Capitalizing on Timeless Wisdom

Mentors are a secret weapon for business success

By Kevyn Burger
Friday, April 22, 2016

High style at a low price. In the Twin Cities, frugal fashionistas know to cruise the racks at their neighborhood Primp boutique for apparel that’s sharp and sassy. 

The cheap chic retail concept is growing at a rate that’s as breathtaking as a Paris original. In less than six years, the beguilingly named Primp has expanded to seven Minnesota shops, with additional outlets in the works.

“We’re proud that we’re 100% debt free,” says Michele Henry who, like her co-founder and business partner Wesley Uthus, is a seasoned 31 years old.

The pair of go-getters built their boutiques with an unerring instinct for what will be irresistible to their budget-conscious customer.

That’s something that their key adviser freely admits he knows nothing about.

“They’re not going to ask me what dress to buy,” says Mort Harris, 79, chuckling at the very idea. “They don’t need me for that. I’m there to give them an independent, objective review of their dream.”

About a year after they opened their first Primp in St. Paul, Henry and Uthus connected with Harris, whose resume reflects a 50-year business career buying, selling and running industrial products companies.

The mentoring group SCORE matched Harris with the Primp pair. For the past five years, they’ve gotten together every few months.

“Mort is our cheerleader, but so much more,” says Henry. “He has the wisdom to see the big picture and to hold us to our growth plan. The relationship has been a huge asset.”

The mentoring that Harris provides is free — or nearly so. Harris says that he will work for a cup of coffee.

“When we meet, we talk about every aspect of the business — best practices, expansion plans, cash flow,” says Harris. “They had me sit in on a meeting with a landlord about a lease.”

SCORE has six Minnesota chapters where mentors connect with businesses that are startups or entering a growth phase. The national organization, now headquartered in Washington, D.C. and boasting 320 chapters, originated with a single Minneapolis chapter in 1961.

SCORE has changed in its first half century; today more than one-third of the trained and certified mentors are still entrenched in the workplace rather than retired from their careers.

The retirees who work with clients have both the time and the experience to bring value to the mentor’s role.

“Today the rate of change is so fast that the industry a mentor worked in might have completely transformed,” says Laura Radewald, founder and CEO of Hi-Per Marketing and a SCORE board member. “But core structural goals for success don’t change. Mentors are not positioned as someone with all the answers, but rather someone who can help you ask the right questions. They assess business plans and see the gaps.”

It’s just common sense that advice and counsel from a trusted source can be a boon in business, but there’s also research that supports the value of these relationships. A survey by online mentoring service Micro-Mentor found that new businesses that received mentoring improved their rate of survival by 13% and increased revenues at five times the pace of those without mentors.

“Entrepreneurs should find a mentor sooner rather than later,” advises Dan Forbes, a professor of Strategic Management & Entrepreneurship at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota.

“When starting a business, the focus is on raising money but what they need first is a plan that’s been thought through and refined. The angels and venture capitalists are going to ask really hard questions before they give any money, and the way to be prepared is to have worked out those details with someone who asks the hard questions.”

The skill and experience of a mentor is particularly critical for startups in communities of color.

“Many minority businesses don’t have the kind of networks that people have in corporate America. Without those connections, they will only be able to grow so much,” says Gary Cunningham, president and CEO of MEDA, the Metropolitan Economic Development Association, which supports minority businesses with business consulting services and loan funds. “That’s why I say that mentors are like gold.”

Cunningham speaks with deep conviction about the power of mentorship, noting that his own mentors were responsible for changing the course of his career on more than one occasion.

“I had one mentor who kept pressing me, asking me very deep questions about where I was going. He would not let me off the hook,” Cunningham recalls. “That’s how I wound up at MEDA. He challenged me to use my skills and energy to make a difference for the communities that I came from. This man was a white Republican, but I could listen to him. Mentors don’t have to come from the same place as you.”

Making a mentoring match is something that fewer women do. A 2013 study by the professional development company Levo League found that 95% of working women surveyed said they had never sought out a professional mentor.

WomenVenture, Minnesota’s economic development agency geared at females, builds one-on-one consulting into its client service.

“Women business owners face more obstacles accessing capital and that’s why we provide business loans up to $50,000,” says Gertrude Matemba-Mutasa, director of the organization’s Women’s Business Center.

“We don’t say, here’s your money, good luck. We constantly check in with our clients and we’re there as soon as they experience any difficulty. Because the mentoring is tied to the loan fund, it is easy to track the success. Our default rate is about 1.2.”

It’s obvious why a protégé would seek out the expertise of a business Obi-Wan Kenobi, but mentors have their own reasons for wanting to reach out to their Luke Skywalkers.  

“Some mentors look at these relationships with a financial eye; these new businesses can present investment opportunities,” says the Carlson School’s Dan Forbes. “Information can be another motivator. Even if you don’t invest, you might be interested in the space they’re working in and that relationship can help build a knowledge base to know that space better.”

It seems that many mentors want to get on the other side of a relationship that they valued. Gary Cunningham sees his mentoring efforts as payback.

“I benefited from the experience where someone stepped out of nowhere and helped me, without wanting anything from me,” he says. “I can honestly say that the best compliment that I’ve ever gotten is when someone that I’ve mentored tells me I made a difference. That is the ultimate buzz, that feeling of getting someone up to the next rung of the ladder.”

SCORE mentor Mort Harris started his volunteer mentoring seven years ago, and has now worked with around one hundred early-stage businesses.

“I enjoyed every minute of my career; now I’m enjoying this work in my retirement years,” he says. “When a client takes your advice and it works out — wow. Talk about a thrill. What better thing could I be doing?”