Sarah Guerette of CEI Women’s Business Center: “Guts”

Guts. Being an entrepreneur is scary, and no one can guarantee success. When Alli Harper’s blog post about the need for diverse children’s books went viral, she knew she was on to something. She knew she needed more books that represented the family she and her wife were building as well as the many other […]

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Guts. Being an entrepreneur is scary, and no one can guarantee success. When Alli Harper’s blog post about the need for diverse children’s books went viral, she knew she was on to something. She knew she needed more books that represented the family she and her wife were building as well as the many other kinds of kids and families out there. However, would anyone buy her subscription boxes full of expert-curated diverse children’s books? Alli did a lot of market research. A lot of A/B testing of messaging and pricing. And ultimately took the leap and launched OurShelves, offering diverse children’s books, all the while advocating for the many more diverse books still needed.


As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Guerette.

Sarah Guerette is Director of the CEI Women’s Business Center at Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI), overseeing three centers that provide 1:1 business advising to women small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs in Maine. An expert advisor and connector she began her career working with small business owners in Ecuador where she lived for nearly five years. Sarah holds a B.S. from the University of Maine and an M.B.A. from Boston University.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

My path to the CEI Women’s Business Center was rather circuitous. I grew up in a small business family: my parents owned an insurance agency that they started themselves. I worked there in a variety of small roles growing up, but always had other interests. I thought I wanted to be something akin to a social worker, but after working in a social services agency for many years, I was frustrated by its perceived inefficiencies, and became much more interested in the back-end operations. I went to the Questrom School of Business at Boston University to pursue and MBA, during which time I had the opportunity to have several fascinating internships with local small businesses and non-profits. I lived and worked in Ecuador for about five years on either side of my MBA and was part of an initiative helping the Ecuadorian government establish more dynamic, opportunity-driven entrepreneurship. This experience, which also included co-founding a consulting firm in Ecuador, had me hooked on entrepreneurship, and how to best support entrepreneurs. I started at Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI) — a community development financial institution — in our StartSmart program, which helps immigrant entrepreneurs start and grow their own businesses and was excited when an opportunity to lead the Women’s Business Center opened up.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Early on in my career I had a colleague call me on my cell phone after work to tell me “You know, I really don’t enjoy working with you.” While it seemed really hurtful at the time, in the long run, that conversation, and my ability to respond calmly to it, gave me a lot of confidence. While I still strive to be likeable, I knew that I was creating change, and that change can be hard.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One of my first side hustles was teaching English to executives in Quito, Ecuador. The lessons took place in a classroom at someone’s home. I thought the students were getting an early start on their day before heading to work and showed up at 5:00 AM for a 5:00 PM class. It was a great reminder of the challenges of working in a second language, and the example that while sometimes understanding most of what’s going on around you will get you by, details and complete comprehension do really matter in some cases!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

While living and working in Ecuador I had the great fortune of crossing paths with Catalina Ontaneda, and ultimately building a consulting firm called Catapulta with her. Catalina was young, daring, and bold. She leans into entrepreneurship and outdoor adventure in with a confidence unlike many women I know. Catalina and I pitched and secured some really ambitious projects that seemed bigger than I’d previously dared to dream and scrambled together to pull them off. I learned a lot from her about having the entrepreneurial audacity to think outside the mold, and about blazing your own path.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

I work at a community development financial institution (CDFI), CEI, which carries a mission to build an economy that lifts all people. Entrepreneurship is core to that, as is being inclusive of underrepresented populations, including people living in low wealth households, women, people of color and immigrants. I lead our Women’s Business Centers. We work with over 1,600 female entrepreneurs across the state of Maine each year and provide advising, workshops, and resources to help them start and grow their own businesses.

I think the question to be asking ourselves is what is holding women back from growing companies? I’d group the responses into two major categories: personal and societal reasons.

The societal barriers include:

  • A commercial lending structure that is based largely on collateral, which many women founders lack, making it nearly impossible to secure startup loans.
  • A lack of childcare that would allow parents to have the time and brain space to focus on growing a company.
  • A lack of authentic stories of female founders where there is no magical “and then someone wrote me a 1 million dollars dollar check” moment early in the business, but that are truly reflective of the struggle and sacrifice so often required for business growth.

In the personal category, I’d list:

  • A lack of confidence to think big while taking small incremental steps to grow a business
  • A lack of personal financial literacy that may translate to a poor credit score (making it difficult to secure startup loans) or general financial mismanagement.
  • The very female trait of wanting to be 150% ready and prepared for any eventuality, which can paralyze any potential forward movement.

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

CEI, as are other CDFIs, is working to develop a collateral pool that would allow early-stage entrepreneurs without access to capital to secure a commercial loan.

We are also very active with our CEI Child Care Business Lab, which teaches the business of running a childcare operation and educates (trains) candidates to understand the systems, regulations and basic business practices for managing an enterprise. We must create more opportunities for childcare so that women can participate more fully in the workforce, including as entrepreneurs.

There’s a real lack of understanding about the process of starting a business, especially financing. Far too often women with a seed of an idea come to our center looking for equity investment. After having watched too many episodes of Shark Tank, they’re often convinced that there must be an investor for their idea, and don’t understand the more nuanced reality of the proof of concept and record of sales that businesses need to secure investment. And sometimes, equity isn’t the right kind of investment. We need to be real about this process.

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

So many of the female founders we work with focus on a triple bottom line that includes social impact, environment benefit, and profitability. This tendency towards social entrepreneurship means that women are building business that nurture communities, families, employees, and our planet. We need more of this.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

Before I had my daughter, I remember friends and family telling me that if I waited until for the right moment when everything seemed to align personally and professionally, I would never take the leap to become a parent. “Birthing” a business bears many similarities. Yes, it’s important to be prepared and have some savings and a fallback plan if profitability doesn’t ramp up as quickly as expected. Do the research and validate your idea. Rally your community so that they can support you when everything feels so challenging. Know who you’ll ask for advice and do some prep work ahead of time. But, at some moment, you have to leap and trust that the net will appear.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

The most successful founders we work with ask for help. They surround themselves with a village. This includes paid professionals like lawyers and accountants, industry contacts and mentors, business coaches or advisors, and other women who can support, inspire, and listen. They are open to advice and feedback from this community, as well as their customers. They are life-long learners who know that in starting a business they are embarking on a journey of learning, discovery, and iteration.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, What are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

I’ve highlighted stories from some of the female founders we’ve worked with at the CEI Women’s Business Center as examples of five things women need to thrive and succeed.

  1. Guts. Being an entrepreneur is scary, and no one can guarantee success. When Alli Harper’s blog post about the need for diverse children’s books went viral, she knew she was on to something. She knew she needed more books that represented the family she and her wife were building as well as the many other kinds of kids and families out there. However, would anyone buy her subscription boxes full of expert-curated diverse children’s books? Alli did a lot of market research. A lot of A/B testing of messaging and pricing. And ultimately took the leap and launched OurShelves, offering diverse children’s books, all the while advocating for the many more diverse books still needed.
  2. A support system. When Amanda O’Brien was starting eighteen twenty, making delicious wine out of rhubarb, she relied on her fiancé Alex to help press the tons of rhubarb they processed each year. This past pandemic year she collaborated with other local business owners to expand her product offerings and developed wine, cheese and cracker boxes. She learned new fermentation techniques from her neighbors at Lone Pine Brewing. It takes a village.
  3. Flexibility and willingness to pivot. When Kristen Moustrouphis first took over ownership of her gym in 2019, she was running a CrossFit Affiliate. Then there came a racial reckoning with the CrossFit CEO, and a global pandemic. Kristen remained clear in her desire to serve her members and help them lead their healthiest lives. She quickly rebranded to be Beacon Community Fitness and lived her values by dropping ties with CrossFit while they got clear on their values. When the pandemic changed the way we exercise, she quickly moved to outdoor classes and personalized online programming. Her businesses, and her members, are stronger today because of these changes.
  4. Willingness to look at the numbers, on some level. When Heather Kerner started the The Good Crust, employing individuals with special needs to make frozen pizza dough from the local mill, Maine Grains, she was clear on her social mission. Being a savvy and inspired saleswoman, her demand grew quickly, and her initial space started to feel cramped. By taking the time to understand the financials of her growth trajectory, Heather was able to secure financing to buy her own production facility which will allow her to produce 20X as much dough, create more good jobs, and buy more Maine grain.
  5. Delegation skills. As Hannah Curtis grew New Approaches, an emotional health and wellness practices that focuses on helping employers boost productivity and beat burnout, she knew that she had to lighten her clinical and supervisory roles as a LCSW in order to grow her business and diversify her revenue streams. By hiring qualified staff and promoting the highest performers to supervisory positions, Hannah was able to focus on the more strategic aspects of her business.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Throughout the pandemic last year, the CEI Women’s Business Center team supported over 1,600 female entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs. By helping provide these women the skills, confidence, and connection to grow their business, I think we’ve made the world a better place.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

At CEI we envision a world in which communities are economically and environmentally healthy, enabling all people, especially those with low incomes, to reach their full potential. This is why we’re providing access to information through our business advising services, access to technology through our work developing local broadband, access to capital through our small business lending and equity investments, and access to childcare through our childcare business lab so that women can succeed in our economy, create livelihoods for themselves, and good jobs for others.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I love Amy Cuddy’s work around power and presence and would love to bring her to Maine (virtually?) to speak to our brave and influential female entrepreneurs.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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