Mentors Program Is a Big Step Forward

It’s way too early to even make an attempt at quantifying or qualifying the potential impact from a new program known as Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), but only a few months into the proceedings, this seems to be one of the best ideas — and most encouraging signs for progress in the broad realm of economic development — that we’ve seen in some time.
As the name suggests, VVM is about mentoring, specifically of young entrepreneurs who have ventures that — as the program’s CEO, Paul Silva, so eloquently put it — are “not quite ready for prime time.” It is the goal of the VVM to make them ready, or at least more ready. And if it succeeds, organizers say, it will help more companies over that initial hump and also keep more startups from leaving this region for Worcester, Boston, or other communities where more support systems exist.
But let’s back up a minute. The VVM was created to fill a critical need in this region, what Silva and others describe as a bridge between the classroom and the so-called real world. It’s an important bridge, a support structure that is paramount to building a stronger base of young companies that can potentially mature into major employers.
Over the past several years, UMass Amherst and several area colleges, including Springfield Technical Community College, Bay Path, Western New England, Elms, and others, have made great strides in not only teaching entrepreneurship, but fostering it as well. Indeed, these programs have not simply encouraged students to consider entrepreneurship as a viable career option — a thought that needs to be reinforced — and presented the basics (Entrepreneurship 101, if you will), they have also helped trigger some startup operations.
But then … well, there’s nothing between these programs and that aforementioned real world, which can be cruel and is always ultra-challenging. Without a support system in place to help them confront this world, young entrepreneurs often fail to advance their concepts, or, if they have the means to do so, they take their ideas to Boston or some other region where there is a support system.
Neither scenario is appealing for Western Mass., but they have become the norm, not the exception.
To reverse these trends — something that certainly won’t happen overnight — Silva and others have put the VVM in place. Meetings between mentors and selected ‘teams’ began in February and will continue on the fourth Wednesday of each month. After first getting a broad overview from each team, smaller groups of mentors have begun to drill down and address specific issues ranging from financing to protection of intellectual property; from building a business model to making an effective elevator pitch.
It would be wonderful to think that the formation of VVM is going to bring quick and profound change to the business landscape in Western Mass. Those who created this initiative know better. They understand that nothing will happen quickly and change will be incremental. Companies employing hundreds of people will not suddenly sprout up in Hadley, Hampden, and Holyoke because of monthly mentoring sessions in a law firm’s conference room in downtown Springfield.
But if things go as organizers project, that bridge now in place between the classroom and the real world will enable more young entrepreneurs to successfully make that journey from the former to the latter. And with those crossings will come jobs, more vibrancy, and, perhaps most important, a mindset that ideas can be developed in this region.
That’s why this concept is so promising.

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