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December 14, 2020

Program for female entrepreneurs aims to launch more startups in 2021

Courtesy / The Good Crust Heather Kerner, owner of the startup the Good Crust, in Skowhegan, launched the business with help from the Propeller program, a parternship of CEI Women's Business Center and Tortoise Labs, in Waterville.
Who is Propeller for and how can women enroll?
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Heather Kerner's pizza dough company, the Good Crust, doesn't produce a tech product, but she enrolled in Propeller earlier this year anyway. The six-week course is designed to guide women as they build their tech or tech-enabled business, and she figured gaining those skills was an important part of getting her Maine-sourced pizza dough out to the market.

Now, two months into running her Skowhegan-based business, she's secured several wholesale accounts and is poised to consider a distribution partnership.

Kerner's startup is one of six generated from the program, which was launched in March by the CEI Women's Business Center. Two sessions were held this year, in March and again in July. A new round begins in January, with two sections behind held simultaneously, one on Tuesdays and one on Wednesdays. The course if free and conducted completely online.

The idea behind Propeller is that female entrepreneurs with ideas for software or software-enabled startups learn not just about building their business, but also how to overcome barriers that disproportionately affect female business owners, particularly in the tech field.

Skills in identifying consumer demand for a potential product and operating on a lean budget are critical to the success of any venture, but Propeller focuses specifically on software or software-enabled startups, said Nick Rimsa, a Propeller course instructor and a product designer at Tortoise Labs, a Waterville-based software development company. He said that once entrepreneurs make something that their customers want, the program works with them to help them scale it.

"Software is a medium that can scale — it can benefit Mainers wherever they are, whether an urban city or a rural small town, and help them reach a national or global audience," Rimsa said. "Propeller shows entrepreneurs how to identify a customer, learn what a customer wants and help a customer accomplish something they couldn't do before."

Technology and innovation, which are keys to the state's economic future, are difficult fields for women to enter and succeed in, organizers of the program said in a news release. With only a quarter of computer science-related jobs held by women, the lack of mentors, influential networks and access to funding can seriously hamper women's ability to launch a successful tech-based company. Even the knowledge of these barriers yields a confidence gap that discourages women from acting on their business ideas.

No experience necessary

It's open to women from all backgrounds, regardless of whether they have tech or business ownership experience. Half of this year's participants have been from rural areas of the state.

Kerner had no formal background in entrepreneurship, and she said the Propeller class helped her put structure into her company.

"Because I learned how to identify customers and how to talk to them, I was positioned to begin earning income and paying my team as soon as dough production began," she said.

Patty Morris, another participant, said, “Propeller has been the perfect catalyst for moving my idea forward." She said the structure and guidance helped her keep her idea moving toward becoming a successful business model.

One of the guiding principles of the program is that entrepreneurship is a path to self-reliance, said Anna Ackerman, program developer at CEI'S Women's Business Center, and also a Propeller instructor.

"We created Propeller to provide the structure necessary to help women test their ideas, find their first customers and become business owners," she said. "It has been humbling to support women from all over the state turn their ideas into flourishing businesses, and we look forward to working with the next group of startup founders in January."

The free course is fully online, and women all over the state of Maine are encouraged to join, even if they have no experience in technology or business ownership. 

On the final day of the program, Propeller participants pitched their ideas to a panel of experienced judges. The panel of judges included representatives from Maine Angels, the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, the Maine Small Business Development Centers, Bernstein Shur, and local business owners and entrepreneurs. These pitches sparked lots of questions and comments from the judges who helped participants to think through their next steps, including how to acquire customers and develop a business model.

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