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Match Makers

Hope Ross Gibaldi, executive director of Valley Venture Mentors (left), and her mentee, entrepreneur Lenore Abare

Hope Ross Gibaldi, executive director of Valley Venture Mentors (left), and her mentee, entrepreneur Lenore Abare.

Lenore Abare was familiar with Valley Venture Mentors (VVM) and even attended one of its events when she was dabbling with the idea of becoming an entrepreneur a few years ago.

“It all stayed in the back of my mind,” she said. “Now that I’m full-blown running my own consulting business, I knew it would be really important to align with other like-minded women who are hopefully beyond me, and learn from other people’s experiences.”

So she reached out to Women Innovators & Trailblazers, a VVM-affiliated program that matches professional women in mentor-mentee relationships. She was accepted into the program and found out last week that she was matched with Hope Ross Gibaldi, VVM’s executive director.

Seven years ago, WIT was the brainchild of Liz Roberts, then-CEO of VVM; Ann Burke, vice president of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, and a number of other women, Gibaldi told BusinessWest.

“It arose out of the need for female-based mentorships and knowing there’s such great human capital here in the Valley. There are so many women who are seeking mentorship. And it’s not that we feel women can’t benefit from male mentorship, but there’s a unique connection and bond when women are mentoring women — women understand the struggles, the unique challenges, and the system under which all of us are operating. There’s something unique about that relationship.”

The initial cohort in 2019 included 12 mentor-mentee matches, which has increased to 25 pairings in the just-announced fifth iteration, with specific matches based on shared interest, mentor experience, and mentee need. In Abare’s case, Gibaldi can help her with various entrepreneurship challenges as Abare builds Vircilitation Impact (the name is a play on ‘virtual facilitation’), a consulting business that works with training providers in the business world.

“I was really excited to be matched to her,” Abare said, minutes after meeting Gibaldi for the first time at a WIT mentor-match kickoff event on Nov. 2, adding that she’s excited about Gibaldi’s work with VVM on starting organizations, business acceleration, and more. “I’m definitely going to tap into that experience.”

Paulette Piñero, a leadership coach and CEO of Unstoppable Latina, was another mentor on hand at the kickoff to meet her new mentee and network with the group. Her main focus is building a strategic plan for a business, “and then building a brand to attract the right clients, the right opportunities, and the right partners, with a strong brand voice,” as she explained to BusinessWest.

“It’s very refreshing to be able to be vulnerable and talk to other women and realize that you’re not alone, and that we’re all trying to figure it out.”

“I’ve been part of other Valley Venture Mentors programs, and I’m very involved with the work they do — and I do mentoring for entrepreneurs for other programs, like EforAll and the Center for Women & Enterprise,” she said. “So when I had the opportunity to mentor with women and be part of an ecosystem of local entrepreneurs, of course I had to say yes.”

 

Lighting a Spark

The tagline of WIT is “igniting a women-led economy,” and the program is essentially a community of female innovators and trailblazers with the common goal of supporting other women in their professional and entrepreneurial aspirations. Members include entrepreneurs, professionals, students, educators, and business leaders at all stages of their careers. From the initial meetings of 30 women in 2015, WIT has grown to encompass more than 350 women.

The mentor-match program aims to provide mentoring that helps women navigate their business or career, develop key competencies, and/or grow their professional network. New cohorts begin each fall and run through the spring — typically seven to eight months.

Paulette Piñero

Paulette Piñero says women feel more at ease being vulnerable around other women.

“The program grew over time, and we’ve had a series of other offerings, like networking brunches and educational offerings and workshops,” Gibaldi said. “But over time, we’ve really focused on the mentor-match part of the program.”

WIT leaders spend a month recruiting mentors and mentees. First, the mentors rank several categories — including entrepreneurship, career development, networking, finance, executive presence, and work-life balance — based on their interest and experience.

“I would like to mentor somebody in my biggest background, entrepreneurship,” Gibaldi said a few days before her pairing with Abare was finalized. “I’m also great at networking, so I put that as my second category. The mentees then fill out a form that is basically a mirrored version of that, but they focus on the interests they have and where their biggest mentorship need is. Then we pair them.”

Once the matches are created, WIT gives little specific guidance to the pairs, beyond asking them to meet at least once a month, for at least an hour, in person or virtually — though the interactions can occur as often as they like.

“Once we’ve created the pair, it’s hands-off. There’s not a specific curriculum we follow; it’s based on the needs of the mentee,” Gibaldi said. “We do encourage the pair in the first meeting to create a set of goals and outline what they plan to work on over the next couple of months.”

Abare said the program’s women-mentoring-women model is a valuable one.

“I think, in general, there are unique challenges that are presented to women in our culture, in our society, and when we can understand that context with each other, I think it helps us provide more valuable insight so we can empower each other — because we know, even when it’s not said, some of the struggles and inhibitors, the things that might prevent us from taking a chance or taking a risk or asserting ourselves.”

That latter point is a key one, Abare noted, because women sometimes are not as assertive as men when it comes to stating their value proposition — charging a high-enough fee for their work, for example.

“Research shows that men see themselves as qualified even if they check two boxes,” she added. “Women think they’ve got to have everything checked before they take the initiative.”

Working through that process requires being vulnerable, Piñero added, and women often feel more at ease among their female peers.

“It’s very important to be able to have conversations where we’re vulnerable with other women, so that they can understand what we’re going through, what are some of the obstacles that we face, what are some of the barriers that we face, and hear stories about how we were able to overcome those obstacles so they don’t feel so alone,” she said.

“In my experience, you’re in so many spaces where you feel like you have to be perfect, and there’s this perception that, when you go into entrepreneurship, you should have it all figured out,” she went on. “And it’s very refreshing to be able to be vulnerable and talk to other women and realize that you’re not alone, and that we’re all trying to figure it out.”

Abare agreed. “I think that’s the unique thing about bringing women together in a space. We understand these things from an experiential perspective, so we can empower each other.”

 

From Mentee to Mentor

Gibaldi said WIT has evolved over time, and even though it’s under the umbrella of VVM, it boasts its own community and serves its own unique need.

“It’s always been received really well, and we have increased the mentor and mentee participation in the program; we have people with a lot of experience with social and intellectual capital participating,” she added. “It goes to show mentors want to give back, and mentees want to get tapped into this network.”

One gratifying element is the number of pairs from previous cohorts who continue to work together, Gibaldi noted. “I think that’s a good reflection on how that curated mentor-match process really works. We take good care pairing people up, and it shows when we have people continue to work together outside the cohort.”

In addition, “another great indicator of success is the number of people who participate as mentees and then return as mentors. We encourage people to go on that journey as well,” she added. “To be able to grow people and transition them from mentees to mentors is very powerful.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Passing it On

Kasey Corsello

Kasey Corsello, a certified coach and co-owner of the Corsello Butcheria in Easthampton.

There are many components to the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, perhaps none more important than the small army of mentors who are passing on what they know to a growing number of people looking to work for themselves instead of someone else. They impart to these entrepreneurs everything from the importance of understanding a spreadsheet to the notion that failure is … well, not unexpected and something to be learned from.

When asked what she tries to impart to entrepreneurs as a mentor, or do for them as she counsels them, Kasey Corsello summed it all up by saying that she tries to “normalize the emotional experience of it all, so they don’t feel like there’s something wrong with them.”

Anyone who has ever owned a business or tried to launch one — or mentored anyone who has, for that matter — knows exactly what she’s talking about.

“It is scary to be in the face of uncertainty, so I help them access their own inner resources, their own wisdom of lift experience to be able to make sound decisions,” said Corsello, a certified coach, co-owner, with her husband, of the Corsello Butcheria in Easthampton, and mentor with participants in EforAll Holyoke’s accelerator programs. “I help pull out their confidence and get them thinking that they can do this.”

With that, she described one of the many ways that mentors work with their clients and, while doing so, contribute in powerful ways to the vibrancy of the region’s business community.

Indeed, there are many components to the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Western Mass., and one of the most important is the small army of mentors who pass on what they know and provide much-needed sets of eyes and ears (especially ears) to those looking to start or grow a business.

And for this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest talked with several of them.

Individually, and collectively, they spoke of the various kinds of rewards — and there are many of them — that go with mentoring, and about the various ways they try to counsel those on the other side of the desk, or the telephone, as the case may be.

This counsel can be technical in nature, such as how to read a spreadsheet and understand the numbers of business.

“I tell them that numbers really matter — get to know the numbers,” said Bellamy Schmidt, a retired executive who worked for many years at General Electric before moving to Wall Street and the giant investment firms JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs and then Holyoke City Hall, where he served as auditor. “As much as people may find the numbers uncomfortable, they basically tell the story of a business.”

In other cases, it’s practical advice, everything from understanding one’s audience and meeting its needs, to the importance of networking and relationship-building.

“I tell them that networking is the key to building relationships,” said Yadira Pacheco, who owns a real estate agency and is a mentor in EforAll’s Spanish program, EparaTodos. “I tell them to network every chance they get; it doesn’t matter if it’s linked directly to their type of business — they’re going to find somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who’s going to connect with them because of what they do.”

Yadira Pacheco

Yadira Pacheco says she tells entrepreneurs to network every chance they get, because relationship-building is one of the keys to success.

And then, there’s advice, or counseling, that falls more in the category of psychology, if that’s even the right term, that Corsello referred to.

“I tell them not to be afraid of failing — and for obvious reasons,” said Bill Cole, owner of Tiger Web Designs and a serial entrepreneur himself. “The bottom line is this … if you interview all the super successful people in this world, you’ll find that a common thread is that they failed miserably many times before they got to be successful. And there’s a reason for that; some things you must learn the hard way in order to learn them well.”

How well someone copes with failure, and, overall, how well one can learn from it, will play a larger role in one’s ultimate success in business than any given product or service, said Cole, who told BusinessWest that he focuses on helping those that he mentors become good entrepreneurs much more than he counsels them on any specific idea they may have to change the world as we know it.

 

Getting the Idea

As he talked about his mentoring work, Cole said he “got the bug,” eight to 10 years ago.

That bug, as he called it, is a desire to give back to what is, by all accounts, a growing number of people who would rather work for themselves than for someone else. Or at least try to do just that.

What all who try find out is that this isn’t easy, and if it were, everyone would do it. The fact that not everyone does, speaks to just how hard this is, meaning every aspect of entrepreneurship, from conceptualizing ideas to bringing them to market, to coping with the known — things like competition and the laws of supply and demand — to dealing with the unknown and sometimes what can’t possibly be foreseen … like a global pandemic.

Bill Cole

Bill Cole

“I tell them not to be afraid of failing — and for obvious reasons. The bottom line is this … if you interview all the super successful people in this world, you’ll find that a common thread is that they failed miserably many times before they got to be successful. And there’s a reason for that; some things you must learn the hard way in order to learn them well.”

Overall, entrepreneurship is daunting, said those we spoke with, adding that it’s important to assist those who don’t know what they don’t know with the many important aspects of starting and then running a business, while also helping them deal with the roller-coaster ride that is entrepreneurship and all that comes with it.

“I force them to realize that they’re not alone, that they can rely on their mentors to help them,” said Schmidt. “That creates a sense of comfort; it’s not me against the world — I’ve got people who have my back.”

This ‘having one’s back’ aspect of mentoring is as important as any practical advice on a product or marketing, or reading a balance sheet, said those we spoke with, adding that they want to help people learn about themselves as much as they do about business.

“There’s a lot to learn, and when we’re in a space of learning, self-doubt comes in,” said Corsello. “And that creates an emotional response — ‘I can’t do it,’ or ‘I’m overwhelmed.’ There are some people who have a mindset for entrepreneurship and it’s very easy for them — they’re not afraid to fail, they’re not afraid to take risks; their natural strengths are geared toward entrepreneurship.

“There are others who have a hard time with uncertainty, who have a hard time taking risks, who have a hard time failing,” she went on. “I work with people to break down the steps and celebrate each and every small thing.”

There are many of these small things that are involved with starting a business and taking it to the next level — whatever that might be, said those we spoke with, adding that, overall, they work with their mentees to keep their eye on both the big picture and all the little things that contribute to a business being successful.

And while doing so, as Corsello noted, they try to make these entrepreneurs feel comfortable in their own skin. This in a nutshell, is what she strives to do as a mentor to entrepreneurs, a new role she accepted recently as part of the program known as Blueprint Easthampton, which she helped launch.

She said mentoring is like coaching, in that she’s helping build the confidence needed to get where they desire to go.

“I get to see people in their full light, essentially, and fully believe in them when they can’t believe in themselves,” she explained. “They’re realizing their vision and their dream, and they’re learning about themselves and gaining the tools they need to be resilient.”

Bellamy Schmidt

“I force them to realize that they’re not alone, that they can rely on their mentors to help them. That creates a sense of comfort; it’s not me against the world — I’ve got people who have my back.”

Elaborating, she said that entrepreneurship can be as isolating as it is challenging, and, as Schmidt said, these business owners need to know that they’re not alone. And beyond that, they need to understand that what they’re experiencing — the fears, the self-doubts, the seemingly endless hits to their self-confidence, are not unique.

“They need to understand that they’re not the only ones struggling with this,” she went on. “And that’s why I say that I normalize their experience.”

 

Rewards Program

Over the past decade or so, Cole has been a mentor for several of the agencies that are now part of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, including VVM, EforAll, SCORE, the Small Business Administration, and others. He’s worked with startups, mom-and-pop businesses, and some looking to get to the next level, and, because of his background, he’s often asked for advice on creating a website.

But his broad advice to entrepreneurs comes in many flavors, including that aforementioned counsel on failure, why it should be expected, why it’s normal, and, most importantly, why it shouldn’t bring an end to one’s dreams of owning their own business.

Overall, he said he advises those he mentors to work smart — and not just hard, although that is critically important as well.

“There’s a combination of working hard and working smart that has to happen,” he explained. “You can’t just work hard, you have to be smart, too. And ‘smart’ just means paying attention to what’s going on around you.

“We tend to have tunnel vision on what we’re trying to do — whatever that may be,” he went on. “If it’s a product, you may have tunnel vision on the product itself, when you have to think about things like how are you going to go to market with that product, or organize the business itself — how many people need to be hired, how much is it going to cost? There’s a difference between having a product idea and a business, and the difference is that most people have ideas that are expensive hobbies when it’s all said and done — it’s not really a business.”

Schmidt agreed, and said he stresses the importance of understanding who one’s customers are and what need is being met by their product or service.

“I try to force them to think about what it is the customer really wants,” said Schmidt. “Because often, a businessperson will want to do something that they want to do, and it might not be what the customer wants; if you have a business, it’s all about the customer, it’s not about you.”

Miguel Rivera, co-owner, with his wife, of Rewarding Insurance Agency in Holyoke, and another mentor in the EparaTodos program, concurred.

“Many people don’t have a target market,” he explained. “You ask them who their target market is, and they say ‘everyone.’ Then I try to teach them that their clients are not ‘everyone’; they must identify who their target market is so they can do the right marketing.”

When asked what they enjoy about mentoring, all those we spoke with said there are many kinds of rewards.

One obvious one is the satisfaction that comes from helping someone or some group take an idea and turn it into something successful.

“The first day I went to work after college, my new boss said to me something along the lines of … ‘the most important thing I get out of my job is a sense of accomplishment from helping move young people along in their careers and watching them grow,’” Schmidt recalled. “As naive as I was, I thought that was kind of a ridiculous answer. But as I matured, I realized how right he was; there’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment when you see someone develop that you have helped.”

Rivera agreed. “I’m glad to see business owners doing their ribbon cuttings and grand openings — that’s what I enjoy the most,” he said. “And many of my clients are still in business — they’re doing well, and I take pride in that.”

Said Cole, “I love it when someone is successful and I had something to do with it — it’s a wonderful feeling. But I don’t mind being there when someone is struggling, either; I’ve been there, so I know.”

Pacheco has been there as well, and so she knows first-hand how daunting entrepreneurship is. And that’s why she mentors others.

“When I was starting my business, it was very difficult, because I didn’t have the support, the guidance, or a blueprint — anything,” she recalled. “So, I was literally thrown into it and had to figure it out for myself. And that’s one of the reasons why I help others. I know how difficult and stressful it can be when you’re trying to grow a business.”

 

The Bottom Line

Beyond that, though, mentors say that they inevitably learn from those they are mentoring, and this helps them become both better business owners — and better mentors.

“I’ve learned a tremendous number of things that I never would have learned otherwise,” said Cole. “The reality is I’m smarter for it and I have a lot more experience from it than I ever would have had if I just done my own little thing.

Pacheco agreed.

“You always learn something from each participant,” she told BusinessWest. “Everyone has a story; everyone’s background is different. In the process of me helping others, they are also helping me; it’s a learning experience on both sides.”

Such sentiments explain why mentoring is so rewarding — and why it’s so important, for all those involved.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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