Maine isn’t regarded as a hot spot for fast-growing companies, but there is one category of commerce that has been doing exceptionally well in the state: women-owned businesses.
From 2007 to 2018, Maine ranked first among the 50 states and the District of Columbia for both revenue and job growth among women-owned businesses, according to the eighth annual State of Women-Owned Businesses Report commissioned by the financial services firm American Express.
Nancy Strojny, Portland chapter chairwoman of SCORE, the nation’s largest volunteer business mentoring service, said the report’s findings did not come as a surprise.
“In rural states like Maine, for women to figure out how to make a viable income, they have to have some spark and hustle and figure it out themselves,” Strojny said. “So in many cases it’s necessity and the rural-ness of our state that drives their ambition to say, ‘Well, I could start a business,’ because what else would they be doing?”
This isn’t the first time women-owned businesses in Maine have been recognized for their rapid growth. In 2017, Maine was the top state for revenue growth among women-owned businesses and second-best for job growth, according to last year’s American Express report.
Most businesses in Maine are small, and some are one-person operations that can include anything from plumbers and accountants to people who sell crafts online. According to the report, Maine has an estimated 45,600 women-owned businesses that employ 51,600 workers and generate roughly $13.6 billion in annual sales.
The report relies on the most recent Survey of Business Owners data from the U.S. Census Bureau from 2012. The numbers are updated each year based on annual gross domestic product estimates at the national, state and metropolitan levels, as well as by industry.
The actual number of women-owned businesses in Maine only increased by 18.5 percent from 2007 to 2018, far lower than the national growth rate of 57.6 percent over the same period, the report said. However, job creation among women-owned businesses in Maine was just over 74 percent from 2007 to 2018, increasing from 26,510 to 51,600. That compares with 21.2 percent nationally in job growth. Revenue growth among women-owned firms in Maine was a whopping 286.3 percent in Maine, compared with just 46.2 percent nationally, it said.
RESOURCES AND RESOLVE
Small-business owners, consultants and advocates pointed to a number of factors that they said have helped female entrepreneurs in Maine to outshine their counterparts elsewhere when it comes to growth.
Those factors include a culture that values hard work, a sense of camaraderie and cooperation among women, a multitude of resources for female entrepreneurs to tap into for advice and support, a relative lack of competition, and lower overhead costs to start and operate a business.
“Compared to Boston, it’s still kind of like the wild, wild West up here,” said Pamela Laskey, who returned to her home state in 2009 to found Portland-based Maine Foodie Tours, a year-round tourism business that has grown to 30 employees in less than a decade. “There’s a lot of opportunity. If you have a good idea, there’s not a lot of competition in so many areas.”
Jennifer Sporzynski, senior vice president of business and workforce development at Brunswick-based Coastal Enterprises, oversees one of the state’s top resources for female business owners. The Women’s Business Center, which has multiple locations throughout the state, is a place where female entrepreneurs can go for advice, training, networking opportunities and other assistance.
Sporzynski said organizations such as hers offer help with things like creating a business plan, exploring options for financing, negotiating prices for goods and services, record-keeping and other basic skills successful entrepreneurs need to have.
“Making it accessible to people, that’s a huge piece,” she said.
Overall, the goal of starting and growing a business is more attainable in Maine than in other, more developed states because it doesn’t cost as much to get started, Sporzynski said.
“Clearly, you can start a business here for less money. If you’re a brick-and-mortar (business), you need to rent space and get a loan,” she said. “You can do that with less money. Now obviously, Portland compared to Machias is going to be a completely different analysis on what it costs to rent space.”
A lot of Maine’s female-owned businesses are sole proprietorships, including Falmouth-based Roxane Cole Commercial Real Estate, founded in 2010 by longtime commercial real estate broker Roxane Cole.
Cole said she has owned and worked for larger companies in her career, but that she ultimately chose a one-woman operation because her clients always know they are getting the company’s full and undivided attention.
“I looked at the market and recognized that there was a really good opportunity for somebody with the decades of experience that I have to make myself personally available to the decision-makers,” she said. “And also, for them, they know that everything they say to me is 100 percent confidential.”
Cole said the key to running a successful small business is to have an undying passion for what you do, and that Maine is a state many people are passionate about.
“I’ve watched a lot of people go out of state, build a career, and then they couldn’t wait to get back here,” she said. “I didn’t do that. I just stayed here.”
Another big factor in the success of Maine’s female entrepreneurs is that women in Maine tend to have a strong belief in themselves and a willingness to help other women, said Linda Varrell, who founded Portland-based Broadreach Public Relations in 2006.
Broadreach has grown from a one-woman operation to a company with 12 full-time positions, she said. The company recently expanded into an adjacent office space, and its revenue has increased by 20 percent in just the past year.
“I think that Maine culture is that women here are pretty fearless,” Varrell said. “They’re not afraid to get out there and do what they need to do to support their family and support their life. It’s that ruggedness that I think challenges folks to really look at what the opportunities are and capitalize on them.”
Roxane Cole, managing member of Roxane Cole Commercial Real Estate, poses for a photo Thursday. (Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald)
Linda Varrell, president and CEO of Broadreach Public Relations, poses for a photo in the company’s Portland office Thursday. (Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald)
Maine Foodie Tours owner Pamela Laskey takes in the sights and a cup of coffee in downtown Bangor on Thursday. (Kevin Bennett photo)