Designer and branding expert Leah Ortega knows a thing or two about style. From her discerning eye for unique vintage pieces to her ability to design a beautiful interior space, she’s got her finger on the pulse of design.

Leah Ortega is also putting her gifts to work as co-founder of the Mujeres Maker’s Market. The market in Santa Barbara is where women creatives and women of color (WOC) small business owners can come together to share their brands.

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Through her work, Ortega is on a mission to raise visibility for Latina designers. She wants to help people embrace beauty and treasured spaces in their lives.

Leah Ortega spoke with mitú about her passion for design and the strength behind the Latina community.

For Leah Ortega, creativity and community go hand in hand

Leah is a third-generation Latina, born and raised in Santa Barbara, California. She is an interior designer and vintage curator for her brand Ortega Vintage Goods. She is also one of the four co-founders of Mujeres Maker’s Market. 

The idea to create the Mujeres Maker’s Market really took root during the pandemic. Back then, Leah was unemployed and was searching for ways to combine her passion for vintage and interior design in a meaningful way.

While she had always wanted to have her own design studio, she wasn’t ready to make that move yet. “So I started curating vintage home decor and selling them at pop-up markets in my area. That’s how Ortega Vintage Goods was started,” she told mitú. At one of her pop-up markets, Leah began building a community of other small business owners. That’s when she connected with the other co-founders of Mujeres Maker’s Market, Lili Munoz, Elysia Guillén, Maritza Flores, and Daniela Aguirre. Lili Muñoz had an idea, so the Latinas met on International Women’s Day to bring this vision to life.

The original idea was to launch a quarterly market that highlighted brands owned and run by women of color. The goal was to celebrate culture, but “the amount of support we received made us quickly realize the need for it in our community. So, we decided to make it a monthly community market,” she explained.

The importance of networking for women of color

The mission of the Mujeres Maker’s Market is clear and important. They want to cultivate meaningful and harmonious markets where locals can connect and share their brands. Furthermore, they want to bring visibility to the WOC businesses in the community. The hope is that by raising visibility and access to female-owned brands, they will create a safe space by filling the gap in representation.

Despite the clear vision and goals of the market, it wasn’t always an easy road to get the company off the ground.

A huge obstacle along the way was having access to funds to help create cultural experiences for the community. And of course, time management and burnout were also struggles experienced by Leah and her team.

But luckily, her Latina culture prepared her for such challenges and bumps in the road

“Building community, collaboration, and being resilient are some of the strengths I feel I’ve gained from my Latino Culture and have helped me navigate my entrepreneurial journey,” she said. No one can succeed, especially as a small business owner and a Latina, alone, and support is essential. “Your community is the people who will support you and show up for you and your business.” 

Leah also recognized early on the need for collaboration to learn valuable lessons from others and grow a business strategically. And even if you have all the skill sets, resources, partners, and supporters, you still need to be prepared to overcome, a life skill that Leah credits to her Latino upbringing. “My culture has taught me to be resilient. Being resilient has helped me to pivot and problem-solve whenever something difficult has come my way.”

At the Mujeres Maker’s Market, Leah’s job is to build a strong brand identity and look for ways to grow the brand through partnerships and collaborations.

She dedicates every day to building the community of fellow makers, artisans, small business owners, designers, and creators who sell original, handmade, vintage, or repurposed items. This market highlights BIPOC women makers because, according to the 2021 U.S. Census, “most women-owned businesses are run by white women, 82% to be exact, and this market allows us to highlight the other 18% of underrepresented women.”

It is this lack of representation for women of color in the interior design industry that inspires Leah Ortega to keep doing interior design

“Only 7.2% of interior designers are Latinx, and I hope to bring more representation to the design industry,” she said.

It’s a perfect role for Leah, who believes deeply in the mantra of “community over competition.” Deep in her soul, she feels that “there is room for everyone, and you’re better off building community than competing.”

And for any fellow Latinas considering starting their own business or embarking on a new venture, her best advice is to start with a trusted mentor who can offer insight and guidance. Ask questions and learn from their experiences.

“I would also look into organizations in your area that help start a business. We have W.E.V. (Women Economic Ventures) in my area, and they can help with business plans, licensing, and business education.” And even if you are terrified or don’t feel ready to begin, just start because taking the first step can be the hardest part. “You don’t have to know everything at first; you’ll learn as you go. Everyone starts somewhere.”