How mentorship can help business owners survive challenging times

From Covid-19 to wildfires, it's been a tough year all around. Mentors can help entrepreneurs navigate change and build resilience.

In October, Glen and Sharon Miller celebrated the 10th anniversary of the opening of their Sacramento barbecue shop, Momo’s Meat Market. Glen was a butcher for 25 years before deciding to take the plunge on a family business. Momo’s grew steadily until the pandemic shut the market down this spring. But thanks to a city-backed catering program, the business is still afloat.

Retail shops ,restaurants, and clothing stores have been particularly hard-hit during 2020, says Aubree Taylor, of the City of Sacramento’s Office of Innovation and Economic Development. “These are businesses that were already operating on relatively thin margins,” she says. “When COVID hit, many of them weren’t really able to recover.”

The answer for many of those businesses has been to pivot to takeout, or outside service, or to move entirely online. Mentorship can be a huge help, in such a transition. “This is such an unprecedented time,” Taylor says. “Those businesses that have had some success, or have been able to stay open or even thrive during this time, we’ll be able to share some of those practices with businesses that are struggling. Mentor Sacramento will allow that knowledge sharing, maybe even find some synergies during this time.”

Glen Miller has had mentors throughout his life. The bishop at his church has provided guidance both in his family’s personal lives and their business, largely with emotional support, and the owners of the Stagecoach Steakhouse have helped guide him and Sharon through every aspect of running their business, from navigating fees and taxes to connecting Momo’s with other resources in the industry.

Entrepreneurship can be an isolating journey, says Anita Ramachandran, executive director of MicroMentor, the Portland-based organization that created the platform for Mentor Sacramento, especially in times of hardship. In a quest for capital, the critical element of guidance and support can often be overlooked. “Social capital is the ability for people to access resources, networks and knowledge,” she says. “Mentorship at its broadest sense offers you that kind of social capital, which for the most part is even today missing from the entrepreneurship space.”

“Main street” style businesses — coffee shops, restaurants, clothing stores — have been particularly vulnerable this year, especially if they rely on foot traffic in a brick-and-mortar environment.

“The world nearly shut down overnight,” says Rita Kakati Shah, a MicroMentor mentor and founder of her own women-focused company, Uma. “But we haven’t shut down as people. People are still exploring entrepreneurial journeys out there. I think mentorship, now more than ever, is extremely important. Having somebody hold your hand, give you pointers, send you in the right direction is so invaluable.”

The pandemic has forced many small businesses to pivot, almost overnight, Ramachandran says. “At this time, the role of a mentor becomes even more critical. What decisions are business owners making? What frame of mind are they making them in? Mentors can provide that sense of safety and security, which is key to both surviving this crisis and hopefully come out of this stronger.”

In crisis, mentors can play the role of coach, guide, subject matter expert or “sometimes just a really good listener,” Ramachandran says. “Maybe it’s someone who can challenge your assumptions and your thinking. In this particular crisis it can be all of the above or one specific thing.”

Sacramento’s entrepreneurs are resilient, Taylor says. Mentor Sacramento will bolster that strength, by connecting shop and restaurant owners who have successfully weathered 2020 with those still struggling.

Mentor Sacramento is an innovative and inclusive partnership between the City of Sacramento and MicroMentor, the online business mentoring platform that connects diverse small business owners to volunteer business mentors. Learn more.