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Being A Mentor: Are You Ready?

There’s lots of talk about it, but how many of us really do it? Are you ready to take the mentoring plunge?

mentor sbsI’ve been hearing about women in business mentoring each other almost ever since I started my own online business. It’s a very popular idea among us; we talk about how important it is for women who have had a bit of success to look back over their shoulder to help newbies just starting out. And of course, there are a number of formal mentoring programs available to women who are running their own businesses. According to the administrators of those programs, they are very, very popular.

Most of the women in the various online communities in which I participate are at a certain level with their businesses that falls within the startup range. While some of them have been in business for a number of years, and have experienced enough success so that they are not tempted to go back to work for someone else, they do not seem poised on the brink of explosive growth either. Few of them have so much business management experience that they could not use a helpful hint from somebody who knows a little more about it. Yet, as far as I know, none of these women have opted to take advantage of the mentoring option.

Maybe we need to find out a little more about the mentoring process.

Mentoring in a business context is a form of on-the-job training. When we start our businesses, we usually go through a certain process of choosing our product or service, researching suppliers and/or distribution channels, choosing a venue (on or offline), and researching the various costs involved in starting and maintaining the businesses. But we learn, as we go along, that there are many aspects of managing the company that we need to investigate, and many decisions to make, as we go through the day-to-day business of running our businesses. Sometimes we get bogged down in that sort of thing and we forget to think about next year, or three or five or ten years from now. For many of us, that kind of long-range planning is still a mystery.

Finding a mentor is one option we can choose to help us learn.

“It’s great to be mentored,” says Yuwanda Velez of Inkwell Editorial and Word Processing, Inc., who participates in the Women’s Venture Fund mentoring program. “I was lucky enough to be partnered with a mentor who is retired now but was in the same business as I am. You have somebody who’s been down that road before, so when times get tough, you have someone to say ‘hang in there’ and ‘it’s supposed to be this way.'”

“I think if I hadn’t had that, I might have thrown in the towel and gone to find a job working for somebody else,” says Ms. Velez. “The tough times were pretty tough.”

There are a number of organizations with formal mentoring programs. The U.S. Small Business Administration Office of Women’s Business Ownership has the Women’s Network for Entrepreneurial Training (WNET) Mentoring Program and the WNET Roundtables, which are held at the various local SBA offices whenever the local administrators have a yen to put one together or enough women request it. Women’s business organizations such as the Women’s Venture Fund in New York City have mentoring programs as either a part of or the central feature of the offerings they make available to women in business. Various online women’s groups and business groups also offer distance-mentoring programs, such as that sponsored by the Association for International Business, Inc.

In a formal program, mentoring begins with the initial contact which the businesswoman seeking either funding or guidance makes with the organization. There is usually some kind of screening process, not so that the business can “qualify” for the program but so that the administrators of the program can assess the needs of the applicant and can refer them to the best available mentor. Mentors and mentees are matched according to what kind of assistance is required. For example, if the businesswoman feels she needs help assessing her best marketing strategy in order to grow her business, she may be matched with a mentor who specializes in marketing or whose target market is a similar demographic. The mentor can then share what she knows about marketing to that demographic, even if the product she markets is distinctly different.

The unique relationship, which evolves between mentor and mentee, will depend on what each of the individuals brings to the experience. Of course, the first requirement is mutual respect. Another is an understanding on the part of the mentee that her mentor is not someone who will necessarily teach her how to run her business; more often than not, the mentor will help the mentee to strategize her thinking, organize her plans and manage her financing. A mentor is also a good source for the business owner who wants her business to grow at a certain rate and is unsure of how to proceed so that the growth of her business doesn’t run away from her.

“The first thing [my mentor] wants to see at the beginning of every meeting are the numbers,” Ms. Velez told us. “It’s changed the way I think about my business and helped me to understand that, if I want to make any plans or do anything, the first thing I have to do is look at the finances. I think too many women start their businesses because they want to help or they want to serve, and they’re squeamish about thinking about the money. But they really have to get over that if they want to be successful. My mentor really helped me to see that.”

The WNET Roundtables follow a slightly different mentoring format. Described by Sherrye Henry, Associate Administrator of the Office of Women’s Business Ownership, as “economic group therapy,” these groups are composed of a group of women business owners who share a common need. Each roundtable, then, is powered by a common theme for the participants so that they can get very specific information to get those needs met. The groups are facilitated by the Women’s Business Center or SBA regional office staff, and that facilitator secures whatever the participants need to address the group’s theme. More information about the WNET program and the WNET Roundtables is available at the WNET webpage at the SBA website.

The bottom line about mentoring is that it is business training with a slightly more personalized feel. It does not mean that your mentor takes over running your business for you. It does not mean that your mentor hands over her address book or Rolodex, so that you can take the business network he or she has spent years building and make it your own. You still have to do that legwork and build your own contacts. What your mentor does do is give you practical, hands-on information, encouragement, and the occasional kick in the rear if the situation calls for it.

This kind of one on one mentoring also calls for the mentee to take responsibility for her own training. Most mentors are working corporate executives and business owners, and sometimes the mentee will feel self-conscious about “disturbing” their busy mentor with the business management and strategic planning questions for which the mentee entered the program in the first place. But worrying about “bothering” your mentor defeats the purpose and, like a lot of other things about running your business, it may not happen at all for you if you refuse to be assertive about what you want.

“It’s up to the mentee to push the mentor, to work meetings with the mentor into their schedule, and generally structure the relationship,” advises Ms. Velez.

All that being the case, it should come as no surprise that there is a lot of informal, unofficial mentoring that goes on in the community of women business owners. Discussion forums and networks such as The Mom Pack, and email lists for women in business abound on the Internet. The women who participate in those groups generally take their knotty business problems to the group to ask for advice from any who have already had to deal with that particular problem. There is a great deal of resource-sharing and cooperative learning, and certainly a great deal of support and encouragement. That stuff is mentoring, too.

Ultimately, a mentor is somebody who helps you understand what you need to do to achieve your business goals. There are a lot of different ways to get that kind of information, but developing a relationship with a mentor is perhaps more people-intensive and so more comfortable and personal for some.

And how do you find such a person?

Perhaps the best way to think of getting the help you need for your business from a mentor is offered by Maria Otera, founder of the Women’s Venture Fund: “Mentoring works where you’re trying to change in some way. It doesn’t have to be through an organization or a program. Look for somebody who is at that level that you want to get to. That’s how you find a mentor.

About Dawn R. Rivers

Dawn Rivers (formerly Dawn Rivers Baker) is a writer, journalist, publisher, microbusiness expert and advocate, She's written articles for many media outlets including US News & World Report.


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