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Successful entrepreneurs help grow the next generation of startups with Emerge Mentor Connect

Emerge Mentor Connect is a new program from Emerge West Michigan that aims to connect local entrepreneurs with business leaders who’ve been through the startup process and know what it takes to succeed.
Maggie Mielczarek, left, and Lynne Carroll talk about business growth.

Emerge Mentor Connect is a new program from Emerge West Michigan that aims to connect local entrepreneurs with business leaders who’ve been through the startup process and know what it takes to succeed.
Successful entrepreneurs now have a new channel to meet their up-and-coming counterparts and help grow the next generation of area startups, thanks to a new program from the entrepreneur-focused resource network Emerge West Michigan.

Emerge Mentor Connect is a new offering that aims to connect local entrepreneurs with area business leaders for a one-on-one mentoring relationship. The program, which debuted with a public event in Saugatuck late last year, is headed by area artist, entrepreneur, and former ArtPrize executive director and chief operations officer Catherine Creamer.

The mission of Mentor Connect is to gather a stable network of “serial entrepreneurs” and other successful business leaders who can connect with startup business owners and help guide them through the maturation process. The program has more than 50 mentors in its network after about half a year in operation, Creamer says, and differs from other Emerge programs like Xcelerate and Incubate (formerly GR Current) in that it offers entrepreneurs a stable one-to-one connection with a mentor specific to their business for a four-to-six-month time frame — a contrast to the fast-and-furious connection style that prevails at many business incubators and accelerators.

“It’s much more personal,” Creamer says. “It’s one-on-one, and it’s free, which is really unique. And it’s an experience that when people find out, they’re all in. They’re like: ‘Yes! Sign me up, how do I get a mentor?’”

Mentor Connect offers its services to entrepreneurs for free as part of the overall public-private partnership of Emerge West Michigan; like other Emerge programs, Mentor Connect receives funding from the Grand Rapids SmartZone Local Development Finance Authority.

Also distinguishing Mentor Connect from other programs is its broader regional focus, Creamer says. Although business connections might flow like fast river water in downtown Grand Rapids, she points out that some of the outlying counties in West Michigan aren’t so conducive to networking. Like its parent organization, Emerge Mentor Connect serves 13 counties across West Michigan, giving it a wide reach to help connect with entrepreneurs in areas with less-established startup networks.

“Some people might suggest that there are parts of downtown Grand Rapids that are well-served with entrepreneurial support [already],” Creamer says. “But out in the outlying counties there’s a lot of untapped potential with people who aren’t as well-served and aren’t as readily aware of what’s going on within this Grand Rapids ecosystem.”

Creamer, a former New York City artist and computer-aided textile designer, got acquainted with West Michigan when she accepted an offer from Herman Miller, Inc. to manage their textile program in the 1980s. She lived in the Saugatuck-Douglas area and worked in a variety of roles at Herman Miller from 1989 to 1998, also undertaking a range of volunteer work that exposed her to area non-profit connections.

She later co-founded the Biomimicry Guild with author Janine Benyus, helping to lay a strategic foundation for the organization from 2003 to 2005. She returned to Herman Miller in a consulting role, along with additional consulting work for other companies, from 2005 to 2010.

In 2011, Creamer accepted an offer from ArtPrize to serve as the organization’s chief operating officer and executive director, a position she held for just short of two years. Afterward, she taught and studied at Kendall College, where she received her M.A. in design before she joined Emerge to helm Mentor Connect in mid-2015.

Creamer spent part of the summer in San Diego researching Connect, a longstanding organization with a similar mission to Mentor Connect, before hosting Mentor Connect’s sold-out kickoff event in Saugatuck in November.

Creamer says the extensive professional network that she built over 20-plus years in the area across diverse spheres made her a natural fit for the Mentor Connect opportunity; most of the initial cohort of mentors, she says, came from her personal networks. But even beyond her personal connections, she got the job partly because of her passion for connecting entrepreneurial minds and watching the sparks fly, she says.

“To me, the excitement is watching people’s eyes get big, like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s so cool,’” she says. “‘That is so great; this person helped me so much.’ And just getting to look at the gratitude and the energy they get from it. And that’s important, because entrepreneurship is a tough job, and people are at it 24-7.”

Mentors and assistance-seekers can both apply to get involved with Mentor Connect through a simple form on the program’s website. The requirements for mentees aren’t stiff, Creamer says; Mentor Connect isn’t designed to help make a business plan, but will help take quality ideas that are “money-ready,” as she puts it, to the next stage.

“Many people don’t know how to present to venture capitalists or to the investment community, so we’ll help them with their plan pitch deck,” Creamer says. “We do that through tools and resources that we have available, and by lining them up with people who are experienced in a particular domain they’re struggling with, whether marketing or sales or whatever.”

Even though mentors will stay involved for the long haul, Creamer says that the average time for a mentee in the program should be about four to six months. At that point, she says, the entrepreneur should have honed their business plan and gotten comfortable pitching to investors.

“We really want them to move through the ecosystem and develop into a thriving business on their own where they don’t need us,” Creamer says. “[Then] we can recycle the skill and talent we have to other people who need it.”

In addition to one-on-one meetings with mentors, Emerge Mentor Connect sometimes brings together groups of mentors for round table discussions with entrepreneurs to provide a variety of perspectives, Creamer says.

Maggie MielczarekMaggie Mielczarek, a Grand Rapids-based entrepreneur who owns the eclectic fabric/wallpaper/print/accessory store Leland Gal in Leland, Mich., was one of the first entrepreneurs to apply for help and get accepted to Mentor Connect. As a working small business owner and mother of young children, she said it was invaluable for her to find a mentorship opportunity that came with low barriers to entry and no monetary cost.

Mielczarek says she met her mentor Lynne Carroll, a merchandising professional and the former owner of Home Fabrics in Grand Rapids and Holland, just this week for their first one-on-one meeting.

“I was very excited to find out about [Mentor Connect] because I feel like there are a lot of opportunities out there for people once they’ve reached that ‘next level,’” Mielczarek says. “But before that, there’s not a lot of opportunities to get help you to get there.”

An artist and graphic designer by background, Mielczarek also says that working with Mentor Connect is helping her to keep her head out of the clouds, so to speak. She’s started to devote time to getting all of her available sales data in order and working out the fine details of her business plan as she converts Leland Gal from a small brick-and-mortar operation to a web store and an expanded retail site.

“The biggest thing that’s helpful to me is the editing process they have you go through,” she says. “I tend to think too big and need someone to bring me back down to reality and the business end of things sometimes.”

Lynne CarrollCarroll, a merchandising professional for Valdese Weavers in North Carolina and the former owner of Home Fabrics, a now-closed two-location fabric retailer that had stores in Grand Rapids and Holland, got involved with Mentor Connect early on as well. She says she saw it as an opportunity to help a young entrepreneur tackle some of the challenges she faced when she opened and ran her own retail stores before she transitioned to a corporate setting.

“I think anyone that’s starting off with a business, they’re going to have their skillset, but they won’t be broad in all areas necessarily,” Carroll says. “So [Mentor Connect] is this program that’s bringing together a group that are all involved and asking questions, and everyone has a little different skillset where they can offer advice and generate ideas for the business.”

The opportunity to mentor a budding entrepreneur isn’t just a matter of charity, though, Carroll says. She sees it as a way to stay involved in the small business world and keep her antennae up for new trends and ideas while she works in a more traditional setting.

“For me, it’s a way to stay involved and feel the beat of entrepreneurial business,” she says. “When you’re not out doing that anymore, you don’t have the benefits of being involved in all those different areas and kind of being in a think-tank sort of environment. So for me it gives me that other side that I don’t always access.”

Steven Thomas Kent is a high-tech, high-growth features writer at Rapid Growth Media. You can reach him on Twitter @steventkent or e-mail him at steventkent@gmail.com for story tips and feedback. His stories are made possible by support from Emerge West Michigan.

Photography by Adam Bird
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