Poetic creations

Poetic creations | San Pedro women who bonded over a love of


y By Elizabeth Khuri

Nearly 350 years ago, a controversial Mexican nun named Sor Juana Ines’ de la Cruz wrote poems that would prove to be the glue in a business partnership between Carla Ortega and Gretchen Swanson.

Ortega started reading Sor Juana’s poetry at age 12 in Mexico City. “For a nun in the 1600s, she was actually a very liberal woman in her poetry. It is rare to find that kind of intellectual mind at that time,” she said.

Swanson grew up in upstate New York, but always had an interest in Mexico and South America. One day in New York City she watched a documentary on Sor Juana. Swanson was hooked. “She was considered one of the first feminists in this hemisphere,” she said.

When Ortega and Swanson finally met, each working for a business on Sixth Street in San Pedro, they stumbled upon their mutual love for the poet, which led to a business partnership.

“It cemented it,” Swanson said.

Ortega invited Swanson to join her business and help with management. Ortega’s 13-year-old company, Our Creations, provides handcrafted decorations and gifts for weddings, baptisms, confirmations and other special occasions. Swanson was launching a nonprofit business, The Children’s Place, across the street. It sells new and used children’s clothing to raise money for The Adoption Information Center of San Pedro, a clearinghouse for adoption issues.

The two business owners are working on joint ownership of Our Creations.

Ortega’s eventual role as a craftswoman and business owner started in her eclectic youth. As a girl in Mexico City, Ortega studied medicine and flamenco, and was one of two women who raced motorcycles nationally. She also was a passionate craftswoman, studying decoupage, mosaics, painting on glass and fabrics, wood carving and embossing techniques. Then she got married and came to the United States.

“Inside, I had this little adventure,” she said, “this little bug.” Faced with a language barrier and a different education system, Ortega switched fields and majored in accounting at El Camino College near Torrance. Numbers are the same in any language, and Ortega hoped for financial success.

After working 18-hour days at times for 20 years, Ortega was ready to leave her position as controller for Bell Industries. Two years earlier, she had started a small crafts store that practically ran itself. Her daughters minded the store by day, and she made items in her spare time.

“I had reached the position as a controller, plus the business was growing up and it required more time,” she said. “You have to take your way. It was my time to do something for me.”

Her business “for fun” was certainly taking on a course of its own. People began demanding more decorations from Ortega for weddings, confirmation and any event that required a sense of tradition or importance. Ortega also started to teach classes for floral arrangements, candle-making and photo albums.

It took a couple of years, but once people started to know her work, “you have customers for life,” Ortega said. “They have families, they keep having babies, and they’re still getting married, which is good for me.”

After so many years in accounting, Ortega seems content as she sits at her worktable, hemmed in by mounds of supplies and works in progress.

“You express yourself,” she explained. “You have to read their minds.” She especially enjoys working with expectant mothers and brides-to-be, who come into the store bursting with ideas.

Other valued clients include Italian families who come in asking for every element of their celebration to be made of products imported from Italy. “My only regret is not putting it in (the store) 30 years ago,” Ortega said.

Swanson worked in health care for over 30 years, running her own consulting firm, Swanson and Company Inc., for 20 of those years. After she retired in 2001, Swanson concentrated her energies on charitable and creative efforts.

As a member of the board for The Adoption Information Center, Swanson wrote a business plan to open a children’s nonprofit retail store in San Pedro. In May, she came to Sixth Street as the founding manager for the new store, called The Children’s Place.

Ortega’s store was across the street. The two formed a fast friendship as Ortega ventured in and taught the volunteers how to make sellable crafts. Coupled with their mutual passion for Sor Juana’s poetry, they connected in business.

With Swanson on board as an associate, Ortega has more time to work on her crafts. There is strong mutual respect between the two.

“She has developed business principles which I adore, in a world where we have repressive labor policy and everybody is working at minimum wage it’s great to be in an environment where you call it like it is,” Swanson said.

The biggest challenge the company faces is from imports. Ortega’s prices for her handmade products reflect the time and energy put in. “It’s hard to compete with cheap labor and mass-produced products,” Swanson said.

Now with twice the energy and experience in the mix, Ortega and Swanson hope to develop new business venues. They want to provide specialty food services, such as catering confections, cakes and hospitality.

Business Watch [] Name: Our Creations

[] Location: San Pedro

[] Founded: 1990

[] Owner: Carla Ortega

[] Products: wedding services and craft supplies

[] Annual revenues: $75,000, 2002

[] Employees: 2 full-time; 2 contract

[] Key customers: brides, new parents, mothers, grandparents

[] Information: www.ourcreationssp.com; 310-519-8231

Copyright Copley Press Inc. 2003

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.