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Updated: January 8, 2024 On the record

On the Record: CEI’s Grace Mo-Phillips helps fellow female entrepreneurs turn ideas into business

PHOTO / JIM NEUGER As program director of the CEI Women’s Business Center South in Portland, Grace Mo-Phillips works with women of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds.

As program director of the CEI Women’s Business Center South in Portland, Grace Mo-Phillips provides support for women of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. Born in Hong Kong, she came to the United States as a teenager and runs a one-person frozen-seafood export business called Belle Cove LLC from her home in South Portland. Mainebiz caught up with her to find out more.

Mainebiz: How did you become an entrepreneur, and what does Belle Cove do?

Grace Mo-Phillips: I’ve always wanted to create a business that I can call my own. When I moved to Maine 17 years ago, I was fascinated by the lobster industry. With my background in international trade, I decided to start a trading business to export frozen lobster to other parts of the world. Since then, Belle Cove has extended our product lineup to include other seafood products from the Northeast and Alaska.

MB: How has your startup experience informed your programming approach at CEI?

GMP: I believe many entrepreneurs share a common experience when launching a new business — they grapple with moments of self-doubt. While it’s often said that you don’t know what you don’t know, entrepreneurs often possess more knowledge than they give themselves credit for.

Many programs offered at the CEI Women’s Business Center leverage a peer-to-peer learning approach. Entrepreneurs with similar goals come together to support one another by sharing their experiences and help fill the gaps. Through this collaborative process, individuals gain valuable insights, build self-confidence and develop the knowledge necessary for success.

MB: Who are your clients at the CEI Women’s Business Center?

GMP: We offer programming across the state and assist entrepreneurs in varying industries and stages of business development. Much of my work focuses on serving women of diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. Last year we worked with 1,557 entrepreneurs statewide. Over 53% of the women we assist come from underserved or under-represented communities.

MB: What services are offered to help clients go from idea to business?

GMP: WBC programs are designed for the ideation stage. One such program is Propeller, which assists women in researching, testing and developing their tech-based startup ideas. Another new program is the BIPOC Women’s Business Navigator, which provides a dedicated space for women of color to develop their business ideas and validate with a holistic approach. We launched this program in spring 2023 to address a growing need in Maine.

In addition to providing technical guidance on formulating a business model, this program provides women from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds with a supportive community of fellow entrepreneurs that assist each other with their business ventures.

MB: What are some of the biggest obstacles you help clients overcome?

GMP: New entrepreneurs often struggle with presenting their untested businesses ideas. Our program spokeswomen address this by offering a platform for practicing techniques and boosting confidence in ad hoc speaking. Through various scenarios, participants refine storytelling skills, aiming to articulate their business clearly and develop a personalized speaking style.

MB: When bank financing isn’t accessible, what options are there?

GMP: Several alternatives exist for obtaining business financing beyond traditional bank loans. In addition to crowdfunding, angel investors, private lenders or ‘bootstrapping’ with your own capital, there are community development financial institutions such as CEI.

Our business lending is guided by our mission to build a more equitable economy by focusing our services on people and communities unable to access financing from traditional sources. We do this through business and personal financial advising, tailored loan products and by looking beyond standard underwriting criteria.

MB: To any woman in Maine wanting to start a business in 2024, what’s your advice?

GMP: Embarking on a business venture can be thrilling yet challenging. Establishing a support network is crucial for navigating this journey. Fortunately, the state offers numerous resources to assist individuals in pursuing their entrepreneurial goals. At [the CEI Women’s Business Center], all our training programs are provided at no cost.

In 2024, we aim to empower new entrepreneurs with workshops that address complex issues. These include demystifying federal and state tax obligations, planning retirement as a self-employed individual, and branding through websites or social media. Our goal is to equip entrepreneurs with the knowledge needed to navigate these challenges effectively.

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