101: Business Mentorship

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As a small-business owner you are no doubt comfortable going it alone, making big decisions, and probably don’t have a problem embracing the “fake it till you make it” philosophy for getting ahead. Still, even the savviest entrepreneurs can sometimes benefit from a little expert help from those who have previously blazed a successful trail in their industry. But where are you supposed to turn for guidance when you’re the one steering the ship?

Finding a mentor with relevant experience who can help your business get on the right track or take it to the next level can be extremely valuable for many entrepreneurs. Mentors can supply hand-tailored advice, share industry best practices, and provide real-world examples that helped them succeed. And fortunately there are lots of free and low-cost mentorship opportunities available from both public- and private-sector organizations. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

SCORE is a non-profit partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration that provides free and low-cost advice and mentoring to new entrepreneurs as well as existing small-business owners. Anyone that owns a business or is planning to start one can take advantage of SCORE’s services, which range from one-on-one meetings with mentors to online workshops, as well as a host of tools and templates to assist with business planning, financial projections, and accounting. They have over 350 offices around the country, and in addition to its free mentoring services SCORE also offers low-cost workshops and seminars.

While SCORE has been around for nearly 50 years, the Entrepreneurial Mentor Corps was launched just last year as part of Startup America's initiative. This program is focused on providing mentoring services to companies with a high potential for growth and has a goal of connecting 1,000 early-stage companies with mentors who can help them achieve that growth potential. The program’s first phase is focused on the clean-tech sector, but there are plans to expand it to a variety of industries so keep abreast of what they are up to if you’d like to participate.

In addition to the aforementioned organizations operating in the public and non-profit sectors, a number of entrepreneurs are finding help from a source normally more associated with outsize profits than small-business philanthropy: Wall Street investment banks. A number of these firms, including UBS, Bank of America, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, and Goldman Sachs, currently have programs that pair small-business owners with finance and business experts that work for the banks. These programs tend to focus on established firms looking to expand their business as opposed to start ups looking to get off the ground.

With all of the bad press that Wall Street has gotten recently it would be easy to dismiss these efforts as little more than a publicity stunt. And while the banks certainly do have a vested interest in the outcome—a successful businessperson is an attractive potential customer—some entrepreneurs seem happy with the results. Clothing designer Alicia Estrada had this to say of her experience with UBS, “It’s teaching business owners how to fish, instead of just giving them a fish.”

So whatever stage your company is at, there are mentors out there who are available and willing to help. And if you’ve already navigated the road to success and want to help others follow in your footsteps, you might consider becoming a mentor yourself. If you’ve had a positive experience, feel free to share it here with the HBS community.

More By Gregg Schoenberg
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