When Anchorage, Alaska, watercolor artist Teresa Ascone went to see Credit Union One president and CEO Leslie Ellis, she didn't ask for a loan. She sought advice on tempering her right-brain creativity with left-brain business sense. Their meeting of the minds launched a profitable paint-palette manufacturing business and a satisfying mentor/protégé relationship.
A mentor can be a valuable, often untapped resource for entrepreneurs starting or expanding a business. For Ascone, a business mentor gave her new ideas and renewed confidence. "I'm an artist. I feel at sea when it comes to business," says Ascone. "Leslie helped me develop a plan of attack."
Ascone designed a paint palette that was selling well in Alaska. She was ready to expand into the "Lower 48," but didn't know how. Choosing a mentor who was savvy in business and finance was the solution.
Ascone found Ellis through the Women's Network of Entrepreneurial Training, a federal program offered by the Small Business Administration's (SBA) Anchorage District Office. The program pairs protégés--women who have been in business for at least one year--with successful businesspeople who are willing to volunteer their time as mentors. Within months of their first meeting, Ascone's sales quadrupled and expanded worldwide as her palette was picked up by art-supply distributors outside Alaska.
Choosing a mentor is an important investment in time and energy. If you think the guidance of a mentor might help you and your small business, here are five important characteristics to look for:
1. Successful. You'll want someone who has been in a successful business for at least five years--enough time to survive some economic downturns.
2. Committed. Choose someone who's willing to meet with you regularly, assign you business "homework," and hold you accountable for those tasks.
3. Active in the business community. Someone who's involved in the business community will be able to refer you to other resources and help you develop a business network.
4. Someone who's different. Your weaknesses should be your mentor's strengths. Choose someone in a field other than your own; you want compatibility, not competition. The only thing your mentor should gain from the mentorship is the personal satisfaction of helping you succeed.
5. A cheerleader. A mentor should be your personal cheering section by acknowledging your successes and encouraging you to challenge yourself.
Your local SBA office may have networking programs established to help you identify potential mentors. To find such a program in your area, call the SBA's national business resource line at (800) U-ASK-SBA or (800) 827-5722. --Janet Asaro