Publisher’s Note: Emerging Icons is a feature brought to you by Maine Icons. We will be profiling younger Mainers who are active in their communities and on a trajectory for success. Maine is fortunate to have so many talented, hardworking, and entrepreneurial young people and we look forward to sharing their stories as Emerging Icons. – Peter Anania
Christopher Lee had hardly ever been to Maine’s largest city at the time he decided to launch a career in his home state.
“I’d never had a beer in Portland. I had no idea what it was like to work in the city,” he says.
Though he grew up in Eliot, Lee had only been to Portland once before he starting working in the city. And that visit was with his grandparents. As a result, when he landed in Portland to work for Baker, Newman, and Noyes as a business consultant, he hardly knew anyone.
But he didn’t hang back and hope to slowly work his way into the city’s network. Instead, he jumped right into the middle of the state’s business world, and is now working to help other young Mainers do so, too.
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Lee attended an Eggs & Issues gathering hosted by the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce. There, he struck up a conversation with his tablemate, Justin Lamontagne. A commercial real estate broker, Lamontagne invited Lee out to meet another friend from Portland’s business scene. That meeting led to Lee being introduced to Russell Voss, the then-president of Propel, a Chamber-sponsored young professionals group.
”Only in Portland can you go to one or two Eggs and Issues and end up in a leadership position,” muses Lee.
A mere one year after arriving in a city where he knew no one, Lee became president of Propel.
Prior to becoming president, he served as the strategy director for the group’s board, playing a key role in the group’s evolving mission. The group started as a networking organization, then adapted during the recession to help entrepreneurs and small businesses gain or regain their footing in a tough economy. As the economy recovers Lee is now working to once again redirect Propel’s mission and outreach efforts.
When Lee joined the group, its outreach was still primarily based in event hosting, which carried with it a huge cost of over $30,000 a year. Struggling to find donors, Lee and his colleagues began looking for ways to make the group’s mission not only more palatable to donors, but also help to fill a void in the city’s professional community.
The idea Propel ultimately arrived at is aimed at not just solving a Portland-centric problem, but solving a statewide problem – keeping more young professionals in the state.
To help address this problem, Propel is spearheading a program that pairs young professionals with up-and-coming graduates of the Mitchell Institute, providing them with internships and long-term mentoring relationships that hopefully encourages them to stay in Maine after graduation. Eventually, the program will extend to other colleges and universities.
Propel is also taking a high-tech route to connect potential Mainers with current Mainers. They are developing a web app – built by one of their members – that gives people from away’ the opportunity to connect with a Propel member. Whether they are visiting Maine because they have a job offer, an application in or are simply on vacation, the app will connect them with a ready and willing Maine ambassador to speak to them about the state.
Creating that connection is crucial to getting people to take the leap to move up here, says Lee.
“Half the time people don’t accept jobs in Maine because they don’t get over the initial hurdle of living and working here…I didn’t even know what was up here.”
While social media sites, such as LinkedIn, do offer the opportunity to connect with potential mentors or to ask questions of others in the field who live in a different location, those sites don’t guarantee the person you reach out to is interested in helping you. What makes Propel’s app different is that it will connect users with someone who has volunteered to act as an ambassador, someone willing to share their time and knowledge to help build Maine’s young professionals community.
Though the involvement Lee has in Propel may sound like enough to be a full-time job, it is only a volunteer position. Until recently, he worked full-time a technical product manager for WEX, which gave him the opportunity to put his financial and business mind to use while working on software development.
Lee also dabbles in real estate in his spare time, focusing on buying, renovating and renting properties in the Saco/Biddeford area. He is currently in the process of fully renovating a three-unit building to turn it into a four-unit, a job that has required flexibility and creativity from him and the contractor he is working with.
”You learn a lot of things the hard way,” Lee says of the real estate business.
But if all of that is not enough, Lee is now in the process of launching a brand new venture.
He is involved in the business development of an app that will make meal planning and grocery shopping more nutritious and more efficient — something that many of Portland’s residents will appreciate. The app, FoodWise, is currently making its way through the Greenlight Maine contest process. Lee met the app’s creator, Dr. Leland Stillman, when he was serving as a business coach for Greenlight Maine and has continued working to build, improve and pitch the app with Dr. Stillman.
There are not many places in the world where a technical product manager for a large company would have the ability – or time – to work full-time, be heavily involved in a networking group such as Propel, help with the business development of an app and run a real estate business on the side. But in Portland, Christopher Lee has made it possible.
“People here are really interested in making sure they have time to live, but people are also career-minded. People are willing to do what it takes to have both,” he observes of the city.
Lee moved to Portland knowing very little about the city and without a network. Within weeks of moving to the city he reached out, built a network and threw himself wholeheartedly into helping build the city’s young professionals community. He has succeeded at his own career while pushing forward others’ careers and entrepreneurial dreams. Lee is not afraid to take risks, to work hard or to give of his time, and the state of Maine has benefitted from his attitude. That is why Christopher Lee is a Emerging Maine Icon.