How CEI Invests in Maine’s Growing Businesses – Jennifer Sporzynski

How CEI Invests in Maine's Growing BusinessesCEI (Coastal Enterprises, Inc.) is working to build an economy that works for everyone here in Maine. From business advisors to financing options, CEI serves all groups in Maine looking to provide good jobs and a sustainable business ecosystem. Today we talk to Jennifer Sporzynski about how it all works.

Rich: Our guest today has worked in community economic development since 1993, working with small business owners in the US, Guatemala, as a Peace Corps volunteer, and Paraguay. At CEI, Coastal Enterprises Inc., she coordinates delivery of microloan program and leads two departments, the Business Development Services Department, a team of 12 providing business advising to existing and aspiring businesses. And Workforce Solutions, a team of four who work directly with both growing businesses and the workforce systems to hire low income individuals and create quality jobs.

Rich: She has a BS in business administration, finance from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree from Harvard University. She has is a Leadership Maine alumna, Upsilon Class. And completed the CDFI leadership learning network with the Annie E Casey Foundation, a co-recipient of the SBA Minority Small Business Champion in Maine. We’re very happy to be able to be talking to Jennifer Sporzynski. Jen, welcome to the show.

Jen: Thanks for having me.

Yury: We are delighted to have you, Jen. So allow me to ask your first question. What is the role of CEI in growing Maine businesses and how do you differ from other organizations working with businesses here in the state?

Jen: That’s a great question. So CEI, we say we’re trying to make the economy work for everyone and we’re doing that through growing good jobs, creating environmentally sustainable businesses and shared prosperity. And we do that through investing in businesses, advising businesses and policy solutions as they relate to those people we’re working with. And to your second part of the question, how do we differ? We compliment a lot of the groups that are working with businesses and in fact actually do referrals back and forth. So often we will lend along with a bank, it might be a risky deal. So the bank will call us up and say, can you come in as the gap financers? So that’s one of the ways we work with banks and different service providers. We just might be working with a different stage of the business and then they might be ready to go on to like we might have a startup and then as they’re moving along they might want to go to Top Gun for Maine Center at Maine Center for Entrepreneurs as an example.

Rich: So how did you get involved with his organization? What’s your role there?

Jen: Yeah, I have been at CEI for over 15 years. I started as a business advisor, so everyday working one on one in our program that works specifically with refugees and immigrants. And so helped that program itself has actually been around for 20 years. We’ve helped start to grow 400 about 450 businesses in Maine. We’ve worked with people from 92 different countries. So that’s how I started. And my background is in Business Development and Finance as you stated. Now, I oversee a lot of programs that do that work. So you know, I manage the teams that are meeting one on one with people starting or growing their business. We are a lender. So I also do some work with some of our lending resources and advocate. I do more of the policy work to advocate. So that those resources come to Maine and are available to lend to businesses.

Rich: Can you give me an example of that last one? Can you like what’s one that you recently worked on?

Jen: A business or a loan?

Rich: A loan. I’m just kind of curious about that part of it.

Jen: Well so we, and this might not be what you’re asking, so feel free to clarify, but we borrow funds from many different sources, but the Small Business Administration is a big source of our capital for our microloans. So I am a liaison and work with them and then also work to make sure the program works on the ground. So by talking to our team and lenders and the businesses we work with, then go back to the federal government and say, you know what? If we could change this part of this program, it would be much better for Maine small business.

Rich: Oh, fantastic. Yeah. Very cool.

Yury: Jen, you mentioned 92 representatives of the world starting their businesses in Maine. Are there any specific categories where they most successful or more dominant?

Jen: Yeah, so for that particular program, I often say we are working with folks that are more recently arriving in the country and so they’re more likely to see that pain point or need and providing a service that meets their cultural need. So food is a really classic example and I’m not, that’s not rocket science. I’m sure you’ve seen lots of the different restaurants around Portland and we’re working in Lewiston as well. So food in restaurant form or grocery store, that’s a two thirds of the clients that come into that program want to do something around food. It’s not necessarily that then two thirds open a food related business, but it’s considered a need. Yeah.

Yury: No, I totally agree with you. You know, living in Maine for 11 years, I still know that there was only one European store where I can buy candies and the things that I’m so accustomed to growing up in Russia.

Jen: Right, those certain brands. Yep.

Yury: That’s awesome.

Rich: Would you say that CEI has a focus in terms of who you’re working with? And by that I mean, do you spend more time with owners, employees, or maybe the legislature, or is it an even balance between all three?

Jen: Yeah, that’s a great question. I don’t actually know the answer, so I’ll just estimate. Right? But I would say the majority, our work is with the owners of businesses. And so they might be seeking financing, they might be seeking advice on how to grow and we’re working with them in some capacity. At the same time, we have always had a program and we are really building it out now to work with the owners to help the employees and by creating what we’re calling a good job strategy. And it’s meant to be mutually helpful, right? Or beneficial.

Jen: It’s meant to, and we have seven categories that we’ve demonstrated as the ones that would make a quality job or a good job. And so we’re encouraging that owner to think about where can they make change within the jobs they have. So-

Rich: Do you mind running through what those seven categories are?

Jen: Yeah-

Rich: I put you on the spot, you got to remember this right.

Jen: It’s like saying the five C’s of credit. I always come up with four, but right. So we’re looking at a livable wage.

Rich: Okay.

Jen: So we have three major categories, wage, fair and engaging workplace and benefits, and then within fair and engaging workplace and benefits, it breaks down more. So benefits as a health insurance, retirement savings and fair and engaging workplace. Oh, I’m sorry. And paid time off and fair and engaging workplace is knowing your schedule two weeks in advance and I could go on and on. There’s a lot of research out there that shows you can’t manage childcare, you can’t manage certain parts of your life if your schedule is always changing.

Rich: Sure.

Jen: Yep. Ability to get a review at least once a year so that you know what you’re doing and can improve and then an ability to share your opinions or have a voice within the company.

Rich: All right. Sounds good.

Yury: Sounds like a lot of businesses can benefit from this blueprint in the approach that you guys have as the part of the program. So I’m very fascinated by the process of engaging with you. Do you actually conduct like an outreach to some of those businesses? Like you have a list of businesses and you may identify that there is a potential, but the business owner himself or herself does not know that it’s time for them to reach out for help. Like is there kind of like a bridge that you guys, you know, help to-

Rich: Or do people need to come to you to get your help?

Jen: Yeah, so we have 80 employees and we’re all around the state of Maine. I didn’t actually sort of highlight a couple important things. Like our focus is rural Maine, but we are statewide. We have offices from Machias to Farmington and Bangor, Portland, and many others. So we have staff out there, we, and this isn’t meant to, we do not have a problem with people finding us, which we do want to make sure everyone who wants to find us can find us. So we have quite a demand for our services and advising and lending. But we always want to make sure those other folks that might need the loan and have you know or want the advice know where to go. So we’re not actively out there marketing every day because there’s a balance. It’s very human touch. It’s very one-on-one. Some things can be automated, but some things really require that one staff person and that one business owner to talk.

Yury: Are there any particular resources available on your website? So if I visit the website and I would know that this organization is for me or I should go somewhere else.

Jen: Yeah. So you can do a variety of things on our website. I will say in Maine, a lot of people do still pick up the phone and call us and we’re happy to talk to you that way. You can go on the website and request an appointment. So there is a button you can get our application for loans on our website. So there are a lot of reasons. And then there’s just a lot of information about our organization that is available on the website.

Rich: So you mentioned for some of the businesses that you help might be food-related because it’s typical for immigrants. And you mentioned also that you’re in more of the rural areas. Are there other types of businesses or industries that you’re really strong in and are there any that you shy away from that the CEI shies away from and maybe hands them off to another group?

Jen: Yeah. Right. So we have several programs that our name Coastal Enterprises we began 40 plus years ago and we’re involved in a seafood enterprise. So that’s where we started. We have always remained very closely related to Maine sort of traditional food businesses. So we have a focus on food and that’s both land based and water based. So aquaculture and sustainable agriculture.

Rich: Surf and turf.

Jen: Yeah. So, and we have several varies focus staff. We have a whole program that works in that sector, as an example. We’re also very active with the solar industry. So very unrelated to the food based, that example that I gave earlier. But it helps us in our environmental sustainability. And so we’re big lending there. And then I would say where we fit in is working with populations that don’t necessarily have access to traditional financing. So still in 2019 women don’t have as much access to traditional financing. I think we’re definitely trying to change that. And I know a lot of people are out there, so we have a targeted advising program specifically for women in business as an example.

Yury: Are there any other partners, I’m fascinated by what you just said and the lack of access for a female. Do you have any other partners that you currently working with in order to address this challenge?

Jen: Yeah, yeah. Thanks for asking that. So we have our director of the women’s, it’s called the Women’s Business Center and our director has a whole coalition there. There are a lot of people in Maine working on this. So I want to be clear, we’re not sort of the only one. We’re part of a coalition doing a whole lot of work. And one thing they’ve been looking at is a data point that you likely have heard, which is that, and it ranges based on the study you read, but that women only access about four to 6% of venture capital in the US.

Jen: And so there’s lots of reasons why we think that might be one of them is, well maybe there aren’t that many female investors because investors invest in what they know. So that’s one possibility. So there is a group including Maine Angels and a host of other organizations around Maine actually working at trying to invite women in to become investors in different ways through the Maine Angels or other avenues. We’re also working on, that’s not the only reason why that’s happening. So we’re looking at other root causes and trying to help just move the needle on how much capital women entrepreneurs access.

Rich: It’s really interesting because we had another guest on, I want to say it was some scratch-

Jen: Scratchpad.

Rich: Scratchpad Accelerator talking about how women run businesses have a higher success rate than men run businesses and yet they get so little funding compared to male run businesses. I was actually going to ask, in my mind, CEI has always been at least partially associated with women business and you guys have the Women Business Center and part of me want to ask like in this day and age, it isn’t even necessary, but it sounds like it is still incredibly important not just to giving women an equal chance, but because it helps American whole just in terms of like we create more jobs if we give more attention to that side of the gender gap.

Jen: Yeah. I think I agree with you. You know, we occasionally will say, wow, it’s 2019 is this still an issue? And I think that’s always important to ask yourself, right? You don’t just keep doing something because you have a program. You want to say, okay, is it effective? And what we’re seeing with the data in Maine, 30% of the businesses are female led. That’s lower than the national average around 40%. The other thing we’re seeing nationally as data, a little bit different in Maine, but not quite up to the same level.

Jen: The revenue of women owned businesses is not equal to the male counterpart, nor is the employment. And so again, thinking about root cause, it’s like why is that and what can we do to maybe encourage if someone meeting that person where they are, maybe they just want a lifestyle business and that revenue is perfectly fine and that’s great. But if they’re unable to move forward because of some systemic issue, can we help, I don’t want to say solve it, but can we help them sort of move forward in that process? And so we’ve created programming that we think is getting at some of those issues.

Rich: Yeah, it sounds like it’s probably a combination of both psychological and systemic issues that you’re certainly not going to crack overnight, but that this is an ongoing thing we need to keep looking at.

Jen: Right.

Yury: Do you have a specific timeline for when you would like to see some improvements in terms of this particular issue?

Rich: 1962.

Yury: Because I’m already thinking about having you for the second part so we know we can talk about the successes of the program.

Jen: Yeah, yeah. We have not put a timeline out there for this specifically. I think being realistic and how much of our work impacts the system. You have to be realistic there. But I do think that there is more of an effort to collaborate. Right? So we know, I mean you mentioned Scratchpad they’re going to be running their next cohort is going to be female led founders, right? They are reaching out to us. We’re trying to find people that are good fits. So as long as we’re not the only one there, there are lots of other groups that we can collaborate with towards this common goal.

Rich: So there’s a lot of cool things that are going on at CEI. There’s the Women’s Center, there’s all the loans that you’re helping people with, funding businesses, advising people as well. Would you mind sharing one or two CEI success stories with us?

Jen: I’m happy to, and I think you alluded this earlier, so we also work under this strong confidentiality agreement but we get some agreement from certain businesses to share their stories. And I will say our website is chockablock full of really fun success stories and I should have anticipated you asking because I would have memorized one of them to share. But one example that perhaps is an older story but that is one that I love highlighting is it used to be the only Eritrean restaurant in Portland, but this business which is Asmara and maybe some of you have all gone. We worked with her, she opened her business 15 years ago and she’s still operating a restaurant business, which is pretty unheard of in the world of restaurants, right? For 15 years.

Rich: Long life.

Jen: Yeah. And there are lots of different things that we did with her to start that business. And she still occasionally will call us up mostly because when you’re a solo preneur, it can be a little lonely and it’s just nice to come back. She’s running perfectly fine now, but every once in a while if she has an idea or wants to run an idea by us, she’ll give us a call.

Jen: But the exciting thing about that story, and the owner, is that in the beginning she was able to, she had a job but then she opened this business but she was still learning English. So she was able to work her schedule so that she could maintain going to Portland adult Ed, and work on her English. And she did that for quite awhile. She has several children that, and now, I mean there now off and actually in college, which is amazing because some of them are the same age as my child and they have been able to buy a home. She’s been able to sponsor an older child to come. So there’s just a lot of, maybe not necessarily only business-related, but how it is impacting the family. And for me that and now Portland has wonderful Eritrean food to eat, which is actually more important.

Yury: Absolutely. That is a remarkable story. Thank you for sharing.

Rich: And also anytime you’re building up the business economy, hopefully one of the side benefits is the fact that you’re also building up people’s lives as well.

Yury: There is a social impact, [crosstalk 00:19:45] there is an economical impact. Speaking about impact your mission talks about shared prosperity, can you talk a little bit about it and what exactly does it mean?

Jen: Yeah, so right. So the idea is again, working with different populations that might not have access to financing or advising or growing a business. So shared prosperity really is how can more people, right? I mean it’s really sort of how can the economy work for more people and so it can be achieved through business ownership. It can be achieved if you’ve got a job and then that company makes that job a good job and your income is growing. But these other factors are also happening. So shared prosperity is about that.

Yury: That is awesome. Thank you.

Rich: So we always like asking this question of all of our guests here on the show, Jen, and it feels like CEI is involved with so many aspects of the business ecosystem. So I’m curious to hear your answer. If you could change one thing to improve the business ecosystem here in Maine, what would it be?

Jen: Yeah, so I am a real practical person, but with this question I feel like you really, it’s a magic wand question, right?

Rich: It absolutely is, yeah.

Jen: So yeah, I think the whole reason I do this work is, and keep coming back to it, is that if we could make the economy work for more people, that’d be amazing. So that’s what I would do. I would wave a wand and more people would be benefiting.

Rich: Sounds good. And it sounds like right in line with what CEI Maine is all about. So that must be why you get excited to go to work every day.

Yury: Jennifer, besides and all of it’s great resources, where else can we find you online?

Jen: Well, all the social media platforms that any organization or business would be on. So Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, I believe, but you won’t find me there. Sorry.

Yury: Are you on LinkedIn?

Jen: Yes, and we’re on LinkedIn and I’m on LinkedIn. Yeah.

Yury: Perfect, thank you.

Rich: Excellent. Well, Jen, thank you so much for stopping by and sharing a little bit about what’s going on over at CEI Maine.

Jen: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Yury: Thank you for coming.