by Jamie Carter-Logan, Bryan Roche and Peter Anania
As Brunswick-based Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI) approaches its 40th year of supporting local businesses, Betsy Biemann is looking back at what led her to become the head of an organization that works to expand opportunities for all Mainers.
Her work has been — and continues to be — rooted in purpose. In a world that has and continues to face social, environmental and economic challenges, she has spent a career empowering others, helping them to access the skills to better their families and communities. Now, Biemann and CEI will look to spend the next 40 years facing these challenges head-on.
“We believe that if you work hard and work-full time, you shouldn’t live in poverty. You should be able to support yourself and your family,” says Biemann.
Her journey to Maine began in an unexpected place — a rural Kenyan village. Fresh out of college, the journey lit the fire that has fueled a lifetime’s worth of meaningful work.
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A New England native, Biemann attended Harvard to study biology. But as she would soon discover, the study of living organisms was not quite her true passion. Biemann wanted, however, to find a way to utilize all the knowledge and information at her disposal to make the world a better place. She also admits that she wanted to travel and live somewhere new.
After graduating, she received a Rotary Fellowship to teach in Kenya. She was there during a period of upheaval in Africa — South Africa’s apartheid was a global issue, and investors were moving their money out of the country to protest the policy. Biemann quickly became intrigued by the notion of economic development as a tool for social change.
“It really inspired me to think about both economic and community development as a real deep interest,” says Biemann. “Investment doesn’t only have a financial impact, it can have an important social impact.”
After her year in Kenya, Biemann decided the best way for her to make an impact was to dive deep into economics. So, without wasting any time, she enrolled in a Princeton’s master’s program in public policy that encompassed economics, finance and political science. Her graduate work led her to a fellowship at the Rockefeller Foundation, where she worked for a year looking at how subsistence farmers in Africa could supplement their livelihood by also growing cash crops.
After a stint at the New York-based Synergos Institute, Biemann returned to the Rockefeller Foundation, but this time, with a slightly different focus. She began considering how the economic development work in African countries could provide lessons for effective policies in the United States, particularly in low-income and rural areas. Biemann explains that this was a flip on how such matters had traditionally been considered — people generally studied how lessons from the United States could be applied to poorer, developing nations.
A major theme that Biemann took from her work at the Rockefeller Foundation was that there is a tremendous value in investing in girls’ education. She worked on improving the quality of learning in African communities while actively engaging political and educational leaders in sub-saharan countries. She worked with African women leaders with one goal in mind: provide research that demonstrates the importance of education for young girls. With that research and results in hand, they could then go to the World Bank and governments to ask for investments in education.
“Working in regions experiencing that level of poverty was challenging, but I was also seeing lessons to be learned and investments being made,” Biemann says of her ten years with the Rockefeller Foundation.
She was making a difference, but after a decade working in New York, she was feeling the tug of home. Both she and her husband were born and raised in New England, so they began searching for work in the region. The couple had family in Maine, and Biemann says the state had a special place in their heart.
“I always felt that Maine had a very strong community ethic.” she adds.
When she started looking for work, she was fortunate that the Maine Technology Institute (MTI) was looking for a new leader. She quickly landed the job, and the couple found a home. With the stars aligned, her and her husband closed on the house the very same day she started her new role at MTI.
Biemann’s time at MTI was marked by several accomplishments. One of which was the administration of a $53 million bond that was distributed through three rounds of grants to companies and non-profit research institutions. Those awarded grant money had strong ideas for businesses or research that could turn into commercial products and create good jobs for people across Maine.
One Maine-based beneficiary, the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, was awarded $4.5 million. The organization used the funds to leverage $14 million in federal grants to build a world-class facility on the Maine coast. Since then, they have added a dormitory to house visiting researchers, making the coast of Maine a destination for marine biology research.
The investment is paying dividends for Mainers, too. Biemann recalls the story of a young lab technician who had grown up in a nearby town. He thought he would never be able to find a research position in his home state. But with the investment in the East Boothbay lab, he was able to live in a rural town and work in a globally-recognized research facility.
After leaving MTI, Biemann was still able to continue her work impacting Maine’s economic development. She headed up a project at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government that studied Maine’s food and agricultural industry and their combined impact as an economic driver.
Now, at CEI, Maine’s food and agriculture industry are no small part of the work Biemann is doing to drive investment in the state. She cites companies like Gelato Fiasco and Maine Craft Distilling that CEI has invested in, which are adding value to Maine agricultural products like barley, blueberry and milk.
It’s companies like those two that Biemann says give her confidence despite social and economic challenges.
“You can’t help but be optimistic when you meet the entrepreneurs and business owners who are starting and growing businesses, creating good jobs and creating a ripple effect helping to build a better economy.”
CEI has some additional big Maine names on its list of beneficiaries – Sea Bags, Dog Not Gone and American Roots are just a few that CEI’s team has worked with over the years. Now, as the organization reaches 40 years in operation, she and CEI’s president, Keith Bisson, are looking to the future.
And for Biemann, that future must include immigrants and refugees.
“The Maine population would be decreasing if it weren’t for immigrants and refugees,” she says. “Cumberland County’s unemployment rate is 3% and that’s constraining economic growth. We need every possible person who can be working to be in our workforce.”
CEI operates the SmartStart program, which specifically works with the immigrant population to help them get started on their entrepreneurial journey. The project encompasses much more than just investing; it helps people to get access to English language lessons and job and skill training.
She also sees environmental concerns as a major player in CEI’s future. They will be purposefully increasing investments in renewable energy as well as helping companies to reduce their carbon footprint and operate more efficiently.
CEI has been helping Maine entrepreneurs get off the ground for nearly 40 years. With Betsy Biemann at the helm, they have helped Maine businesses wend their way through a difficult period of transition. Biemann could have lived and worked anywhere, but she chose to come to Maine to invest in our state and our community. Now, she has her eyes set on a prosperous future for Maine, and a resume that gives her the tools and a unique perspective to help guide investments in the state.
That’s why Betsy Biemann is a Maine Icon.
All photos by Peter Anania