Mentoring for small business

Help for entrepreneurs when and where they need it most

Story by Cheryl Hentz

BUSINESS OWNERS have historically been in business with themselves and by themselves, often acting as their own navigation system. Some may have had an academic background in business, but oftentimes, they developed a skill in another area before stepping into a role of running the day-to-day operations of their business.

Frequently they’re able to handle a lot of the issues and circumstances that come up within their own area of expertise, but there’s bound to be other areas – such as finance, management, marketing, or technology, as examples – where they don’t quite have the background to deal with more complex situations that arise.

They could ask family, friends, consult the Web, periodicals, or even casual acquaintances who can provide suggestions or even give a steady flow of information regarding industry trends. But more frequently than not, business owners suffer through those trials, perhaps making some wrong decisions and mistakes that cost time, money or even good employees.

Business mentors – someone who has been down those roads in the past and can share their wisdom on an ongoing basis – can certainly help entrepreneurs navigate those unfamiliar, sometimes choppy, waters. Advice and support from business mentors has become more readily available through formal programs in northeast Wisconsin, where three particular mentorship programs have gained prominence during the past few years.

Betting on the Pack

THE GREEN BAY PACKERS Mentor-Protégé Program started earlier this year in partnership with local business development leaders to foster business growth, economic development and job creation in Brown County.

The program matches mentor firms from the Green Bay area that can provide technical, managerial, financial or other guidance to protégé companies seeking to improve their competitive standing. The mentor-protégé relationship requires at least a 12-month commitment from those companies selected to participate.

Initially, protégé companies will be minority- or woman-owned businesses located in Brown County or the Oneida Nation Reservation. The goal is to eventually have veteran-owned and other small businesses participate as the program develops.

“We felt this would be a good opportunity to help establish a program that can help companies take the next step in their own business development,” said Jason Wied, Green Bay Packers vice president of administration and general counsel. “We know many organizations in our area have the expertise to assist in developing the various skills needed by small businesses to grow and become more successful companies.”

Mentor companies must be established businesses with the appropriate resources and the ability to commit to the program and the needs of the protégé. Some of those organizations already committed to serving as mentors include: Alliance Construction and Design, Small Business Development Center, Schenck Business Solutions, Schreiber Foods, United Healthcare and Wipfli.

According to Anna Steinfest, president and CEO of Green Bay-based AFF Research LLC, the company administering the program, the program kicked off with a meet-and-greet session earlier in the year where the mentors and protégés came together at a networking event.

“The protégés submitted information about the kind of help they might need and the challenges they face,” she said. 

“Likewise, the mentors stated what areas of expertise they had. From there, formal matches were made.”

Diane Gustin, owner Heart at Work Unlimited LLC in Suamico, was selected as a protégé. She and her husband have owned a business before, but this venture – started last November – is different for her and because it’s out of the ordinary, she feels she needs more assistance.

“My company’s mission is to employ people with special needs, so I really need people who I can bounce ideas off of; there’s no one in the company that I can do that with,” Gustin said.

She also needs help obtaining a trademark for her logo and protecting certain intellectual property. She is paired with Lathrop & Clark, LLP, a Madison-area law firm that handles intellectual property needs for businesses.

“We looked at Green Bay as an innovative and vibrant community and saw this as a great service that the Packer organization was providing to the area, and in particular to women- and minority-owned businesses,” said Jason Hunt, a patent attorney with the firm. “We hope to put our protégé in a better position than they are now and to increase the value of her own company in whatever way that comes about through the process.”

For protégé Lee Ann Laes, owner of About Body LLC in Green Bay, there’s a need for more expertise about growing her business as opposed to getting it started. She’s been in business for eight years, but Laes is getting so busy that she needs to expand her operation. In fact, she’d eventually like to franchise her business, but finds that prospect a bit daunting.

“I’m hoping to gain knowledge from (her mentor, Julie Musial, owner of the Growth Coach for Northeast Wisconsin) so I can get these things done without going through too many pitfalls,” Laes said. “But I also hope that she’ll be able to help me with the more basic questions I have, everything from the different aspects of running a business to things you have to do to comply with (ever-changing) state and federal rules.”

Musial has mentored people for years – both professionally and in a volunteer capacity with SCORE. Now she’s been selected as a mentor in the Packers’ mentor-protégé program.

“I’m an executive business coach, so while I don’t do it for free, I mentor all my clients…My goal is to help as many people reach their goals as possible,” Musial said. “I’m very passionate about people and I enjoy seeing people achieve their goals. That’s why I do what I do. When I can help someone to achieve their goals, it gives me great fulfillment.”

The success of the program will be tracked in its inaugural year so they can “show the community that it is working,” Steinfest said, though she also stressed the model may change as the program evolves. “We’ve already received extraordinary feedback from all the mentors and the protégés. They hadn’t even been selected for the matching, yet, but they still gave us a lot of feedback to consider as we began developing the program.”

E-Hub Urban Hope Entrepreneur Center

FORMED BY FORMER PACKERS PLAYER Reggie White and his wife, Sarah, Green Bay-based Urban Hope has had a mentorship program in place for several years to help its business services clients gain experienced advice about various aspects of business management and operations. Once characterized as its leader group, Mentorship Advantage is a separate, but similar program that started though the E-Hub Urban Hope Entrepreneur Center earlier this year.

According to executive director Mark Burwell, E-Hub has over 600 businesses in northeast Wisconsin who serve as mentors for each other, but said it’s not a typical mentorship program.

“It’s an informal mentoring program called ‘economic gardening.’ It’s not an old-fashioned education-parenting kind of program where a mentor shadows somebody. The peer-to-peer mentorship is people getting together who share some of the same commonalities,” Burwell explained. “Sometimes it could be a 5-minute mentor; or it could be a 3-hour mentor. It is not a formal (program) like the Packers Protégé program.”

Despite the informality, there are certain requirements and expectations in place for business owners who participate. Business owners must have completed the “Stepping Up to New Opportunities” entrepreneur series and need to have a formal business plan developed.

“The series benefits individuals exploring opportunities in entrepreneurship, as well as those already in business who need to reboot or launch their business. Fifty percent of the people coming through our program in the last four or five years have been existing businesses,” said Burwell.

Kathleen Zeitler, owner of Signs That Sell and Focus Studio 7, both located in the Green Bay area, has been involved with E-Hub for several years as both a mentor and someone being mentored. She describes the program as being “a gathering of entrepreneurs who have the same passion, and through this program you find out if you want to go in that direction or not.”

“It gives you solid information that will better the journey that you’re going to be on. And it is a journey, with highs and lows, but if you get the right information, there’s a lot less lows,” said Zeitler.

Sandee Sims, owner of Inspirations Salon in Green Bay, has been in business for six years. Like Zeitler, she has been mentored and now serves as a mentor for E-Hub’s Mentorship Advantage program. A personal friend of the Whites, Sims said, “It’s believing in a common interest, which is a community of people helping and mentoring each other. It’s not about a structured thing where you’re teaching people how to do things or how to become successful. There’s so many different cogs in the machine that make it work,” she explained.

While there is no cost to be in the mentorship program, the cost for the “Stepping Up…” series is $850. Depending on one’s income level, tuition grants are available. For more information, visit www.Entrepreneurhub.org.

Raising the SCORE

SCORE, the shortened version of the previously referred-to Service Corps of Retired Executives, is a longstanding business assistance organization supported by the U.S. Small Business Administration. In recent years it’s begun modifying its focus to provide longer relationships to the businesses it serves. The volunteer-based, not-for-profit organization historically had a reputation for providing business assistance only at the start-up stage, but is recognizing it has the tools to help businesses at other stages in their development as well.

“Seven years ago the national organization decided to drop the acronym because it no longer reflected the reality of the organizational makeup,” explained Jothi Nedungadi, chair of the SCORE chapter that serves the Fox Cities, Oshkosh and Fond du Lac, as well as eight different surrounding counties in the region. “Sixty-four percent of our mentors today are existing business owners so they had to drop that acronym and just stick with SCORE as a name. It’s no longer made up of retired business people and we’re not considered counselors anymore; we’re actually mentors.”

About two years ago the national organization started a branding exercise, and the logo and tag line were changed at that time. Now they’re known as SCORE, For the Life of Your Business, said Nedungadi.

“In line with all of that, there’s been a tremendous amount of support from national organizations and corporations to support our mission, which is basically ‘SCORE grows successful small businesses across America one business at a time.’ And a lot of these national sponsors and partners – like American Express, Cisco, Google, Constant Contact, Best Buy, so on and so forth – are basically underwriting the funding for a lot of the systems and the software to support this new mission and direction of SCORE,” she said.

One item of support offered by Deluxe Corp. is a standard mentoring methodology so SCORE can consistently turn out well-trained mentors. Along with the changes will be a new Web site that should be up and running by the end of April. Data is being transferred from one system to another now and with that will be a sophisticated, state-of-the-art contact relationship management system that will be integrated with the Web site.

“So a lot of the clients who come in to seek mentoring will be able to do some self-scheduling where they can look for any mentor within the system – it doesn’t even have to be someone local; it can be throughout the United States; if there’s a specific skill they’re looking for in a mentor, they’ll be able to find them – and schedule their own meetings with them, whether it’s online, face to face, or on the phone,” she said.

With the new system there will be a relationship manager who will serve as the primary mentor.

“Then going forward, when we see a need for other skills or other areas of expertise that may be needed to be brought into the mix, we will bring in other specialists,” said Nedungadi. “So there will always be one primary for the length of the relationship, however long the client wants us there, and then we’ll keep bringing in new specialists to the mix to help with the business.”

Nedungadi believes that they’ve always provided an outstanding service, but she says when everything is switched over to the new system, she believes SCORE will be the premier mentoring service available. Mentoring services are provided free of charge. An application for mentoring services is rather short – only about 1 to 1½ pages in length – and asks for basic information. For more information, visit www.score.org.

Cheryl Hentz is a freelance writer from Oshkosh with more than 25 years experience. Her articles have appeared in several newspapers and magazines and cover topics including business and economic development, minority issues, family pets and animal rights, finance, politics and women’s issues. She can be reached at 920.426.4123 or via email at cheryl.hentz@gmail.com.