Three Interviews with Three Pasadena Women in Business

March 06, 2023 | Posted in Pasadena Voices

In honor of International Women’s Day, we asked three distinguished Pasadena women to share who inspires them, how they got where they are, what the challenges were along the way, and some other women-in-business to celebrate. Erica Gutierrez, Mercadito Monarca Vanessa Tilaka, Agnes Restaurant & Cheesery Sue Mossman, Pasadena Heritage

Erica Gutierrez

Erica Gutierrez, Business Owner, Mercadito Monarca

Born and raised in Pasadena, Erica Gutierrez founded Mercadito Monarca to spotlight Mexican heritage through an intimate curation of traditional folk art, wares, clothing, and accessories from over 60 artisans from Mexico and other BIPOC makers.

“Mercadito Monarca was inspired by the love and orgullo (pride) I have for my culture and heritage,” said Erica. “As an indigenous Chicana growing up in Pasadena, not having access to cultural items and events within my own city and school was very damaging to my identity and self-esteem."

Three and a half years ago, she set out to create the missing cultural piece for other little girls like herself, seeking a connection to their own heritage. She found a spot in Pasadena’s Playhouse Village District and quickly became a beloved neighborhood gem.

Erica says, “When you walk in, you will find bright colors, unique handmade items, lively music and the nostalgic feeling of home for many. We also host cultural workshops and events. One of the biggest events we co-hosted was the Dia de los Muertos Festival and Ofrenda Exhibit, in 2022 we had approximately 2,000 visitors enjoy our outdoor artisan marketplace, musical and dance performances, face painting, and other cultural activities.”

The women that inspire Erica

“The beauty of this question is that there are so many women that I find inspiring, many known and many uncredited for their achievements and contributions. My grandmother and my mother truly embody all the qualities many of those women possess. As a widow, my grandmother found a way to raise her four young children through her entrepreneurial and resilient spirit. She traveled alone to far and unknown places seeking merchandise for her store, she advocated for the rights of farmers, and although she didn’t have much to give, always fed or helped those in need. My grandmother, my mother, indigenous women of the Americas have led the protection and preservation of our cultural values and traditions for many generations. Through their loving resilience and sacrifice; our ways to care for the land and all our relations, our foods, our songs, our languages survived, so that we may be well rooted and flourish. They are my inspiration.”

Erica on the barriers of female entrepreneurship as a woman of color

“As a woman, especially a Chicana woman, I have had to overcome overt racism and anger towards me and my business simply for honoring where I come from and unapologetically representing that. People somehow still feel threatened by the fact that we want to celebrate who we are even though we are not putting anyone else down. I have had to overcome the fear of taking on the unknown. Prior to my business, I was a schoolteacher and administrator. I had no business experience or training whatsoever. The community of artists and customers that has been created through this space has offered me support, comfort and motivation to continue and grow. They have been the ones to help alleviate the self-doubt and fears through their loving energy and encouragement.”

Other women-owned businesses Erica recommends

Spectacle Inc.
, Pink Crow Shop, Pasadena Roots, Fly Fitness Studio, Bridge Performance Gym, Homage, and Octavia’s Bookshelf.

Vanessa Tilaka

Vanessa Tilaka, Cheesemonger & Co-Founder, Agnes Restaurant & Cheesery

Raised in the San Gabriel Valley to parents that established first Southeast Asian grocery store in LA, Vanessa Tilaka grew up around markets, warehouses and homecooked meals. After culinary school, travels, and a love story, she opened Agnes Restaurant and Cheesery with her husband Thomas last year in Pasadena, also in the San Gabriel Valley.

Vanessa said, “Agnes Restaurant and Cheesery was an idea Thomas (husband and partner) and I had off the coast of Thailand while on a traveling sabbatical. I really fell in love with cheese while in San Francisco and decided I wanted to focus on it when I returned. I said I want to open a cheese shop someday and Thomas said maybe he can have a little restaurant behind my cheese shop. I spent a lot of time eating cheese and reading about it, I volunteered at shops and industry events so that I could learn as much as possible and some people gave me a chance so I took it. While in SF, a friend from LA came to visit and mentioned that he had a space he was looking to put a restaurant in, we saw the space a few times and decided we could make something special in it and Agnes went from an idea to something tangible.”

The women that inspire Vanessa

“Melissa Perello, she's a chef-mentor and friend I met in San Francisco. She's opened 2 successful restaurants, cares about the ingredients in her food, cares about her staff and the industry, and recently had a baby. She still makes time to check in with people, go to farmer's markets and finds balance at home and work. I really look up to her and hope that I'm doing what I can to follow in her footsteps, make her proud and help inspire other women in the industry.”

Pushing through gendered and racial barriers of the restaurant industry

“Oh were and still are so many. Gender stereotypes in the kitchen, sexist and misogynistic comments from co-workers, having to prove myself as creative and a force to be reckoned with. Also being a woman of color, I also get stereotyped into the type of cuisine I should be cooking. Even now as an owner, people will assume I'm the host or a server, they act differently with Thomas until they find out that I'm also the owner. Thomas is great and really pushes me to have a voice and be the face of Agnes, so much that people think I'm Agnes.”

Other women-owned businesses Vanessa recommends

“Husband and wife teams but still really great are Dos Besos and Paper Rice (separate couple), and Homage is a great shop.”

Sue Mossman

Sue Mossman, Executive Director of Pasadena Heritage

A Pasadena native since 1976, Sue Mossman has been working with Pasadena Heritage for over 40 years, beginning as a volunteer. She explains how Pasadena Heritage became involved in one of the greatest downtown revitalizations in the nation when Old Pasadena was slated for demolition.

Sue said, "Pasadena Heritage, as a new organization in the late 1970s, immediately took up the banner to save Old Pasadena. Calling attention to the historic buildings as a truly remarkable collection of architectural excellence from the 1880s through the 1920s, and building a coalition with local businesses, architects, and community members, the organization, rallied to save Old Pasadena. It presented an alternative strategy to revitalize the historic buildings, create new parking to support businesses, and bring back our original downtown. That plan eventually won the day, and Old Pasadena became a celebrated story of revitalization and economic success it is today.”

What Sue is working on now

“Pasadena Heritage moved to the historic Blinn House, having acquired the home from the Women’s City Club of Pasadena after its 75-year ownership. As the custodians of this remarkable Prairie-style home, Pasadena Heritage has new opportunities to use the house and to share it with the community. We are excited about all the possibilities! Our architectural tours, lectures, programs and advocacy efforts continue throughout the City, and it is wonderful to be able to offer in-person tours and events again after the long pandemic siege! Especially exciting for us this year is to bring back our Colorado Street Bridge Party which will happen on the landmark bridge on July 15. We hope everyone will come and join us on the Bridge!”

The women that inspire Sue

“There are so many, it is very hard to choose just one. Pasadena is known as a culturally rich community for so many reasons and I think one of the most impressive things is that throughout its history, women have founded, managed, and successfully supported hundreds of non-profit organizations in Pasadena. Through the non-profit sector, so much good work has been accomplished, and women leaders, often volunteers, are responsible for amazing accomplishments in the arts, education, community service, children’s programs, seniors, healthcare services, and more. Often little-known and unsung, these leaders have done more for our community than can be imagined. Of course, I do think first of my mentor and friend, Claire Bogaard, Pasadena Heritage’s Executive Director before me and with whom I worked for years. A remarkable leader and champion of history and historic places, Claire was and is a fearless advocate. Without Claire and her leadership, there would be no Pasadena Heritage, no Old Pasadena, and the destructive 710 Freeway would still be a threat. She is my heroine and continues to be a strong supporter and participant in our work.”

How Sue pushed through the challenges of being a woman in business

“As a woman, I faced many challenges in my professional life. I remember starting my first business in the early 1970s, and no one took me seriously. I had to lease office space and some equipment, and no one was very open to leasing to a young woman. They kept wanting me to have my husband sign documents, but it was my business, I was the one responsible, and I was determined. Eventually, they took me at my word, and the deals were signed - by me - and it was a successful small business for several years. But I remember being so frustrated and insulted at the time. I do think things have come a long way in the last 50 years, but I know women still face unfair barriers today.”

Other women-owned businesses Sue recommends

“Oh, there are many! But one I can personally recommend is LATHER in Old Pasadena, founded here in Pasadena and the makers of wonderful, natural skin care products. I use them and love them and give them to all my friends. I hope they are thriving and will be here forever!”