Recently named Woman Entrepreneur of the Year, Cari Coe originally couldn't get far enough away from her hometown.

After graduating from Butte High in 1993 and earning a degree in anthropology from the University of Oregon, she went to Vietnam. She never expected to return to Butte.

Instead, she was "obsessed" with Vietnam and kept finding ways to return. She called her experiences there — riding a motorcycle across the countryside and interviewing villagers for academic research — life changing. She became fluent in the language.

Later, after several extended trips to Vietnam, she pursued a doctorate degree at the University of California-Los Angeles in political science so she could study political economy and development in Vietnam.

Expecting to spend her life in academia, Coe found it "very hard" when Lewis and Clark College in Portland denied her tenure in 2015, effectively ending her life as a professor of political science.

Now she calls that incident a "blessing in disguise."

"I really struggled with the stress to publish in academia," she said in a recent interview with The Montana Standard. "It didn't come that naturally to me. I thrive more in my current circumstances."

She opted out of a college teaching career because she was "tired of the limits" of academia and wanted to decide where she would live rather than go where another academic job might take her, she said. After a year in a real estate career in Portland, Coe realized she wanted to come home.

"With my academic career ending, I had to decide who I want to be. There was no place more meaningful to me than living in Butte," she said.

The day she moved back in July 2016, she contracted to buy the building at 101-105 E. Broadway St. in Uptown Butte. Major improvements to the building prompted the Butte Local Development Corp. to bestow upon her the Woman Entrepreneur of the Year award last month.

Her middle name, An, means "peace" in Vietnamese. Her parents — her dad, Douglas Coe, is a Montana Tech dean and chemistry professor, and her mother is Anna Coe, who works at the Butte Public Library — had protested the Vietnam War. Coe was born in 1975, the year the war ended. Elated to see the conflict end, they gave her that middle name, she said.

Coe uses her middle name as part of her company's name — An Meo Enterprises. "Meo" is also a Vietnamese word, meaning "cat." Coe has three of them, who soak up the sunshine in her window-filled apartment on the second floor of her building.

But when she received word of the BLDC award, her immediate reaction was, "I'm not an entrepreneur."

"I'm not driven by profit mode. I'm driven by my heart," Coe said.

BDLC executive director Joe Willauer said selecting Coe to be the Woman Entrepreneur of the Year was a "no-brainer."

"We don't have a lot of female entrepreneurs taking on Uptown building projects," Willauer said. "We like to see cool, creative, unique entrepreneurs, and there was nothing else like her project, especially by a woman in town."

Willauer also, in particular, noted that Coe had attracted a gym, called Kinetic Fitness, as a commercial tenant on the first floor.

"We strive to see mixed-use buildings in Uptown," Willauer said.

Coe turned away a few other tenant possibilities before signing a lease agreement with Kinetic Fitness because of the large windows on the street-level floor.

"I wanted something people could look in at through the window, something in character with the building," Coe said. That meant she went without a street-level tenant until this past summer.

The second floor has five apartments. Coe lives in one of them and rents the other four.

Purchase of the 1895 building came with major repairs. That included lifting a corner of the structure to reinforce the foundation and replacing the roof, among other projects. To help offset roof and foundation expenses, a grant from the Urban Revitalization Agency paid 25 percent of those costs and helped with other repairs.

Karen Byrnes, URA director, called Coe a "wonderful, positive influence" on Butte.

"She is a great steward of historic preservation in Uptown Butte," Byrnes said. "She's investing in her hometown, and we're ecstatic."

Butte, Coe says, has taught her to play hard and "framed" her aesthetic.

Now the 42-year-old works part-time at the Butte Public Library as well as a part-time public relations coordinator for Butte Citizens for Preservation and Revitalization, which advocates for Butte's historic architecture. Coe also sells real estate with Homestead Real Estate and volunteers as a DJ for community radio station KBMF 102.5 FM.

"There's no pressure (in Butte). I can let my creative mind be what it is. It's freeing to let myself be who I am," Coe said.

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Nat'l Resources / General Reporter

Environmental and natural resources reporter for the Montana Standard.

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