As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan to Rebuild in The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Betsy Biemann, CEO of Coastal Enterprises Inc. (CEI)
Betsy Biemann joined Coastal Enterprises Inc. as its Chief Executive Officer in 2016. Previously, Betsy led a research project on Maine’s food economy at Harvard University’s Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government and advised businesses, nonprofit organizations, and social enterprises in Maine and nationally on innovation and growth strategies. From 2005 to 2012 she was president of the Maine Technology Institute, investing in Maine companies and initiatives seeking to grow high-potential sectors of Maine’s economy.
Before to her move to Maine, Betsy served as associate director at The Rockefeller Foundation in New York City, where she managed a national grant and investment program aiming to increase employment in low-income communities. She joined Rockefeller’s staff in 1996 after working in international development, principally in Sub-Saharan Africa. She earned her B.A. at Harvard University and her M.P.A. at Princeton University’s School of Public & International Affairs. Betsy serves on the boards of the Opportunity Finance Network, the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation, and the New Growth Innovation Network. In May 2020, she was appointed by Governor Janet Mills to Maine’s Economic Recovery Committee, tasked with recommending strategies to stabilize and grow the Maine economy in response to the COVID pandemic.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I love supporting innovators and entrepreneurs who are making their communities and the world a better place. If my life were a recipe, some of the ingredients would be having a scientist for a dad, working in my aunt’s restaurant in downtown Boston many Saturdays as a kid, learning how investment has a social impact from the South Africa divestment movement during college, teaching secondary school to girls in rural Kenya, and using grants and investments to address the root causes of global problems at the Rockefeller Foundation.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I love listening to Guy Raz’s podcast “How I Built This” to hear what motivated so many different creative and forward-looking people to start their company, how they grew them and what lessons they learned along the way.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I did not start Coastal Enterprises Inc (CEI), but took the reins five years ago, after the 38-year founder and CEO retired. He was a classic founder — innovative, opportunistic, and passionate about social justice. He grew what started as a non-profit community development organization on the mid-coast of Maine into an innovative social enterprise working statewide in Maine with multiple for-profit financing subsidiaries that operated regionally and nationally.
By 2016, CEI was a sprawling family of organizations that did many things and, as such, was hard to understand. My vision was to focus our incredibly talented team on advancing three key priorities: growing good quality jobs, investing in green — or environmentally sustainable — businesses and, ultimately, building a rural economy that lifts everyone. And being clear on how we did that — using the tools of small business lending and investment, business advice and policy advocacy — and what metrics we would use to measure our mission impact and financial performance.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running your organization?
Make every decision with integrity and aligned with our mission, focused on growing an economy that lifts everyone.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I have been very fortunate. We were able to pivot CEI’s operations and shift to remote work without missing a beat. I took over my retired husband’s desk at home, set up my laptop and all systems were “go”. Personally, I found those first weeks to be very stressful. I could feel my body humming with adrenalin day and night. Between the uncertainty about how bad the pandemic would get, the skyrocketing need from the people and businesses we work with, and my need to support our team during such a stressful time, I lost around 15 pounds (I don’t recommend a pandemic as a weight-loss strategy.) To deal with the stress, I switched to drinking decaffeinated coffee and started walking regularly with our dogs down to the bay. On the bright side, my two college-age children moved home for several months. We worked separately all day but then wrapped things up at around 7 pm to cook and eat dinner together. That was a real gift.
Our mantra at CEI in the early days was that this was a marathon, not a sprint. It has really been more like hiking the Appalachian Trail! But I am hopeful that with more and more people getting vaccinated we can bring this terrible virus under control, so that we can address some of the deep economic challenges that we still face. The U.S. economy is still around eight million jobs short of where we were in March 2020, and women, people of color and people with low incomes have been disproportionately impacted. We need to build them into the center of our economic recovery plans.
Can you share a few of the biggest work-related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Our two biggest challenges were responding to the skyrocketing needs of small businesses that we finance and advise across Maine and ensuring that our organization had the financial strength to help them to survive the pandemic and associated financial crisis. Our senior leadership team had daily 9 am calls so we could understand what was happening, what support our team needed, and what the financial implications were going to be for our organization and the businesses that we serve.
During the first couple of months, our team held over 2,000 coaching sessions with small business owners, helping them navigate the sudden loss of customers or changing guidelines for safe operations during the pandemic. We developed an online library with up-to-date resources and launched a webinar series to walk small business owners through the maze of small business relief programs and to help them work through whether and how they could keep on their workers. And we provided temporary debt relief to over half of our 400 small business loans.
Examples of businesses CEI works with that pivoted in the early weeks and months of the pandemic were American Roots, an American-made clothing manufacturer that closed briefly, then re-opened and significantly expanded its mostly-immigrant workforce to manufacture face masks and other PPE. And Welch Blueberry Farm, a working farm since the 1700s in one of Maine’s most rural counties, that sells wild blueberries, jams and jellies, and most recently expanded into agrotourism by offering overnight stays and farm tours. Its owners quickly got up to speed on health and travel requirements, streamlined operations and created cabins designed for 14-day quarantines and family staycations — cabins that stayed booked at full capacity through September.
Amidst all this change and uncertainty, our team even helped some new businesses to launch. An entrepreneur originally hailing from Burundi started up a new painting, carpentry, and landscaping business with business advice and a small loan made more affordable by the CARES Act.
Later in the year we were able to partner with others and serve as a conduit for over $18 million in CARES Act and other relief funds. These emergency response funds helped many farms, food & beverage manufacturers, micro and small businesses pivot, survive and some even thrive during the pandemic.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
We have a team of 76 staff across a family of organizations who were working in two primary offices, with the rest hosted by other organizations that range over 200 miles. We shifted to remote work on March 16, and immediately started doing what we could to keeping folks connected and supported. We lined up volunteers from across the organization who sent out a daily email, sharing how they were finding work from home, who their office mates (pets) were, what music they were listening to. We have a Community Team drawn from across the organization what was amazingly creative about ways to keep people connected personally through contests, sending a monthly small gift or note to everyone. We organized monthly small group “office chats” before our monthly all-staff video calls so that people could connect with others whom they don’t work with regularly, to at least partially replace those random conversations on the office stairs or in the office kitchen pre-pandemic. And we did periodic online surveys to check in to see how folks were doing, where their stress points were, and what they needed to be supported and effective.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
- When the pandemic hit, there was a huge increase in the demand for local and regionally produced food. This was at the very same time that supply chains in the national and global food system were fraying. We have seen many of the farms and food and beverage companies we work with connect with new customers and advance their use of technology in ways that have helped them stay afloat through the pandemic. We think that these new customers and sales channels and technology capacity will pay off for them in the years ahead.
- Second, with remote work being more acceptable now, smaller cities and rural regions — if they have fast access to the internet — may be able to reverse the “brain drain” and aging demographics. Maine’s motto is “the way life should be.” More and more people will be able to live in Maine and other rural regions and work for employers all over the world.
- Finally, the pandemic shined a bright light on the importance of access to childcare not just for families but also for our economy. We are hopeful that there will be an investment in making quality childcare accessible to all families. This will benefit families, enable more parents to get and keep jobs, and will pay off for society down the road, as research has shown that a $1 spent on high quality childcare returns between $4 and $12 to communities.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Building on the access to internet comment above … Maine has seen a demographic shift that is unfolding in other rural places. More professionals are recognizing the ability to work remotely- as long as they’ve got connectivity — and more are relocating to Maine from cities as near as Boston and New York, to San Francisco and Seattle, in some cases sight unseen! This is bringing other pressures to our service area as housing prices are rising fast and leaving families with low incomes and low wealth struggling to afford a home.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We must do more to transform the way our economy works, so that everyone can reach their full potential. Our approach at CEI is to:
- Empower people. Many people are losing and changing jobs, and need skills, training, credentials and supports like child care and broadband internet access to gain a foothold and advance in the post-pandemic economy.
- Invest in innovation. Entrepreneurial people, particularly those who aren’t served by the traditional business support ecosystem, need advice and financing to start up new businesses, while established businesses hit hard by this health and economic crisis need capital and expertise to power a pivot or fuel a new venture.
- Build in equity and sustainability from the beginning. The recovery needs to be boosted by policies designed to address racial, gender and economic inequities, and climate change, in order to achieve a more inclusive society and equitable economy. Together, we need to make sure that everyone — no matter where we were born and who we are — can secure a decent livelihood and build wealth.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
We can all support our local small businesses — they are the backbones of our communities. Look to purchase from companies that provide good jobs — i.e., jobs that provide living wages and basic benefits and a fair and engaging workplace — and those seek to leave a small environmental footprint on our planet. Support public policies that invest in early childhood education and skills training that pay off in future for all of us, and that will grow more broadly shared prosperity. And if you are investing your savings or retirement money, consider investing it in ways that align with your values. You can make a real difference.
How can our readers further follow your work?