Marsha Bailey Says Always Do What You Love in Nonprofit, Business, and Retirement

by | Oct 28, 2023 | Featured Nonprofits

Marsha Bailey worked hard all through her college years at Michigan State University striving toward her dream of one day becoming an art teacher. But soon after graduation she realized all the teaching positions were taken.

There was no room for her. Schools did not need any more teachers.

“I realized in that moment that my dream of being an art teacher would never come true,” Bailey said. “I knew I loved art, but I didn’t think I could make a living as an artist so I had no idea where to turn next.”

Bailey knew one thing for sure. She would always find a way to do what she loved.

At 26 years old with her fresh diploma in hand and her dreams shattered, she decided to move to Santa Barbara.

Four years later she enrolled in graduate school at UCSB, majoring in communication with an emphasis in rhetoric.

As she looks back at that time, Bailey said she felt some people might view all her degrees–communication, art and sociology—”as seemingly useless.” But she was studying what she loved.

Little did she realize that years later all three would prove to be the pillars of her entire life, propelling her to achieve success in business, art and social entrepreneurism.

“My master’s thesis was on feminism and the women’s suffrage movement,” Bailey said. “I had no idea where that would lead but I always studied what interested me.”

Bailey begins her dream of empowering women.

Her degree in sociology prompted her to be interested in social justice and, as a result, she founded the award-winning Women’s Economic Ventures (WEV), a prominent nonprofit in Santa Barbara which teaches women to be successful entrepreneurs.

Bailey had about $150,000 in startup funds for WEV. There was no public money for the first four years. So her writing skills became important as she wrote grants, curriculum and fundraising letters.

“When you start something on your own you have to do everything yourself,” Bailey said. “We built it bit by bit starting with an annual budget of $75,000 and one part-time employee. Thirty years later the budget was $2.5 million with 28 employees and offices in Santa Barbara and Ventura.”

Bailey has always believed in doing what she loves. This practice led her from the feminist movement in college to working at the Rape Crisis Center. While there she saw the women who escaped domestic violence situations often returned to their abusive husbands because they were financially vulnerable.

“So many of the things we were trying to do for women, they could have done for themselves if they just had more money in their pocket,” Bailey said. “Teaching women to do things for themselves is so much more powerful than doing it for them.”

WEV teaches women how to do the research leading to a business plan, but they have to write it themselves. She says this approach empowers people and teaches them how to master the various elements of their life.

Bailey said most women coming to WEV were anxious about their ability to do math. She wanted to empower women and demystify money so they were comfortable talking about and raising money. Then they could start a business, run for office or lead a company.

Since its founding in 1991, WEV has served over 20,000 clients, generating $800 million in annual sales and creating 12,000 local jobs.

Bailey knew when it was time for her to retire.

“I loved raising my family and I was proud of the 30 years I had invested in creating and building WEV,” Bailey said. “But I was healthy and there were lots of things I wanted to do, like travel and create art. So I decided to retire at 70.”

Bailey gave her board of directors three year’s notice of her retirement. They immediately began to think of what kind of leader they would need to take them into the next chapter of growth. Bailey said she knew that what the organization needed next was a “systems thinker.”

As WEV grew, it challenged her to develop new skillsets and it kept the job interesting. But as she approached retirement, she knew that WEV needed someone with a different skillset. WEV would need a leader who was experienced at building the systems necessary to manage a larger organization with more employees.

She knew that the best thing she could do was “to walk away and know the organization would survive without me.”

Kathy Odell was one of her board members. She knew Odell was a systems thinker who had initiated and developed several successful businesses. The board had already started a study on the leadership transition, so they were ready for change. One of the board members asked Odell if she would consider taking over the leadership.

Odell accepts WEV leadership role.

“When I heard Kathy say she was willing to take over, I started crying,” Bailey said. “Because it was such a relief and a compliment to me that she would want to take it over.”

Odell took the reins during a long transition period and is now working with some staff inside the organization to prepare them for future leadership.

Odell’s entrepreneurial career started in 1985 as co-founder of Medical Concepts Inc. Five years later she was appointed as the managing director of Karl Storz Imaging. She became the founding CEO of Inogen in 2002.

Bailey handed the WEV reins to Odell in 2019.

“A new wave of entrepreneurs is starting out now with the core belief that work should be rewarding – emotionally, psychologically and financially,” Odell said. “Work should enable us to care for our families, spend time with them and contribute to the health and well-being of our communities.”

It’s so important for young people to start saving for retirement early.

“Thankfully, I was able to afford to retire and do things I enjoy,” Bailey said. “I was always a hard worker and good saver.”

Bailey recommends that young adults start saving as soon as possible and contribute to the retirement plan at work if it is offered. “Start saving now because Social Security won’t be enough for you to live on,” she said.

According to the Milken Institute, young adults need to start regularly saving by age 25 to have at least $1 million to retire on. A good goal is to save 5% to 15% of your income for retirement.

Bailey said she knew quickly what she wanted to do with her new-found time during retirement.

Even though she never became an art teacher, she continued to make art. Sometimes she tackled home improvement projects such as decorative painting and she made creative Halloween costumes for her kids. 

She had always loved ceramics and had taken classes in college and at SBCC Continuing Education.

One day she took a class at the Clay Studio, a local non-profit community ceramic studio.  In no time she “was hooked.”

“I picked two things to focus on in retirement: clay and Spanish,” Bailey said. “I’m a lifelong learner and I learn every time I make something. That’s exciting to me.”

Working with clay can be very therapeutic and enjoyable.

These days Bailey, with an air of exuberant delight, sits at her pottery wheel and doesn’t notice anything or anyone in the room. The sun glistens from her curly white hair and she is still.  Completely focused on centering the soft clay on the wheel.

“It can take a long time to learn how to center a piece of clay,” Bailey said. “It requires one’s entire focus.” She loves making things that are “functional and beautiful.”

Bailey encourages everyone to try their hand at throwing pots. Anyone can make a “clay date” at the studio and take a three-hour class to learn this skill. “It’s not something you will master quickly,” Bailey said. “But after you do you will really enjoy it and get better and better.”

When Bailey was in her 50s, she realized that it didn’t matter if she had done something before because she knew she would always be able to figure it out.

“It was an amazing moment for my own confidence and ability to grow my organization and do what needed to be done,” Bailey said. “If people can believe in their own capabilities, they will succeed.”

Like other girls, she was not taught to believe in herself when she was young. That is the basis of what she tried to instill in her clients at WEV. Bailey believes “you already know more than you think you do.”

She says a woman’s success should be defined by herself, not someone else.

“Ask yourself what makes you happy, what fills you up,” Bailey said. “Then focus your energy and time on that.”

Today Bailey is enjoying every minute of her retirement.

Bailey lives with her husband, Bill, and their frisky Border Collie, Mazi, in a charming rural home built in 1962 on a .6-acre pie-shaped lot with beach access. Her large living room is jam packed with her own beautiful art, both paintings and ceramics.

They moved there in 1989 when their twin sons were nine months old.

When the twins got too old to play on the lawn, she took out the grass and planted fruit trees. She also designed her own studio and had it built in the middle of this rustic, park-like sanctuary.

“I am not a minimalist,” Bailey said. “I like profusion. I love color and lots of stuff going on.” The ceiling in the little cottage studio is unique. “A friend who is a woodworker sliced up a fallen tree in such a way that left the live edges of the tree unfinished to create the ceiling.”

“They say your genes determine how long you will live, and your lifestyle determines how well you live that life,” Bailey said. “After my retirement, I went on a cruise and found I was too overweight to do all the things I wanted to do.

“So I came home and lost 50 pounds.

“As a result, my energy tripled, my joint pain went away and I have no more digestive issues.

“Now when I tote 50 pounds of clay around, I realize how much weight I actually lost. The feedback loop for me is how I feel, not how I look. Taking care of yourself is so important.”