Entrepreneurs hit the jackpot when SCORE and MORTAR joined forces to coach and mentor

Unlikely pairing gives incubator a boost

From Day One, Derrick Braziel wondered if there was any way the partnership between MORTAR in Over-the-Rhine and SCORE in West Chester would work.

As Braziel pointed out, it seemed as if there was plenty of potential for culture clashes between representatives of SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives) and MORTAR, an organization created to help what are described as "underserved" entrepreneurs and businesses. MORTAR's guiding principle is that successful entrepreneurs can build strong communities where good things happen.

"I was nervous about it, because the volunteers with SCORE are older, seasoned guys -- mostly white guys -- and I wondered how they would interact with our clientele, who are mostly African-American and mostly women," said Braziel, an African-American who is the managing director of MORTAR. Braziel is also one of the three co-founders of the organization, which was created in May 2014, some 50 years after SCORE first established itself in Greater Cincinnati and elsewhere in the country.

Although 2016 will never prove to be a year that's remembered for major inroads toward racial harmony in the United States, Braziel said things worked extremely well for MORTAR and SCORE, which was led for most of this year by Jim Stahly, who stepped down a couple of months ago as the chair of the organization in Greater Cincinnati.

Stahly pointed out that people familiar with SCORE, which works with the U.S. Small Business Administration, are aware that the organization might be best known for its one-on-one mentoring for anyone who wants to start a business. SCORE has played that counseling role since 1964, when the organization was created. There are now more than 300 chapters and 11,000 active volunteers throughout the country.

Given that one-on-one mentoring is a SCORE hallmark, Stahly said, his new focus with the organization is to try to reach even more entrepreneurs and early-stage business owners by working with existing business incubators and accelerators such as MORTAR.

Stahly said organizations like MORTAR can provide a kind of basic curriculum for people who want to start a business and SCORE can follow up and provide what he calls the "mentoring component."

"We can assign a mentor for every individual in the program," said Stahly, who explained that the SCORE chapter in Greater Cincinnati has about 100 volunteers who work with entrepreneurs in both Ohio and Kentucky. "And we can tailor the mentoring to the class itself so that if we're marketing a bakery, it's not the same as if we're marketing a landscaping service."

Braziel made it clear that Stahly and SCORE showed a deep commitment to MORTAR, which celebrated a milestone when its 100th client completed the program this month.

"The coaches (from SCORE) went above and beyond the call of duty," said Braziel, who recalled how some of the SCORE volunteers helped MORTAR clients move into their office space and loaned them computers so they could launch a business.

"We just didn't know what we were doing, and they trusted us and provided plenty of good advice. We wouldn't be here today without them," Braziel recalled of the period early in 2014 when MORTAR was in its formative stage.

Even after MORTAR was up and running, SCORE continued to be helpful, Braziel said.

Stahly came to SCORE from the pharmaceutical industry, where he had worked for about 35 years and spent the last 20 years in upper-level executive positions for companies that ranged in size from startups to a firm that had annual revenues of more than $2.5 billion.

Whether an entrepreneur's idea is good, bad or somewhere in between, one of the first things SCORE offers is a business basics overview that drives home the message that starting a business isn't easy.

In a report released in June, the U.S. Small Business Administration said that over the last 10 years, about half of new businesses lasted for at least five years and about a third of the businesses made it to their 10th anniversary.

Other estimates offer far gloomier statistics on the small-business survival rate.

Marianne Hamilton, director of Findlay Kitchen, an incubator for food business startups in Over-the-Rhine, said she attended a half-day SCORE seminar for first-time business owners and decided that a one-hour version of that seminar would be valuable to people who wanted to start a food-related business at Findlay Kitchen, which opened in April.

"Each of our members gets a mentor from SCORE, which is great because many of our members have a passion for food but they don't have any experience with business," Hamilton said.

Although everyone has the opportunity to work with a mentor, it's not required, she added.

"We ask people to contact the mentor and meet with the mentor at least once," Hamilton said. "And if they don't feel that they need one or if they want to go in a different direction, that's all right."

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