Santa Cruz County No. 4 in nation for women starting a businessNovember 16, 2015
By Jondi Gumz - Santa Cruz Sentinel
SANTA CRUZ -- When Ruthann Illick, Linda Ortega and Jessie Sanders went into business for themselves, they were in good company.
Santa Cruz County ranks third among metro areas in the U.S. with 3.95 women-owned businesses per 100 residents, behind Boulder, Colorado, and Miami-Fort Lauderdale, according to NerdWallet, a personal finance website.
As a result, NerdWallet rated Santa Cruz County as the fourth best place in the nation for a woman to set up a business even though the county is 13th in median annual income for women at $47,412 and 65th in loans guaranteed by the U.S. Small Business Administration per 100,000 residents.
At El Pajaro Community Development Center in Watsonville, which nurtures startups and operates a kitchen incubator, 62 percent of the clients are women, according to Executive Director Carmen Herrera.
She has 15 businesses in Plaza Vigil, all owned by women, and points out 99 percent of family child care providers in the county are women.
“Santa Cruz County offers a unique collaborative culture for women entrepreneurs,” said Michele Bassi, vice president at locally owned Lighthouse Bank, citing networking circles for women, such as the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce Women in Business,Team Women and Leads.
At Santa Cruz County Bank, 13 percent of SBA loans in 2013 were to businesses owned by women, 22 percent in 2014 and 15 percent so far this year.
“It makes sense that women starting their own business would find the environment in Santa Cruz welcoming,” added David Heald, president and CEO of Santa Cruz County Bank, citing the supportive culture. “I’m not sure the trend is up, however I would say it appears stable and viewed as a desirable segment.”
SBA loans at Santa Cruz County Bank start at $25,000 but smaller micro loans are available through the Opportunity Fund, thanks to a $350,000 infusion from Community Foundation Santa Cruz County in April.
Since then, Opportunity Fund has loaned $553,000 to 29 businesses in Santa Cruz County, with 48 percent to women owners. Examples are Claire Palazzo of River Café in Santa Cruz and Aurora Garibay of Bridal and Tuxedo World in Watsonville.
“It’s absolutely terrifying, scary and hard,” said Illick, 34, of Scotts Valley, a married mother of a 6-year-old who opened Santa Cruz Fit Body Camp downtown.
She’s glad she did.
She said she finds people who have discovered her studio are “enjoying it and sticking around, which is lovely.”
Participants do an exercise for one muscle group for 30 seconds, moving to another station for another muscle group, with four stations in all. They get a personalized paleo meal plan, which adds healthier choices by replacing a not-so-healthy choice and eliminating processed foods.
Illick enrolled when she lived in the Central Valley after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She was getting a drug injection, taking 19 pills a day to cope with side effects and couldn’t do much at first.
After three months, she started feeling better. In six months, she went from a postpartum 180 pounds to 135 pounds. In two years, she stopped the medication.
“It literally changed her life,” her husband said.
After moving here, she didn’t see a fitness program like the one that helped her. So she tapped her savings and looked for a space to open.
“Once I found a space dealing with the city was easy,” she said, thankful to have startup help from her father-in-law. “No way could I have done it without that.”
Ortega, 44, a Watsonville native, started Fired Up Fresh after getting compliments on the pizza she made from scratch and baked in a wood-fired oven in her backyard.
A stay-at-home mom with four kids, 16, 15, 13 and 10, she said her husband Edward, a berry grower, gave her a push.
When she saw a sign announcing El Pajaro’s commercial kitchen, she stopped in. She liked the pay-as-needed charges and she took an introductory class, learning about what permits were needed. She found Cesario Ruiz, the kitchen manager, supportive.
“He’s always there to help you no matter what,” she said.
She hooked up the oven on a trailer and made more than 150 pizzas in August to benefit Aromas Cub Scout Pack 516.
Her first company luncheon was last week, and she’s booked for a graduation party next year, getting gigs by word of mouth.
“I’m so happy I went for it,” she said.
Her next step is a website, which is being created by JP Chavez, a 14 year old who has taken design classes at the Digital NEST in Watsonville.
Jessie Sanders, 29, started Aquatic Veterinary Services of Northern California, a mobile practice, in March 2013 in Santa Cruz, growing to more than 100 clients.
Growing up in Connecticut, she loved Mystic Aquarium, where she volunteered as a college sophomore and ran a gallery of tanks during a summer internship. She got into Tufts Veterinary School, did rotations at SeaWorld in Orlando and the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, but aquatic medicine jobs were elusive.
Her mentor, Dr. Helen Sweeney, put her on the path to entrepreneurship. Sanders also got help from Dr. Brian Palmeiro, a pet fish doctor in Pennsylvania, and her father, who started a software design business at home and grew it into an international enterprise.
“I ended up in Santa Cruz because I lost a bet with my boyfriend,” Sanders said.
Finishing vet school, she didn’t get an internship offer so she let her boyfriend pick where they would move. Being a surfer, he picked Santa Cruz.
“It was the best decision I made,” she said. “We both love the beach.”
She discovered a major Japanese koi market in San Jose and three koi clubs in the area. Working with mentors from Santa Cruz County SCORE, she found a space at Soquel Tower Plaza in March, got a building permit in late July to create a veterinary hospital and expects to open next year.
She will have plenty of female company.
Teachers Hannah Stubblefield, 33, and Theresa Shellen, 39, are readying a space for Wonderland Toys & Classroom Resources with an SBA loan.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to own my own business,” said Stubblefield.
Shellen was a former manager at Kaleidoscope in Capitola, a parent and teacher favorite til closing in 2014.
“We wanted to start out in a smaller space,” said Stubblefield. “We’re both moms and teachers. This community needed a store like this.”
Getting through the county Planning Department was “difficult,” she said, thanking Neil Santiago, Kristin Ditlevsen and Michele Bassi of Lighthouse Bank, Keith Holtaway and Larry Hebert of the Small Business Development Center and Kathy Graff from Bei-Scott Properties.
Her advice: “Follow your dreams and it may take longer than you think.