C. Love Cookie Project

Cookies with a Purpose

Katherine Slevin, owner of C. Love Cookie Project.

When you walk into the kitchen at The Root Cellar, Portland, when Katherine Slevin, founder and owner of C. Love Cookie Project, is baking, you’ll witness ordered chaos of women moving about with bowls of dough and trays of triangle-shaped cookies; you’ll hear English and French being spoken simultaneously; you’ll smell sweet aromas drifting beyond the kitchen walls; and you’ll sense the comradery of a team of women supporting one another.

C. Love Cookie Project was birthed out of Slevin’s love for pastry, culture, travel, and hearing peoples’ stories. The vision for the project was directly related to her experience working in a refugee camp in Greece two summers ago. “I would be working at the center and people wouldn’t be doing anything. The women are marginalized in Greece. I thought, I need to bring baking skills to these women,” said Slevin. “I spent so much time in Greece just sitting with people and hearing their stories. It changed me.”

Ange Bonheur Muhorakeye preparing cookies.

Returning to Portland and doing regular baking felt empty to Slevin. Her love for the immigrant and refugee community became the driving force behind launching C. Love Cookie Project: a business that employs immigrants and where sales give back to immigrants. While she had a pastry background at bakeries in Chicago and Paris, she envisioned a baking operation that focused on cookies. “Baking cookies is easy. I want the work to be accessible to anyone,” she explained. “And culturally, cookies are the great equalizer. Everyone loves cookies.”

Slevin learned about the Women’s Business Center at CEI and began working with her business advisor, Sarah Guerette. “I know how to bake cookies and love people, but doing numbers and business etiquette I don’t know well. Sarah has been awesome and patient as I’ve grown the business.” With Sarah’s help, Slevin was able to build community connections and establish a payroll system.

“CEI is so well connected in the community and it is so appreciated. The fact that these services are free is just unbelievable.”

–Katherine Slevin, owner, C. Love Cookie Project

Coffeedudes made with Coffee By Design Rebel Blend coffee.

One year after launching the business, the C. Love team is comprised of five women (from Rwanda, Iraq, Canada, and the US), and has given back thousands of dollars to its partner organizations: Portland Adult Education, The Root Cellar Portland, and Way of Life Mission.

A Greater Vision

The dream of teaching immigrants, refugees, and New Americans the basics of baking is also coming to fruition with Slevin’s first Baking Exchange Program class offered through Portland Adult Education. While courses teach basic pastry skills, Slevin will also highlight recipes from other cultures. The C. Love team member from Iraq will teach a course on how to bake a traditional Iraqi cake. The course, beginning in October, is at full enrollment with immigrant and international women. “Giving these women a few extra skills may help them get a start here,” said Slevin.

’cause Digital Marketing

When Jane Harrell, founder of ‘cause, left a senior-management corporate job in 2016 to start the ’cause Digital Marketing, part of her mission was to help clients identify, create and scale out digital marketing tactics that will yield the highest return, while keeping their eye on how to measurably reach their clients’ goals, without breaking the bank. “As much as there was a need for proven marketers who see and share the value these businesses bring to the world, there was a need for a new way of working… a structure that allowed client, team and individual to get the most value for the business, the cause and their personal fulfillment at the same time,” says Harrell.

‘cause Digital Marketing is a boutique, digital marketing firm that specializes in helping pet and cause-based businesses succeed so they can focus on what really matters: changing the world. The team at ‘cause not only understands their clients’ industry but can also offer both one-time and ongoing digital marketing services that drive client loyalty, purchasing behavior and long-time success of both pet and small business’ revenue. The team of 16 pet and cause-focused marketing experts each focus in their own areas of genius, like branding, design, SEO, copywriting, publishing, content and web-management systems, big data management, customer insight, social media strategy and more.

Harrell had two things driving her: The extreme need in the pet space for digital marketers who “got” the industry, and the personal need she, as a successful millennial, had to live and work more sustainably with people and on projects where she could make a difference.

“For years, I’d been the client on the other side of the table, struggling to train marketing firms about the different kind of relationship cause-based brands, especially in the pet space, have to their clients,” Harrell said. Notably, she took on one client because they’d been told by another agency that their project was important because of the value of being “politically correct.” Harrell and team had personal experience with the societal issue and the proven marketing expertise to bring impact to the project.

The ‘cause team has worked with big and small players across the world, including Animal Planet, Petco, IDEXX, the Humane Society of the United States, the American Animal Hospital Association, Random House Publishing and more. The business became profitable in nine months, hitting six figures in under 12 months and more-than doubling that growth in under 24 months. Harrell is a regular speaker at pet-business events across the U.S. and writer for industry publications.

Since leaving her corporate job and starting ’cause, Harrell has worked with the Women’s Business Center at CEI on financial projections and analysis, client onboarding and retention processes, and pricing; among other strategic areas of business growth.

“Sarah and the WBC services have been invaluable,” Harrell said. “I was used to running budgets and strategy for parts of big, global corporations, not start-ups and certainly not a small business. Because of these services (and living in Maine versus the big cities I’d always lived in), ‘cause Digital has flourished.”

Harrell’s passion for the pet industry goes beyond ‘cause. She recently moved to Biddeford from Portland with her fiancé, two dogs, three cats and turtle, runs AdvoCats (and Dogs, Too!), a nearly 60,000-person strong Facebook community offering advice for how anyone can make a difference. She co-owns SocialMediaForAnimals.com, a free website for shelter and social-media managers in the animal-sheltering world to help them grow their careers and resources within the animal welfare world. She also does volunteer wildlife transport for two local wildlife rehab organizations.

“So much of what CEI and the Maine community have given me is the ability to show others what’s possible, and invite them to be a part of it,” Harrell said. “The ‘cause Digital Marketing model proves that we as a society, leaders and a community can do well by doing good in the world. The trick is all about figuring out how… and that’s what we love to do here at ‘cause.”


An Eco-Friendly Salon in the Heart of Portland

Laurel Stanton, owner, Lavender

Laurel Stanton began her career in 2005, after graduating concurrently from high school and vo-tech. “I’ve always known I wanted to have my own business, but there weren’t the right opportunities in Boston, where I’m from,” she said. “Competition is in your face. Nobody goes out of their way to help you get started.” She knew that she would never own a business in Boston.

As she advanced in her career, she and her partner moved north to Portland where they were closer to family. “Portland was instantly welcoming,” she recalled. After working at a local salon, Stanton made the leap to open her own salon, offering eco-friendly products, sustainable practices, and superior customer service.

The biggest obstacle in opening Lavender was finding the right location. Stanton knew that she would need a robust business plan and reliable financing to acquire a property when it became available in the tight Portland real estate market. After developing her business plan with the help of business advisor, Sarah Guerette, at the Women’s Business Center at CEI, Stanton was able to secure financing from Bangor Savings Bank which would allow her to make an offer on the right space.

With an eye set on Washington Ave, a burgeoning neighborhood in Portland’s East End, quickly becoming a destination for food enthusiasts, tourists and locals, Stanton made an offer on a space as soon as it became available and secured 63 Washington Ave as Lavender’s future home.


From the start, keeping products and partners as local and sustainable as possible was paramount. Barrett Made of Portland contracted the build-out; local metal worker, Andrew Pratt, created the sign, salon stations, and trellis; neighbor business Venn + Maker made custom scissor tool rolls and stools for the stations. When Lavender hosted its grand opening, other Washington Ave businesses contributed, including catering by A&C Grocery and beverages from Maine Mead Works. When you walk into Lavender today, you will see a tray of lavender flavored cookies made by local C.Love Cookie Project and pastries from BLVL. The salon features local artists in a rotating gallery space, and instead of taking commission from the artwork sales, she suggests the artists donate 10% to a local organization of their choice.

Working in salons meant Stanton was constantly exposed to products that contained toxic and harmful chemicals, causing eczema on her hands and frequent migraines. When a family member who was diagnosed with cancer inquired about the safety of specific hair products, Stanton began to dive deeper into the world of eco-friendly salon products. Brands like Oway, where all color and styling products are biodynamically harvested in Italy, offer the safest synthetics possible. “The level of sustainability used to make these products is beyond organic,” Stanton explained.

Inside Lavender Salon, 63 Washington Ave, Portland

While eco-friendly practices are not often synonymous with hair salons, Lavender has made it part of its mission to recycle 100% of its post-service waste. Local composting business Garbage to Garden takes all hair clippings. No paper towels or plastic products are used in the salon. Green Circle Salons recycles all chemical and foil waste. The salon’s integration of sustainable products and practices is a stand-out in Portland. “We really don’t have any competitors here,” she said.

For staff, ongoing in-house education is provided, as well as a stipend for outside education. “Education is important- not just for the staff, but also for our clients. We need to know what we’re talking about and why it’s important- everything from hair care and products to sustainable practices,” said Stanton.

Having worked in the hair industry for over a decade, Stanton knows how difficult it is to survive and grow in the field. Some of her previous employers paid exclusively on a commission basis in a staunchly competitive environment, compromising both stylist and client experience. At Lavender, employees are paid an hourly rate plus commission. When stylists are working, they are contributing to the success of the entire salon, not solely to the growth of their personal clientele. “I value my employees. I want them to get paid!” said Stanton.

Lavender Salon was recently nominated for “Best New Business” in the Portland Indie Biz awards. “I’ve never been nominated for anything. I guess we’re doing something right!” Stanton concluded.

Your Maine Concierge

Maine's Local Hospitality Expert

Vanessa Santarelli, owner, Your Maine Concierge

Vanessa Santarelli was born and raised in Maine and grew up with a deep appreciation for local food.  Her father and grandparents were chefs and owners of Italian restaurants in New York and Maine.  Family meals always included homemade breads, soups, pastas, sausages, and fresh salads from lettuces and vegetables grown in their garden or foraged in the fields and forests up in Lincoln.

For her entire life, exploring and supporting local restaurants, inns and experiences around the state was a high priority. Her 20-year career in advocacy and public policy gave her the opportunity to travel to every corner of Maine, experiencing all the state had to offer. While she was proud of her successful track record of lobbying on behalf of many social service and non-profit organizations, she wanted to give back in a different way.

Santarelli was enamored by the idea and concept of hosting and curating Maine experiences for locals and visitors alike, centering around their specific interests and travel goals. While she had run a statewide non-profit before, she had never started, owned or run a small business. What she did have was an entire life of investing in and experiencing the hospitality industry around the state, and a passion for the success of local Maine restaurants, hotels, and other tourism-related businesses. “I wanted to make the Maine experience more memorable for visitors, as well as for my fellow Mainers wanting to visit other regions they had never been to before in their home state,” she said.

Santarelli had worked with CEI in her previous career at the state house, and when she decided to start the process of opening Your Maine Concierge, she knew they could help. She met with business advisor, David Hill, on a weekly basis, and his assistance was invaluable. “The business advising services were a great help to me and integral in getting Your Maine Concierge up and running. I developed a workplan with David Hill’s assistance. He brought up the right questions and issues to think through as I was developing the concept,” Santarelli said.

“Were it not for CEI’s free business advising services, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

–Vanessa Santarelli, owner, Your Maine Concierge

As the business development was well underway, Santarelli also secured a loan from CEI to help with initial startup costs, which included creating a brand and marketing strategy, advertising and marketing, website development and printing costs.

Your Maine Concierge officially launched in October 2017 as Maine’s first and only statewide, personalized vacation itinerary planning service for lodging, dining, and activities, and Santarelli is the expert behind it all. Her firsthand experiences positioned her well to become knowledgeable about exactly where and what to eat, where to stay, and the ability to offer her clients unique activities that aren’t necessarily known and available to the public. Your Maine Concierge’s services are offered in three pricing tiers so that people at all income levels can have the opportunity to get a taste of all that Maine has to offer.

“It is unusual to work with someone with such a unique and original business idea,” said business advisor David Hill. “I’m confident that Vanessa has the energy and creativity to build a successful business that others will soon be trying to copy elsewhere.”

As a first-time business owner, Santarelli explained, “It’s rewarding to know that every day I am directly supporting and helping to strengthen Maine businesses in every region, while giving my clients fond memories they will never forget.”  By carefully tailoring each client’s vacation experience, she is not only supporting the tourism industry, but the state’s economy overall.

“Like countless other Mainers, I have a deep love of my home state…and I am one of those fortunate to have found a new way to give back.”

Rudman Winchell Law Firm

Serving the business community of Bangor and beyond

Rudman Winchell Law Firm’s Carin Sychterz and Jonathan Bench, Attorney at Law, approached CEI’s Business Advisor Ashleigh Briggs for advice on how to create an entrepreneurial service for small businesses in the community.  “We knew we wanted to create a program for entrepreneurs, and we wanted to make sure we did it right.  It was important to understand what the needs are, so we offer a service that provides a value to the community,” said Syrchterz.

Briggs helped the team through the discovery phase of the new service.

“The advice and guidance from Ashleigh at CEI helped us break down the big idea into smaller pieces. She helped us approach the process in a new way, from a business perspective. With her help we determined how to deliver the best possible service to the most people.”-Carin Sychterz, Rudman Winchell

“As a business lawyer, I don’t often serve the small business community. This service will allow us to be accessible to our community,” said Bench. “Where we’ve had to send clients to Boston or New York, we will now be able to meet their needs here in Maine.”

The team hopes that the new entrepreneurial service will have an international reach to help clients in Canada, as well as in Maine.


Fork & Spoon

Vegan Restaurant in Downtown Bangor

Elisabeth Dean, owner, Fork & Spoon

As a first-time business owner, Elisabeth Dean has approached running downtown Bangor’s Fork & Spoon with passion, excellence, and a vision for growth. She purchased an existing vegan juice shop, renovated the interior, and expanded the menu to meet the needs of many different diets. She employs anywhere from 12 to 15 employees at any given time.

“Being a female business owner has its own challenges. This is a male dominated industry. You really have to prove yourself,” said Dean. “Having support has been a huge resource.”

Dean began working with business advisors at CEI who provided support in thoroughly identifying and documenting business numbers and considering what it means to be fiscally strong at all times. “They’ve helped me think about how I’m spending my money and time.”

Ranked in the top 10 vegan restaurants in Maine, Dean envisions expansion in catering services, local partnerships, and an overall thriving downtown.

Children’s Odyssey

Opportunity and Hope for Kids and Families in Need

Newly renovated Reed School: home to Children’s Odyssey (right), and future affordable housing units (left)

Using State Historic Tax Credits, CEI provided financing to bridge remediation and renovation costs to move Children’s Odyssey to the historic Reed School in Portland. After 25 years, Children’s Odyssey, a nonprofit childcare center focused on kids with developmental disabilities, had outgrown its capacity with 75 children enrolled.

“Over the years we have operated out of a variety of locations and we’ve made it work, but we quickly outgrew the spaces and they were never a perfect fit,” said Susan McCormick, Director at Children’s Odyssey.

Management identified the mothballed Reed School on Homestead Ave in Portland, and the organization worked with CEI to purchase the State Historic Tax Credits and secure a bridge loan for its expansion.

“John and Daniel [from CEI] have been instrumental to the Reed project,” said Heather Lumb of Developers Collaborative.

Classroom at the new Reed School location

As a women-owned, operated, and controlled business, Children’s Odyssey has established a reputation in the community as an organization that is meeting the needs of an often-underserved population. The childcare facility primarily works with children with autism or behavioral problems between the ages of two and five. The specialized approach and 100% Department of Education certified staff see remarkable progress in the children who go through the program, and in some instances, complete elimination of symptoms.

Mayor Ethan Strimling with Children’s Odyssey directors at the Reed School ribbon cutting ceremony in August 2018

Children’s Odyssey currently employs 24 staff, and the expansion will create 10 to 11 new positions by early 2019. With a low turnover rate, and several employees who have been with the organization for more than ten years, the management of Children’s Odyssey is proof that offering quality jobs to employees pays off. With competitive wages, paid vacation time, insurance benefits, and paid training and certification of all teachers, the management strives to create a desirable work environment. People go into the special needs education field because of their passion for helping children, but they stay at places like The Children’s Odyssey because of the team-oriented inclusivity, open and frequent communication, and notable benefits.

At the ribbon cutting ceremony in August, Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling spoke about the need for Universal Pre-K and that of the more than 500 children in Portland needing Pre-K services, only 120 are currently served. Institutions like Children’s Odyssey are critical in meeting the need.

“The mission at Children’s Odyssey is such that those children who won’t get a spot elsewhere will get one here,” said Strimling.

Neighbors of the new Reed School location are offering a tremendous amount of support for the project and are actively determining how some of the two-and-a-half acres of green space can be shared for community uses.

The Captain’s Catch

Deborah Hamblen-Wood, owner of The Captain’s Catch, and Ruth Cash-Smith, CEI Women’s Business Advisor

In late March, Deborah Hamblen-Wood began working with Women’s Business Advisor Ruth Cash-Smith on plans to lease the Castine take-out, located right next to where the State of Maine Maritime Academy training ship docks.

Over the next few months, Deb purchased equipment, finalized a menu, conducted a pricing analysis, painted a fun sign, and stocked up on supplies.  The only thing she didn’t need to order was fresh lobster, caught by her partner Walt, captain of F/V Western Bay.

The Captain’s Catch Take-Out launched on May 20 to amazing community support and outstanding reviews.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever guessed that I would be (a) running a take out in Castine, (b) purchasing sliced pickles by the five-gallon tub and (c) making wonderful new friends along the way,” said Deb.

Mahala’s Day Spa

Changing a Business Model to Benefit Employees

Five years into owning and operating Mahala’s Day Spa, Hiedi Hayden had already operated in two different spaces, and renovated a third, tripling in size, as the growth of her business pushed expansion after expansion. “In order to continue growing, we needed to look at the business model,” Hayden said. “The original business model was working, but I knew that we needed to change to continue to grow over the next five years.”

Hiedi Hayden, owner of Mahala’s Day Spa in Manchester, Maine

Mahala’s Day Spa began as a booth rental establishment, where employees pay a set fee to have access to a dedicated space within the spa. After five years of operating in this manner with continued growth, Hayden knew they needed to reconsider Mahala’s business model. With booth rentals, spa management can’t enforce products or dress code, making it difficult to create a consistent experience for all clients. Establishing an expectation of professionalism and quality of service was key for Hayden, and with the continued growth of the business, she knew she needed to reconsider the way she was managing the spa.

Hayden reached out to the Small Business Development Center in August of 2017 and began working with CEI Master Certified Business Advisor, Brad Swanson. She knew the shift to operating the business as an employee manager required significant changes. Typically, only very large destination spas offer benefits to employees; small, privately owned spas can rarely offer benefits to employees. Hiedi saw this transition as an opportunity and motivating factor in shifting away from the booth rental model.

“Working with my business advisor was instrumental in relieving anxiety and giving me confidence. He listened to my vision and was supportive in finding a way to offer benefits to the hard-working people in the industry who deserve it.” –Hiedi Hayden, owner, Mahala’s Day Spa

With the new business model in place as of early March, Hayden has retained all but one staff members and is now able to offer Mahala’s Day Spa employees retirement contributions, health insurance, paid vacation, paid trainings, and opportunities for continuing education. “One of our massage therapists,” she said, “has really blossomed with the change. She’s more involved, more social, and is helping us define new products.” Since the transition, Hayden has hired three new employees, re-hired a past booth renter who returned because of the shift to employee status, and has seen two employees step up into leadership roles in the business.


Niyat Catering

Authentic Ethiopian Cuisine in Maine

In November 2016, PROPEL, CEI, Fork Food Lab, Maine Access Immigrant Network, and the Maine Public Health Association collaborated to co-host a promotional Taste the World event to bring together the increasingly diverse Greater Portland community over a shared love of food. The success of that event led to the development of the New Mainer Culinary Entrepreneur Program, which supports immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs in the culinary field in Maine through a multi-pronged approach.

This approach includes promotion at regular Taste the World community building events, and the provision of the New Mainer Culinary Entrepreneur Scholarship that covers the cost of a three month membership at Fork Food Lab, ServeSafe Certification, Department of Agriculture License, and insurance for one year.  It also includes business support from CEI’s Start Smart program, a program that offers free, confidential business counseling for New Americans starting or expanding a business in Maine.

As the first recipient of the New Mainer Culinary Entrepreneur Scholarship, Aklilu Tsaedu, owner of Niyat Catering, was able to launch his Ethiopian catering business at Fork Food Lab.

Aklilu Tsaedu, owner of Niyat Catering based in Portland

“Without the help, I wouldn’t have been able to start. Everything really worked well. I don’t expect to continue to get help, but the little jumpstart has allowed me to get going,” said Tsaedu.

When he moved to Maine 12 years ago from his home country, Ethiopia, he quickly learned that people were looking for a variety of healthy foods. His love for cooking traditional Ethiopian food, which is known for being very nutritious, coupled with the opportunity he saw in Portland, was what made him want to start a food business.

With support from CEI’s Start Smart program, he developed a business plan to begin with catering, rather than his initial idea, a restaurant. He received a microloan from CEI which allowed him to supplement the Scholarship and purchase kitchen equipment and pay for a catering license and some other startup costs.

Tsaedu began selling his food at Portland Adult Education, and at local events including the annual Festival of Nations and CEI’s 40th Anniversary Celebration, all of which gave him some visibility in the community. Being a member at Fork Food Lab has also provided exposure for the business without paying money for advertising. “Fork always has events and open houses for visibility,” he said. “It is a wonderful kitchen and a very good place to work.” Tsaedu’s success has allowed him to continue on as a member of Fork Food Lab after his scholarship has ended.

Tsaedu’s food will be featured at this year’s Taste the World event on November 8th at Fork Food Lab. The event will be sponsored by Machias Savings Bank as a part of their sponsorship of PROPEL’s In Focus Series. The event will serve as a fundraiser to make another New Mainer Entrepreneur Scholarship available.  Machias Savings Bank has offered to generously match up to $1,250 in funds raised at the event.