Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle and recorded at the studios of Maine Magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Thompson. Show summaries are available at lovemaineradio.com. Here are a few highlights from this week’s program.
Jean Hoffman: I am not a person who dislikes conflict, I actually really like conflict not for the sake of doing battle, but for instance in a company environment, I like different points of view coming out because that’s how you arrive at the best decision.
Xavier Botana: I think that that’s the only way to do that, obviously engaging with the political entities that make those decisions. The school board first, the city counsel, and ultimately with voters is an important part of the mix.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle and you are listening to Love Maine Radio. Show number 304, entrepreneurship and education airing for the first time on Sunday, July 16, 2017. Sometimes, it takes a willingness to engage in conflict and work our way through difficult situations in order to succeed. Today we discuss this idea with executive and entrepreneur, Jean Hoffman, who has recently featured in Maine Magazine’s 50 Mainers issue. We also speak with Portland Public Schools superintendent, Xavier Botana. Thank you for joining us.
Speaker 1: Portland Art Gallery is proud to sponsor Love Maine Radio. Portland Art Gallery is the city’s largest and is located in the heart of the old port at 154 Middle street. The gallery focuses on exhibiting the work of contemporary Maine artists and hosts a series of monthly solo shows in its newly expanded space including Ingunn Joergensen, Brenda Cirioni, Daniel Corey, Jill Hoy and Dave Allen. For complete show details, please visit our website at artcollectormaine.com.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: My next guest is Jean Hoffman who is an executive and entrepreneur who has built successful companies in the global pharmaceutical, veterinary and healthcare information technology industries. In 2006, she founded Putney, a Portland based pet medicine company that was sold last year for $200 million. Well I’m impressed, thanks for coming in.
Jean Hoffman: Thanks for having me.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: You also happen to be one of our 50 Mainers this year from Maine Magazine, so congratulations on that honor.
Jean Hoffman: Thank you, it is an honor. I am looking forward to seeing who the other 49 are this year.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: Tell me about your company, tell me why you decided that you wanted to go into pet medicine?
Jean Hoffman: I had been in the pharmaceutical industry actually my entire career, and so Putney was the second company I built here in Portland, Maine, and the first one was healthcare information technology and the information was related to pharmaceuticals. With selling that company, the HIT sector was consolidating, and the information we provided helped companies find niche products that were more profitable, had less competition on a global basis. So I wanted to take that expertise and develop a company that did that type of product.
I looked at a number of places where I thought there would be product opportunities and found a great opportunity in pet medicine where there was no successful generic drug company. Pet owners, as many of you know, spend a lot of money on their pet family members. Very few people have insurance, and so there was a real opportunity to provide lower cost generic drugs for pets just like people are using for their prescription drugs for their human family members that are saving the US healthcare system so many billions of dollars.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: What there an aha moment? Were you a pet owner yourself? Where did you come to this realization that this is where you wanted to focus your energies.
Jean Hoffman: It was driven by two things and one was a cat I had some years back. One of our early adopted cats who in his old age developed hyperthyroidism which is common in cats, and he required medication initially once a day and then twice a day. There was at the time he first went on to this medication, no generic and it was a human drug. It was initially $30 a month for my cat and then $60 a month for my cat which is a lot of money for many people. I knew that the product could be generic and eventually it was generic as a human drug.
So that was part of it, and then the other part of it was as I mentioned, that I saw this opportunity to build a company that provided cost-savings and really provided a great service to pet owners so they could afford to care for their pets. It’s both an attractive financial opportunity and driven by this love of my cat, and the understanding that lots of people love their pets.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: How did you decide that you wanted to go into business?
Jean Hoffman: That’s an interesting question because I come a family, I’m from Washington, DC, and I come from a family of writers, editors, my brother writes books, so it was not the expected course. But I majored in East Asian history at Bowdoin, and I was really interested in China, and I had learned Chinese. So I went back to DC, and my first job that I got was at a quasi governmental organization that was assisting US companies wanting to open up business with China. Being the lowest person on that totem pole when I was hired as a kid right out of Bowdoin, I was assigned to lead a Chinese delegation around the US that no one wanted.
They were a bunch of chemical engineers running pharmaceutical factories in China, and that’s really how I got in. I took these people all around the US and they reciprocated by inviting me to visit their facilities in China. Chinese pharmaceutical manufacturing of what’s called the API, the active pharmaceutical ingredient that makes the drug work. These factories were located in the Chinese hinder lands for security reasons, and westerners were not allowed. But because these high level communist party members had invited me and I was not a chemical engineer, and not a chemist, and 22 years old and not really a threat to anybody, I was allowed to go visit. It was an incredible opportunity to learn and build connections. That was the start of my career-long involvement in the pharmaceutical industry.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: You went to Bowdoin at the time when there were not that many women because they had only recently integrated.
Jean Hoffman: This is true. Joni Benoit and I were in the class of 1979 and that’s a really long time ago.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: I am not sure that all of the men that went to Bowdoin at that time necessarily wanted women to be introduced to their college. Is that fair to say?
Jean Hoffman: I say, they all wanted women to be introduced, whether they wanted them as equal members in their fraternities, and to really have women as equals and 50% of the campus. That would be the question.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: Tell me what that was like as a learning environment for you starting out as a 17-year-old.
Jean Hoffman: I think it actually helped me to become tougher in ways that were helpful because Bowdoin was not my tribe and I didn’t fully become conscious of that until after I left. Years later like many people, I sort of figured out more about who my tribe was and built connections on a global basis and looked back perhaps more insightful than I had looked at things when I was 18 and starting Bowdoin. I think it made me tougher, it was a place where I was pretty different from most of the people, certainly the prevailing group at Bowdoin, it was in many ways hostile.
I think the male female ratio when I started was four to one, I hadn’t realized that when I applied. I think it, overall was helpful in making me tougher because as a woman in business, and the businesses I’ve been in and the roles I’ve had have always been pioneering, groundbreaking entrepreneurial, building things, fighting battles. So being in a hostile environment with a tribe that wasn’t mine was actually really helpful.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: Some people don’t like conflict, some people don’t like having to be in a hostile environment. Is this something that you, I don’t want to say like, but is it something you felt comfortable enough that you could actually grow within it rather than recede within yourself?
Jean Hoffman: That’s a really perceptive observation, and I am not a person who dislikes conflict, I actually really like conflict, not for the sake of doing battle, but for instance in a company environment, I like different points of view coming out because that’s how you arrive at the best decision. In terms of targeting markets, if you don’t have conflict, you’re not going against a competitor or creating a big opportunity, to just accept things as they are, grow incrementally, go along with the crowd has zero interest for me.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: In some ways, though they weren’t your tribe, it was kind of a perfect place for you to be at Bowdoin at the time.
Jean Hoffman: I hesitate to agree with you on perfect, but I learned a lot. I guess I would agree that there are so many opportunities in any situation to make the best of it and to learn, and to triumph individually, not over other people but in terms of your own development. I’ve always welcomed those opportunities and cherish that kind of characteristic in other people. I think that’s part of how we succeeded at Putney is we built a whole team of people who love nothing more than overcoming obstacles. Intellectual challenges, things that hadn’t been done before, tough submissions and regulations at the FDA, you know, how do you figure that out and do it to a really excellent level where you can succeed. The people who love doing that are the people who built the company, and that’s very much how I am. Bring it on, let’s take that hill.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: As I’m listening to you talk about these situations you are in, you describe fortuitously in becoming involved in Chinese industry, and China has now has subsequently become really well-known as a worldwide leader in industry. Back when you were doing this, I don’t think that people recognize that that was the case.
Jean Hoffman: You’re right.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: Also healthcare information technology which I’m thinking that when you were doing this we were still doing paper charts up until about 20 years ago, so health information technology was also still new and not recognized I think quite yet as being what it was going to become, then pet pharmaceuticals which now we all say, “Oh, of course.” You’re talking about just consistently bumping up against things that didn’t exist yet as being important and still being willing to, I guess feel your way through.
Jean Hoffman: I sought those out, yes. At Newport which was the first company I built in healthcare information technology, I used to describe our chief competitor as two of them, paper files and in your head, so we really were doing something new and bringing a computerized database with proprietary algorithms and data to enable people to search for information that previously they might have found were kept on paper files or had in their head. So yes, it was revolutionary and that made it fun.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: In addition to being willing to deal with conflict, there’s also a need to be collaborative and persuasive, because if you’re dealing with health information tel you’re also dealing with people who are kind of happy with the status quo. I mean I’ve worked within the health field now for two decades and I know that there are still people who wish that we were back on paper charts.
Jean Hoffman: We weren’t dealing with charts and we weren’t dealing with healthcare providers, we were providing information on pharmaceutical manufacturing, patent, sales to pharmaceutical companies. You’re particularly right. When your business impacts consumers, and patients and providers who were serving them, and that is an area where a much greater sensitivity is needed and there are far greater implications in terms of HIPAA, or prior to HIPAA, people’s confidentiality, and risk of treatment not being documented. A very important point particularly in that area.
But certainly yes, I have described the central dilemma and characteristics of an entrepreneur as being around how much to listen and how much to not listen and forge your own way. That encompasses what you’re talking about. Yes, you have to not only be collaborative but you have to be able to inspire other people whom you’re leading or working with, you have to inspire other people to take on your new thing, your new system to adopt to your generic drugs for pets when their vet practice is used to paying more, and buying from the brand side and sucking up all of their information that they provide.
You have to convince people and therefore you have to be able to listen and understand their point-of-view. At the same time, you have to be able to see the new way and chart that course for others to the new way. It’s a very important combination of skills, get it wrong and you can be a bully. I won’t mention any now. Or you can be totally dragged down by the existing paradigm, so you have to have a, I think a unique fusion of those two characteristics. Malcolm Gladwell talks about the characteristics of entrepreneurs and people who drive change. He’s very perceptive on the subject.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: What are you working on now? What is your latest business endeavor?
Jean Hoffman: I am investing and looking for investments in early stage companies. I’m also serving on some boards of directors in discussions about other boards of directors. I’m looking to help a number of companies at various stages from startup to larger companies and a board role. I’m looking to help a number of companies accelerate growth which is what I really love.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: What are the characteristics of these companies that you are seeking out now? What grabs you, what causes you to pay attention?
Jean Hoffman: Always what’s most important is the management team, the team of people. That’s really the number one, two and three thing, is the team of people. One company I’ve invested in and joined the board of here in Portland is MedRhythms which was founded by two guys from Maine and is building a music therapy device and system for people with gait issues, issues in walking. These guys are fabulous. The company is focused on a very, very large need, a very large opportunity, they have unique technology [inaudible 00:19:16] recently filed a patent. It’s really the capabilities and the talent of those two founders that interests me.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: Narrowing that down then, what do you look for on a well-functioning team? Or what do you look for in a leader, in an entrepreneur?
Jean Hoffman: A lot of it is that combination that we just talked about where they both listen and don’t listen, where they are inspired and unafraid. A lack of fear is very important with the ability to manage risks. The vision to do something disruptive, and big and build, at the same time a very strong ability to listen in order to understand customer needs, understand the issues, understand the FDA requirements certainly in pharma and many other healthcare situations, are important to understand and comply with the FDA, and at the same time have the vision to build something big and great.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: Just as you’re describing an individual who has a certain combination, it must be also true that this team have a very specific set of characteristics?
Jean Hoffman: Yes it’s true because one of the faults of entrepreneurs or of company leaders, even of much larger companies is excessive reliance on or power to one person. I also look for people who balance each other out and can criticize each other. You asked the question about being conflict diverse, and so that ability to have conflict that is productive is actually really important. To do that, you have to have people who respect each other, and listen to each other and are unafraid and actually welcome challenging each other. That’s a really important criteria and an important ingredient in success.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: I’m not sure that we are actually helping people to learn how to deal with conflict, and I would say in our current system. I know that’s a big statement but I think a lot of what I see in organizations is people who don’t like conflict, instead of verbalizing it and try to kind of mackle through it, they will pull back, they’ll be passive-aggressive, they’ll leave. I think part of this is that people don’t have a comfort with the idea that it’s okay, it is okay to actually feel differently than someone else, have a different idea than someone else.
Jean Hoffman: I think that’s extremely well-said and it’s an extremely important point. Even the word conflict, it has kind of a negative connotation. I love conflict, but most people don’t. I grew up with lots of good arguments around the dinner table, and you are absolutely right that we don’t necessarily teach people or welcome disagreement, positive, constructive disagreement. Often, I think now the pendulum is sort of swinging excessively in the direction of teamwork.
You can waste a lot of time getting bogged down and trying to do things as a group instead of doing things in the most productive way possible and having the people who were best at doing things do them. You can waste a lot of time not surfacing disagreements and get caught by things that someone down the line might have seen early on, but to your point didn’t bring up, or didn’t feel comfortable bringing up or didn’t feel would be welcomed. I think it’s an excellent point.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: How do we get to the other side of that? How do we help people be able to work within this environment? Because as you’ve proven, it’s an environment that can actually be very successful, and if it’s successful for the company, it’s likely to be successful for the individual and for the economy locally, so it’s important to learn.
Jean Hoffman: I think so. It’s one of so many things right now that I don’t have a good answer for, but I do think you need to pick leaders who have those characteristics. I think welcoming conflict and disagreement and asking questions to get to the bottom of things are very important. Certainly, a lot of success in life and behaviors go back to schools. So if we have teachers, great teachers … If I had to cite one thing that’s most important in success in America, in building a successful workforce, I would say great teachers, great elementary school teachers.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: You and I both have children, and one of things I think about often is how I want my children to exist in the world whatever it is that I’ve given them foundationally, and they can do whatever they want, but there are certain things that I hope they learned from me. What are the things that you hope that your children have learned from you?
Jean Hoffman: One of them would be that ability to both listen and [hued 00:26:09] their own course. I would hope that both of my kids are good listeners and very perceptive about what’s going on in the world around them even in particular and unfamiliar situations. We’ve traveled a lot so they’ve spent a lot of time visiting different countries and that’s interesting on so many different levels, but I hope has honed their ability to listen and perceive in different cultural environments and learn from that.
That ability to both listen and chart their own course, I have always hoped most fundamentally for my kids that they were each their own people. That they were smart, that they were kind, that they were tough, that they were good listeners and highly competent, but that most fundamentally that each of them figured out who they were as people, and what they want to do and how they want to be and pursue that, not trying to be someone else or be influenced by someone else.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: I agree. I hope that my children have exactly that. I think you and I are very kindred spirits on that point. From your lips to, if there’s a God, God’s ears. How’s that? I’ve been speaking with Jean Hoffman who is an executive and an entrepreneur who has built successful companies in the global pharmaceutical, veterinary and healthcare information technology industries who in 2006 founded Putney, a Portland based pet medicine company that was sold last year for $200 million. You can read more about Jean in our 50 Mainers issue of Maine Magazine. Thanks so much for coming in.
Jean Hoffman: Thank you, it’s been a great pleasure.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is also brought to you by Aristelle, a lingerie boutique on Exchange Street in Portland’s old port, where everybody is seen as a work of art and beauty is celebrated from the inside out. Shop with us in person or online at aristelle.com.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: My next guest is Xavier Botana who has been the superintendent of Portland Public Schools since 2016. Before moving to Maine, Botana had been the associate superintendent of Michigan city area schools in Indiana since 2010. Thanks for coming in today.
Xavier Botana: It’s my pleasure
Dr. Lisa Belisl: You’ve moved around quite a lot in your lifetime.
Xavier Botana: I have.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: Starting with your family being from Cuba.
Xavier Botana: Yes. I was born in Cuba shortly after the Cuban revolution. Like so many Cubans at the time, my family was in a situation where they really wanted to get out. So we left sort of in waves, my grandparents left first and they went to Spain, and then a couple of years later my parents shift me and my younger brother off to Spain to be reunited with my grandparents. When they were able to get permission to move to the US they did, and then the whole family came over and we were reunited here. We’re like Cuban refugees, like so many other families that left at that time.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: How old were you when you lived in Spain without your parents?
Xavier Botana: I was two years old when I left Cuba, my younger brother was just barely a year old.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: Do you have any memory of being there?
Xavier Botana: Only just growing up and dinner, Sunday dinner conversations with my grandparents and their friends and all of the refugee community when they get together. So I have all of these mental images of Cuba and obviously no real recollections because I was two years old.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: Do you have recollection of living, I mean I guess two, you probably wouldn’t, but any recollections of being without your parents?
Xavier Botana: No, nothing specific, I don’t have a recollection. We always lived with my grandparents in a large extended family, so in many ways my grandma was always the first point of contact. My mom worked right away when we moved to the states and so when we came from home school, before we went to school, when we were just staying at home it was with my grandma. We had an elderly aunt that also lived with us. There were eight of us in a Volkswagen beetle, it was a lot of fun getting around.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: That’s quite an image.
Xavier Botana: Yes, and it was one of the old Volkswagen beetles, they’re much smaller than the current ones.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: Where did you eventually end up, where did your family end up living?
Xavier Botana: Chicago area.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: In Chicago.
Xavier Botana: Yes, in the Chicago area, in the south suburbs of Chicago, Chicago heights park forest, that area.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: There were other people who had also been refugees from Cuba there as well?
Xavier Botana: Yes. It’s an interesting sort of story about refugees. My parents got and they came like so many other people to Miami, and my father was in Miami for a week and he decided that he needed to get out of Miami because there were too many Cubans. So we never had like big links to Miami. When he retired after working for 30 some years, he retired to Miami. At that point, having lots of Cubans was a good thing.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: That does seem to be the way that it works sometimes, it’s sort of the things that you don’t think want and then you end up having them in the end.
Xavier Botana: Yes.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: How has this been helpful to you coming in to the Portland schools, this understanding yourself of kind of carrying within you different cultures and a complex family background?
Xavier Botana: I think it was instrumental. In my seeking the job in the first place I wanted to work in a place where there was a diverse community and there was a commitment to that community and sort of understanding the value of having different people living together. I think that that was important for me and I think it also was helpful for the selection pc that I think my story resonates with a lot of people in this community.
My experiences are not completely unlike that of many of our students and their parents. One of the things that makes this really a great place for me is understanding that that is the experience that our kids go through, and knowing that education is the most vital institution in helping to put all of that behind. That’s the reason so many families come here because they want to have an education for their children that’s not accessible where they come from.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: What was it like being in Michigan city in Indiana, how did the school systems compare?
Xavier Botana: Size-wise, it’s a very similar school district. We have roughly 7,000 students, Michigan city has roughly 6,000 students. The population is different. We were incredibly diverse, a third of our kids come from a home where english is not the first language spoken and we have kids from 60 different language groups. It’s very multifaceted student population.
Michigan city is more of a traditional blue collar, it’s a former milk community, smaller in size than in Portland but obviously with a larger percentage of children in the schools. It’s about 80% free and reduced lunch where Portland is about 50% free and reduced lunch. The population is about half white and the other half is minority but the overwhelming majority, 90% of the minority is African-American students. It’s a different kind of dynamics but some of the challenges that we face are the challenges that we faced in Michigan city. I think that there is lots of parallels at the same time there’s obviously some differences.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: You’ve been in this new position for the past year.
Xavier Botana: Almost.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: It’s been hard to imagine, that’s always an adjustment to move from one school system to the next.
Xavier Botana: Yes.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: What are some of the things that had surprised you?
Xavier Botana: The things that have surprised me is how alike things are. Most of my career has been in urban settings and until Michigan city, always in larger school districts. I worked in Chicago public schools, I worked in Portland, Oregon and those are obviously significantly larger systems. Having worked for the past six years in Michigan city, and as I talked about some of those differences, I think one of the surprises is that some of the issues that we face in schools are very similar.
I think that there’s not that many days that I face something that I go like, “Wow, I have never dealt with that before.” I think that that as a surprise, I thought I was going to have more situations where I’m like, “I’ve never dealt with that before. I’ve never dealt with it in this context.” The players are different, sometimes the laws are different, but the issues are significant alike.
The other thing that has been a tremendous pleasant surprise is the level of engagement by the community at large in the public schools. This is a community where I’ve seen consistently that people believe in public schools and want to help. There are so many people that I meet on a daily basis that are just looking for how can we help and are already actively engaged in the schools and want to figure out how they can maximize the return on their investment in the school. I think that that’s been a really pleasant surprise. I had a sense of that from knowing about Portland and Maine, but everyday I’m overwhelmed by that, so I think that that’s been a surprise.
The other surprise is the resource base for the schools. I feel that there’s never enough resources to do everything that we want to do, but I feel that this is a community and a state that invest in the schools in a way that it feels like the work is doable. We’ve been through a very difficult budget pc over the past couple of months as we face some of our immediate realities, but the underlying base of support for our schools is very strong at the resource level which is, again, that’s a very important part of it.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: It seems like no matter where you go, budget becomes a very important part of the conversation because you’re not only having to do what’s fair for people in the community who have children but also what’s fair for people in the community who don’t have children. How do you balance those needs?
Xavier Botana: It’s difficult just engaging with people. This evening we have a focus group with parents as part of our, it’s sort of developing a communications plan around what matters to this community about its public schools. Engaging with people at that level and sort of hearing what they like, what they like to see, what they don’t like about the system, I think all of those pieces, that the only way to get to that is by engaging with people.
I had the opportunity to sit with a group of gentlemen who get together every Tuesday to talk about important issues in the community. Most of them are retired, successful, huge investment in the schools but also obviously very concerned about making sure that that investment is being used wisely. I think that that’s the only way to do that, obviously engaging with the political entities that make those decisions. The school board first, the city counsel, and ultimately with voters is an important part of the mix. That’s a surprise that I didn’t mention earlier, having to actually go to the voters for a decision on the budget at the end of the long pc is something is something that’s fairly unique to Maine.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: How does it worked in other places that you’ve been in?
Xavier Botana: Generally, the school board makes the decision and obviously there’s hearing and things along those lines but not referendum on the budget, the referendum on the budget. I’ve worked in four states and I’ve never seen that before.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: I’m interested in also your connection to Maine that preceded your coming here to be employed by the city of Portland. Do you have a connection to Camp No Limits through your son David who is now 14?
Xavier Botana: Yes. He’s a freshman at Casco Bay, but before that since he was two years old, three years old I think was the first time that we found out about Camp No Limits and started coming here. Camp No Limits is a nonprofit, it’s a Maine-based nonprofit started by an amazing young lady who lives up in the Lewiston area who is a therapist and started working with children who had multiple limb anomalies. And was just inspired and overwhelmed by what those kids were able to accomplish and so she started this camp. Her first year there were like three kids at the camp and now they have 15 camps all over the country.
The principal camp is the summer camp here in the Belgrade lakes. Over 300 campers from all over the country come out for that, and so that’s what we started. When we started coming there were maybe a hundred kids, just under a hundred kids that were at the camp. Ever since we’ve been coming and that’s been a big part of David developing his sense of self and his desire to overcome any challenges that are thrown his way. It’s been a tremendous part of his development and of our coming together as a family. So we always loved coming up for that and we would come through Portland on our way up, and I think this is a really cool city.
A funny story, the way that I found out about the job is that … Because I worked in Portland, Oregon I have a Google alert for news on education coming out of Portland, and occasionally something from Portland, Maine is in there. So I saw that the superintendent had left and so I just half jokingly asked my wife, “Would we be interested in moving to Maine?” She said, “Absolutely.” We talked to David and he said, “Absolutely.” That kind of how that started.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: How does he like Casco Bay High School?
Xavier Botana: He loves it.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: Did you ever think as you were driving through on your way up to Belgrade lakes, “Oh, someday I may work here”? Did you ever have a sense?
Xavier Botana: I never really thought about it as working but I do remember thinking like I’d love to spend more time there because we [inaudible 00:44:13] come through and stopped at restaurant, that kind of thing, pick up somebody at the airport, bring them up to camp, things like that. I remember thinking it’s a great looking city, and knowing people that lived in the area everybody was really always very positive about the experience. But we lived in the mid west and didn’t really think that it was a great place to come to, but I had never really stopped to think like, “Yeah, I’d really like to work there.” It wasn’t until the infamous Google alert.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: Somebody, somewhere, up in the ether somehow sent you this message and you ended up here. I guess we’re fortunate.
Xavier Botana: I feel very fortunate, it totally does feel like it was meant to be.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: Tell me why you decided that education would be your life’s path, it’s certainly not a path that’s easy.
Xavier Botana: It’s a good question. Both of my parents were educators, not originally but when they came to the US my mother became a high school Spanish teacher after doing other odd jobs as she built up her language and her credentialing, my father became a Spanish professor at a university. That was always part of the equation at home. I was not a great student in high school, in middle school and high school I was somewhat disengaged and more rebellious than great students. In some ways I’m not straight path that you think about education, but I always understood the importance of education.
The first adult-like conversation that I remember was with my grandmother when I was maybe six or seven years old, talking about how difficult things had been for them, the older generation coming to the US because they did not have an education. So my grandfather who had been business owner and had been very successful as working his way up in Cuba lost everything and wound up working as a custodian at a hospital in the south suburbs of Chicago. That was very difficult. He was, I would say, sort of in retrospective embittered by that experience. At the same time, my parents, because they both had an education when they came had a much easier path to finding their way into the middle class. That was the first time that I understood the importance and value of education.
That’s kind of how it happened. I had teachers that I really loved in high school, not many of them but there really inspirational people that helped you to think and helped you to see the world in ways that you didn’t think of before. I always liked that part of it, and I love young people and being around young people, and I think that’s what attracted me to education.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: How you go from being young and rebellious to getting the education you need to become an educator, and not only an educator but someone who works in administration? Where does that happen?
Xavier Botana: The world take lots of funny twists and turns. I didn’t go into education to become a superintendent, in fact for the longest time that would be the last place that I wanted to wind up. I just think over time, again, I think sort of that reflection on what … The teachers that I was attracted to were people that looked at the world and systems and saw what could be instead of what was. I think that that’s probably the best explanation that I can come up with.
I’m somebody who, as a young teacher, questioned, I was rebellious and questioned, “Why are we doing it this way, and why are we doing it this way?” We should really think about a different approach to things and that’s what led me into administration. These are the circumstantial things, I happen to be a teacher in a community that was going through a rapid demographic change, it was a community that had been extremely working class white community for a long time.
When I stated I was an ESL teacher I was one of three, and within three years I was one of 40. It was this massive influx of people moving out of the west side of Chicago into this community. They were looking around for people that could do leadership, take on leadership roles. Because I had a big mouth I think they asked me to start doing some leadership work and that’s where I was coaching teachers. It just felt like you can make difference even if you’re not working directly with kids you can make a difference in kid’s lives.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: That was your chosen field was being an ESL teacher?
Xavier Botana: Yes.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: That’s kind of interesting. You’ve always been involved in translating ideas amongst various groups whether it’s a linguistic idea or whether it’s a social idea, cultural idea.
Xavier Botana: Yes.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: I actually think more rebel should go into things that are considered traditional because it seems as though we have people, students who would benefit from being rebels, questioning rebels and having teachers who foster that and don’t expect them to fit into the same …
Xavier Botana: I think that’s one of the things that also was very attractive to me about Portland is I think that there is a genuine desire to listen to young people in what they have to say and not rule it out just because they’re young and inexperience. What we call student voice is very much a part of Portland ethos and Portland public schools ethos. I think that that’s something that I believe in and one of the reasons that I think that this is a great place to live and it’s a great place for kids to go to school.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: What would you like to see happen in the Portland Public School now that coming up in a year taking on this big job? It has been a school system and some transition itself, what would you like to see happen going forward?
Xavier Botana: We’ve worked hard this first six months to develop a plan for our future and so we articulated a set of goals that were approved by the board in December, those I hope will be the foundation of our work for the long haul. That stability is very important to the district. It was very clear coming into the position that the district has suffered because of the transition at the top. Obviously nobody can predict the future. As long as people want me here, I want to be here, this is a great place to work.
I think that looking at that plan is something for the long haul and not something that we’re going to in two years and then we’re going to go do something else. It’s really important. At the core of that plan is a commitment to equity. We do remarkably well with our middle class students, so when you compare our outcomes on traditional measures of achievement, SAT scores, things along those lines, kids that come to us from strong economic backgrounds we do as well as the neighboring community. We compare it to Yarmouth and Cape Elizabeth, places where people traditionally think of those … You move to those places because of the schools.
That is something that is a challenge for me as being able to get that message out in a way that it sort of resonates and it doesn’t feel like we’re just reaching for straws, I think that’s a challenge. The more important part, the piece that drives me the most is that that’s not a shared experience for the children coming from low income backgrounds. That’s obviously a challenge that everyone everywhere is facing, so I don’t have a magic bullet that I can, you know … But I think that that’s a worthwhile pursuit for me, it’s a worthwhile pursuit for this community because I do believe that with the level of engagement, the level of resources, the level of commitment to helping each other to grow and develop. I think that that’s something that’s achievable here and I think that we can be a model for what it takes to do that work in an urban school setting.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: What do you do for fun?
Xavier Botana: I run. I have two german shepherds that love to go for long walks so I do that. My guilty pleasure is that I am a soccer fanatic, I love European soccer. I’ve been known to just watch three games in a row on a Sunday afternoon. That kind of stuff.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: Like Manchester United and Rio Madrid?
Xavier Botana: Liverpool and Barcelona.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: Excellent. Now that we’ve outed you they’re all going to find you and have conversations with you about the benefits of this.
Xavier Botana: Yes.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: Well I appreciate you coming in and having this conversation with me today. Any final thoughts as you look forward into your own life?
Xavier Botana: I think I have been so fortunate to wind up here in Portland and in Maine. As a family we feel like this is home. Having lived in the other Portland and sort of feeling like we didn’t fit into the west coast, we totally feel like this is home. We’re really looking forward to getting to see more of Maine. People will say names of places and we’re like, “Where is that? Where is that?” I’m looking forward to doing that, just looking forward to making a difference in this great city.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: I’ve been speaking with Xavier Botana who is the superintendent of Portland Public Schools. Thank you for coming in today, I know you have a busy schedule and thank you for the work that you’re doing.
Xavier Botana: Absolutely, thank you. This has been a lot of fun.
Dr. Lisa Belisl: You’ve been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 304, entrepreneur and education. Our guest have included Jean Hoffman and Xavier Botana. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit lovemaineradio.com. Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio page. Follow me on Twitter as Dr. Lisa, and see our Love Maine Radio post on Instagram. We love to hear from you so please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio.
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Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is brought to you by Maine Magazine, Aristelle, Portland Art Gallery and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music by Spencer Albee, our editorial producer is Paul Koenig, our assistant producer is Shelbi Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy, and our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano and Dr. Lisa Belisle. For more information on our production team, Maine Magazine or any of the guest featured here today, please visit us at lovemaineradio.com. Here’s a track from Spencer Albee’s new album, Relentlessly Yours in stores and online now at spenceralbee.com
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