Small businesses in Maine enjoy many champions – people and organizations willing to advocate for their chance to succeed – and May was the month to celebrate these champions. National Small Business week, May 15 – 21, saw ceremonies in Washington, D.C., to honor nine such champions.
Maine’s senior Sen. Olympia Snowe was also honored in Washington on May 4, by the Association for Enterprise Opportunity (AEO), a national organization dedicated to helping underserved entrepreneurs start and expand businesses. As ranking member of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, Snowe has a long track record of working to ensure small businesses have the tools, resources and regulatory environment they need to grow and thrive.
On May 5 in Maine the Small Business Administration held its annual awards luncheon in Bangor. Among those recognized were: Small Business Persons of the Year James R. McCurdy & James K. Lynch, owners of Maine Commercial Tire Inc.; Veteran Business Champion Kristine Schuman, manager of the Base Realignment and Closure Transition Center in Brunswick; Maine SBDC 2010 State Star Thomas Gallant; and Women, Work, and Community’s own Erica Quin-Easter, Aroostook Microenterprise coordinator, as the Women in Business Champion of the Year.
These advocates were rightly applauded for their role in empowering entrepreneurs. While competition may be what motivates entrepreneurs – ‘I can build a better mousetrap’ – these public ceremonies give testimony to the important role advocates, advisers and admirers play in helping to sustain and inspire businesses through the inevitable ups and downs.
For those moments when doubt creeps in, exhaustion takes over, and questions outweigh answers, knowing there are champions out there can be the elixir that keeps one going.
“I love being a business owner,” said Gail Baillargeon, CEO of Acadia Clinical Research, a Bangor based medical research firm. After more than 20 years in the medical research industry as an employee, she likes being in control, having the flexibility, and the responsibility to make her own decisions that being a business owner affords her.
Baillargeon said it does get lonely sometimes, but “we have a rich environment here in Bangor in terms of people willing to help. You can get an ‘aha’ moment from one conversation. Networking is important – a lot of people want you to succeed and are willing to listen.”
Before launching Acadia Clinical Research more than six years ago, Baillargeon enrolled in Women, Work, and Community’s New Ventures class where for 10 weeks she was guided in developing a business plan. Part of the class put Gail and other students in touch with an array of community resources including accountants, lawyers and Maine Small Business Development Center counselors. She continues to tap into many of these resources.
Cal Hancock, owner of award winning Hancock Gourmet Lobster Co., based in Cundy’s Harbor, also started her business as a second career.
“When you are doing what you really want to do, something you chose, you become your own champion,” said Hancock.
And that makes it easier to turn around and encourage others to do the same. “If I can do it, others can as well,” insisted Hancock, a sentiment echoed by Baillargeon.
“I find common ground with others in business – there’s a collaborative, mutual support community among other food producers,” Hancock said.
A member of the Maine Food Producers Alliance, Hancock has found both friendship and business support within the group. She can pick up the phone and pose questions to problems she may be facing around packaging or other day to day concerns.
For the thornier issues, Hancock relies on her partner in crime: her husband joined the company several years ago.”Having a partner is the best thing that’s ever happened. You need someone you can be super honest with, that you trust.”
Every day entrepreneurs are finding ways to survive and thrive, often against the odds. Lynn Bromley, SBA Small Business Advocate and former state senator, thinks women in particular are adept at fostering connections and show courage and grit as entrepreneurs and as innovators.
“It is a unique and profoundly humbling privilege to be in a position to support and advocate for these small business owners,” said Bromley. “They are the job creators and the real champions of our economy.”
Eloise Vitelli is program director for Women, Work, and Community, a statewide organization that has provided training and assistance to startup entrepreneurs since 1984. She is the 2006 recipient of the Maine SBA McGillicuddy Entrepreneurial Excellence Award.