than an office.
“We’ve been carefully searching for the right location for several years, and we knew what we were looking for was probably the unicorn of office spaces,” CEO Kathy Odell said about the newly leased 3,200-square-foot-plus location on Canon Perdido Street. “It had to be more than a work space. We wanted classroom space for training courses, a lecture hall for our speaker series, an event space and a community gathering place for our clients and donors.”
Built in 1927, El Centro building recently underwent a complete renovation. Once the site of a Chinese temple in old Santa Barbara’s Chinatown, the historic building now houses businesses such as Board & Brush Creative Studio and Sevtap Winery on the ground floor and a variety of commercial tenants above.
“Over the last three years, our local small business community has endured fires, mudslides and a global pandemic,” Ms. Odell told the News-Press. “Fostering community has never been more important as we work to support and empower business owners and entrepreneurs to help our entire community recover and thrive. We look forward to welcoming people into our new downtown location very soon.”
WEV is a business resource network for anyone who wants to start a business, grow a local business or improve their business skills.
WEV provides small business training, advisory services, financial literacy programs and small business loans in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
“While WEV’s focus is on women, it welcomes people of all gender identities into the WEV community. Business courses, programs and loans are provided in both English and Spanish,” said Ms. Odell.
Since 1991, WEV has offered business training and small business advisory services to more than 19,000 people throughout Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.
It has made more than $6.4 million in small business loans and helped more than 5,000 local businesses start or expand, generating an estimated $770 million in annual sales and creating nearly 12,000 local jobs. WEV is a U.S. Small Business Administration’s Women’s Business Center and Microlender, as well as a certified Community Development Financial Institution.
Jill Agonias and Catalina Esteves are among its local success stories.
Ms. Agonias, the owner of Divinitree Yoga, began practicing yoga in 2008 and quickly realized that it can be “harnessed as a tool for healing and empowerment.” Three years ago, she took over the ownership of Divinitree Yoga and was inspired to “help share the power of yoga with others who may need a bit of healing, support and lightheartedness in their lives”.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Divinitree has pivoted to moving classes outdoors and virtually across Santa Barbara, meeting at La Mesa Park, Leadbetter Beach, Casa de la Guerra and El Paseo Restaurant.
“I’m grateful for WEV’s support and its timely webinars that helped me apply for the EID UL and PPP loans. Without them, my business may not have survived,” said Ms. Agonias. “WEV invested in not just me as an entrepreneur, but also in me as a person. It symbolizes a holistic compassion and dedication to growing and nurturing the full spectrum of a person.”
Ms. Esteves founded Cat Therapy to follow her dream of dedicating herself full time to helping rescue organizations save more cats from euthanasia.
Her mission is to provide cats with a safe, cage-free and comfortable environment to live in until they’re adopted, and she is accomplishing that by creating “a magical, relaxing space with a coffee-house feel” that is also functional for cats.
Guests pay an entry fee to visit and get to cuddle and play with the cats just for fun or to adopt. It’s a win-win for the cats and for the visitors who can enjoy the human-animal bonding.
“I’ve always had the spirit of an entrepreneur but not the technical knowledge to support my business’s growth. WEV has provided me with the tools I needed to take a fun idea I’m passionate about and make it a viable business. WEV is like a business degree but condensed into a few weeks and specifically created for entrepreneurs,” said Ms. Esteves.
“Because of my Thrive membership, I was able to get support from my business adviser monthly as well as have access to outside consultants who helped me pivot and adapt to new revenue streams, something we absolutely had to do if we were to survive during the pandemic.
“My business adviser was like a therapist but for my business. He asked me hard questions and helped me find solutions. Again, I had the spirit and passion for my business to survive the pandemic and its challenges, but WEV gave me technical tools to use.”
Ms. Esteves’s COVID pivots include developing an online store selling fashionable cat-themed apparel, home accessories and cat products. She has also created an online experience hosting classes and mini workshops live streaming with the cats in their environment at Cat Therapy.
“WEV helped me start thinking like an entrepreneur, something I can apply to other businesses in the future, not only my current one. There’s also something to be said about being a part of a community of like-minded people that truly pushes you to keep going and makes you feel like you’re not alone, because you truly are not!”
Ms. Esteves has helped rescue and re-home more than 700 cats and raised more than $50,000 for the rescue organizations they partner with.