Groups aim to fill ‘mentorship gap’

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Many Upstate business leaders, especially entrepreneurs, act informally as mentors for young business, but recently a conversation about the need for more mentorship has been brewing. Some who work in funding and supporting early-stage businesses say as laws and innovations address a funding gap that hinders growth, mentors are needed to help guide companies toward their potential.

Groups throughout the community are formalizing or strengthening mentorship offerings, calling on what they say is a large pool of serial entrepreneurs and professionals in the Upstate who are up to the task.

One example is Jason Premo, who recently sold ADEX Machining Technologies, and plans to marshal angel investors to do more than write checks. Forming in the first quarter of 2015, the group will be called Swamp Rabbit Angels, providing mentorship as well as space for “hackers and wannabe entrepreneurs” to hone their business ideas.

He said as an investor, he encounters companies that lack business plans, strategies, financial management, and even appropriate legal structures.

“If you don’t get that stuff right, it can really lead to bad things later on,” Premo said. “You may be able to get the angel investor money, but then when you’re ready to break out and expand, you may have done some things that make it hard on yourself or even unattractive to later-stage investors.”

He said the state needs more accelerators to focus on industries such as IT or manufacturing. The new group will be affiliated with, and modeled after, the Silicon Valley-based Founder Institute – said to be the world’s largest entrepreneur training program – and MIT Fab Labs, a network of digital fabrication and centers managed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Nika White, vice president of diversity and inclusion at the Greenville Chamber, said mentorship emerged as a pressing need after the first year of its Minority Business Accelerator (MBA). It was a significant factor in the decision to double the length of time companies are in the program, from one year to two, she said.

“One of the things we found to be a necessity going into the new year, which will be the second year, is that it’s one thing to deliver information. What they really need is somebody to be hand-to-shoulder with them helping to facilitate those things,” White said. Ideally such mentors facilitate introductions to important connections, but also attend introductory meetings alongside mentees.

White said businesses need coaching on a variety of skills. Business infrastructure, talent management and development, accounting, IT and marketing are among the needs identified by companies in the MBA. Each company in the program will be assigned a mentor, whom she estimates will need to be available six to eight hours a month. She said the Upstate has the talent pool to help.

“I definitely think that need can be met. We’re finding that at least from our approach, that we need to go to corporations that are large in scale enough to lend out some of their key staff who can lend that expertise,” White said. “We’ve been tapping key individuals that we have access to and that we think would be a good fit for the program.” Initially, MBA is looking to corporate investors who have an interest in seeing the program succeed.

These newer initiatives join a landscape that includes more general business mentorship services, as well as targeted incubator and accelerator programs throughout the Upstate. Piedmont SCORE, part of a national network, connects anyone with mentors for free and also offers free and paid workshops on subjects such as writing a business plan. The federal Small Business Development Centers (SBDC) also has a local office through which anyone can receive business-planning advice. The Spartanburg Small Business Incubator, Iron Yard accelerators and the Greenville Chamber’s NEXT program and others target companies with various characteristics such as high-impact, specific locations, or a focus on technology.

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