Berkshire Business: The major mentoring factor - New program will help entrepreneurs bring their concepts to life

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STEPHANIE ZOLLSHAN — THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE
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PITTSFIELD — Lorraine Jones wanted to tinker with her grandmother's original barbecue sauce recipe. Brian Mandeville was interested in forming his own construction company. Tom Sharpe had an idea for a startup.

But all three knew they needed help in turning those concepts into actual businesses. So last fall, Jones, Mandeville and Sharpe all enrolled in a pilot program sponsored by 1Berkshire that pairs budding entrepreneurs like themselves with more experienced business mentors.

The results?

"I got help in a lot of ways I would not have," Jones said.

"I came out of it with a more detailed focus of what I ultimately wanted to do with the company," Mandeville said.

Now, more budding Berkshire entrepreneurs will get the chance to receive the same invaluable advice.

Based on the success of the pilot program, 1Berkshire has made "Get Mentored" a permanent addition to its Berkshire Starts innovation and entrepreneurship initiative, and intends two hold sessions, or "cohorts" of the program this year, in March and September. Each session is limited to five participants.

The application deadline for the first session, which begins March 1, is Friday, Feb. 16. Applications and additional details about the program can be found at 1berkshire.com/get.mentored/. There is no fee.

"The feedback we got from our entrepreneurs was that it was a valuable experience for them," said 1Berkshire President and Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Butler. "On the heavy lifting side, it's a manageable program for 1Berkshire. It's a monthly session and a lot of the feedback comes from outside the sessions.

"In starting a business and developing ideas, entrepreneurs have strengths and weaknesses," Butler said. "Some of them have some business background, some are not so familiar with bringing an idea to market. or with business planning and marketing or with intellectual property. The whole idea in mentoring is to help fill those gaps in them."

Berkshire Starts, which 1Berkshire launched last year, includes programs and resources that assist the county's entrepreneurs small business owners initiate and grow their ventures. It also includes boot camp events and entrepreneurial meet-ups that 1Berkshire holds throughout the year. 1Berkshire funds its programs through a combination of private sector and state funding.

"There's a lot of work being done around the (local) entrepreneurial system," Butler said. "Organizations like Lever and the Schumaker Center, Berkshire Enterprises at BCC and [the countywide Pittsfield Economic Revitalization Corp.]; all of them in different ways are working with small business mentors to try and make them successful."

Get Mentored provides early stage entrepreneurs with experienced mentors who provide feedback and guidance to turn an idea into a viable business opportunity. The entrepreneurs and mentors meet once a month over a five-month period. Each session begins with the entrepreneurs pitching their ventures by highlighting a challenge that they face. Following the presentations, the entrepreneurs meet individually with the mentors, who then offer guidance on solving the issue presented.

Participants are not paired with one specific mentor; advice is offered in a group context. Over 20 mentors, all members of the Berkshire Starts Mentor Network, are involved in the program and at least 15 are expected to be at each session.

"People can't make every meeting," said David Curtis, an economic development specialist for 1Berkshire. "Exposure to a whole host of mentors brings a different perspective to the table to help (entrepreneurs) with the challenges in starting or growing your own business. It's interesting to watch the dynamic as the mentors work with the entrepreneurs."

Get Mentored is patterned after another program, Valley Venture Mentors, a Springfield nonprofit, which has provided expertise and funding to Western Massachusetts entrepreneurs through mentorship and accelerator programs since 2011.

"It has a very effective history; they've been doing it for several years with a lot of success," Curtis said, referring to the Springfield initiative.

The entrepreneurs who participated in the pilot all say that Get Mentored provided their concepts with a boost.

Jones, of Pittsfield, is developing Smokey Divas (92nd Sauce), an updated version of her grandmother Dorothy Everett's barbecue sauce that was originally developed in 1973 and is still used at a series of family-owned restaurants in the Oakland, Calif. area. The 92nd in the sauce's name refers to the site of the first Everett & Jones barbecue restaurant that opened in an old building on the corner of 92nd Avenue in Oakland. Jones is currently making her sauce in Greenfield, but is planning to open a restaurant, Smokey Divas, in Pittsfield.

"I definitely got a shot in the arm ... targeting our customer base," Jones said. "In the beginning I was going on the wrong direction looking at mass marketers."

Mandeville, who is originally from the Boston area, has opened Old Post Construction, a general contracting business that also provides in-house custom carpentry.

"What I took from the program is probably realizing what direction I wanted my business to go in," he said. "The biggest thing that I took away from it was it helped me create a business plan in a more formal sense.

"I came into the program, I guess, with a more broad sense of what I wanted to do," he said, "and came out of it with a more detailed focus of what I ultimately wanted to do with the company."

Sharpe, of Stockbridge, already ran a web design business, Mungy Studios, with his wife, when he entered the mentoring program. He's still formulating his idea for a startup, "Adventure Happy," which is intended to bring people together through outdoor activities.

"It's not an actual business yet," he said. "But I made significant progress on my visions for my startup. I took a very significant pivot in the plan because of Get Mentored, and because of that I was offered to join an accelerator program to launch my startup with a small group of professionals, some of whom we're from the Get Mentored program.

"It's not often that you can be in a situation where you can pitch an idea to people like that." he said. "To be surrounded by a group of really experienced and well spoken people who were there to share their knowledge and wisdom in regards to the business world was fabulous."

Business Editor Tony Dobrowolski can be reached at tdobrowolski@berkshireeagle.com or at 413-496-6224.


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