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Free online course helps Maine women entrepreneurs launch a business

Propeller is a free, six-week course via the Coastal Enterprise Women's Business Center, designed to help female entrepreneurs through a lean start-up methodology.

MAINE, USA — Heather Kerner lives in Canaan and is a mother of two boys, works a full-time day job as an occupational therapist, and now owns a business. The idea once seemed daunting to her, but she saw a need she thought she could help meet and decided to take action by founding The Good Crust in Skowhegan. 

"I saw a disconnect that we didn't have a locally-sourced pizza dough that used 100% Maine grains," Kerner expressed.

The Good Crust is a pizza dough business that uses all Maine grains and employs people with physical or behavioral disabilities who are looking to enter the workforce after high school. Kerner launched her business officially on September 14 in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. She says doing so was made possible in part by a free six-week online course she took last spring and summer, designed to support female entrepreneurs.

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Propeller helps women in Maine take an idea and see it into fruition through a business start-up. It's run by the Coastal Enterprise Women's Business Center in partnership with the software development team Tortoise Labs and took off at the beginning of 2020, despite COVID-19. Realities of the pandemic made the course virtual, but that's worked well for some participants, who founders say come from all over the state. 

Propeller is specifically designed to help women in tech get started by using a lean start-up methodology. This includes helping women identify the problem they want to solve; form questions to have conversations with potential customers; develop a new sense of the problem; and, from there, develop a potential solution. Propeller's founders say they ask participants to take part in a minimum of 20 interviews with potential customers and say by the end of the course, the women's original hypotheses likely will have changed. 

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Yarmouth's Kym Dakin says Propeller helped her to launch Nugget, an application focused on enhancing the online meeting experience. It takes the note-taking functions out of the hands of facilitators and participants by capturing and highlighting parts of the meeting in audio and transcript form. Everyone involved in the meeting has the same functionality, so people can compile and organize notes at the end of the meeting. She says a free trial is launching at the beginning of February. 

"The notion of really embracing how to develop a product online was really intriguing to me," Dakin explained.

Anna Ackerman, program developer for the CEI Women's Business Center, and Nick Rimsa, owner of Tortoise Labs, founded Propeller after meeting in Waterville and learning they have similar goals. They say they intend for the course to always be free, so it's accessible for everyone -- because software and software-enabled businesses can create wealth and jobs. People of all ages -- from college students to retirees -- are enrolled. 

"Personally, I think it's too difficult for too many people to start businesses," Rimsa said. "A lot of people have the ability to do it but don't necessarily know where to start."

The program is specifically designed to help female entrepreneurs in Maine, since Ackerman says they don't make as much as male entrepreneurs do -- especially when it comes to tech. Ackerman and Rimsa are hoping to help fill these gaps -- and do something positive for the state of Maine. 

"We would really like for the tech sector to be reflective of Maine's population and for tech start-ups to be solving problems that Maine people are facing," Ackerman acknowledged.

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A new Propeller course is starting this week, but it's already full. There's an online waitlist that women can join to take part in a course starting in late March. Click here for more information.