Mentorship is an important piece for organizations to continue learning and growth. For professionals, having a mentor means there’s someone to encourage and enable the team to perform better and develop their skills. Join us in this episode as Liz Sara shares her journey to becoming the President of the SCORE Foundation. She discusses how they provide free mentoring and business programs to small business owners and entrepreneurs around the country. Tune in as she explains business strategies and effective leadership for success.
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SCORE Foundation: Helping Small Businesses Through Mentorship With Liz Sara
[00:01:26] In this episode, we have a repeat. Not very often do I bring people back onto the show but my friend, Liz Sara has left where we talked about before. She has joined me. She is now the President of the SCORE Foundation. We are going to talk about mentorship because this is something in North America, and around the world that is critical, both of the people being mentors and the people being mentored. That’s what’s going to make the world a better place. Liz, welcome back to the show.
[00:01: 56] Thank you so much, Ben. I’m delighted to be back here with you.
[00:02:01] We had so much fun the last time. I said, “You’ve changed positions.” You led an incredible organization that helped women and now you’ve moved over to SCORE. I will let you give a little bit of history about who you are, where you were, where you have been, and where you are now then let’s get into mentorship because I have been a mentor for over a decade now. For me, it’s one of the most gratifying things that I do, so take it away. Give us a little history and then we will get into it.
[00:02:33] I have been an entrepreneur all of my career. For the majority of the years that I’ve spent working, I have been in the technology sector, not as a software developer or a computer engineer but on the business side. That’s my background and what I bring to the organizations that I’ve worked with. I was a Cofounder of a software company in the pre-internet days. Morphed that into an eCommerce company in the early days of eCommerce and web. I spent many years running a marketing strategy agency in the Washington DC area helping early and growth-stage tech companies, go from $1 million in revenue to $5 million or $5 million to $25 million.
Helping them sort through the roadblocks and the challenges and how to get around them, how to scale and grow, and be successful. Throughout that process and my days as a software company, entrepreneur, and leader, I sure wish back then there was access to the kinds of mentors that are available to nowadays startup founders because there wasn’t anything in those early days.
If you didn’t have personal friends or some board members that I could bounce ideas off, you end up making mistakes that are rookie mistakes because you’ve never done it before. The various roles that I’ve played in recent years, such as chairing the National Women’s Business Council, which was advocating for female founders around the country. Also, bringing their situation to light with the US Congress, the White House, and other Federal agencies on things that they could do to help women succeed in their business endeavors or things that they should get out of the way that are holding women back.
When I was given the opportunity to join the SCORE Foundation as the new President and Leader, to me, it was a natural next step of all the things that I have been doing to support startups and entrepreneurs, whether it’s male or female. Whether it’s of one ethnic background or another or it’s companies in one industry sector or another. Small businesses are the backbone of our economy. I’m excited about the kinds of opportunities that we have with SCORE and how the foundation supports that. When you are ready, I will tell you what the difference is between the SCORE and the foundation.
[00:05:12] That’s a pretty big differentiation between SCORE itself and the foundation. Let’s look at this. There are 326,000 people you have mentored over the last year.
[00:05:23] It is tremendous. SCORE operates this vast mentor network of some 10,000 business experts that volunteer their time to help any small business owner. These 10,000 volunteers are spread around the country, serving about 1,500 communities in about 250 chapters. If you live in Dallas, Denver or anywhere else, you can, as a small business owner, go on the Score.org website. Click the button that says, “Request a mentor.” Tell them, online, what help you want, whether it’s accounting, finance, marketing or anything under the sun.
SCORE has been around for many decades, more than 50 years. It has been able to champion and get this model in place to support the small businesses in our country. The foundation on the other hand is the sister organization and the philanthropic arm of SCORE. What does that mean? We work with third-party organizations from corporations to individuals to other foundations and nonprofits that wish to expand the educational programming and services that SCORE provides to these small businesses.Small businesses are really the backbone of our economy. Click To Tweet
Besides this powerful mentor network, there are webinars, business plan templates, and various types of local programs that the small business owners can avail themselves to help them in those areas that they are looking for information and guidance. The foundation attracts those corporations that are interested in becoming thought leaders in aligning their strategic mission with helping small business owners. I’m happy to talk about what some of them are doing.
[00:07:19] We will give you a chance to get into that but I look at the whole thought process behind mentorship. It comes down to a fact that we don’t know what we don’t know. As you said early on in your career and my career, we probably fell down a lot of holes that we didn’t need to and we had no idea how to get up. We didn’t know what the latter was. Sometimes, we didn’t even know where the top of the hole was.
It’s challenging because if we don’t have access to people, either on an ad hoc basis or regularly that we can say, “I’m not sure, I don’t understand or how would you?” We are going to continue to fall into those holes over and over again where we don’t need to. My thought process is how do you enable people to, first of all, understand that this type of mentorship is available and how to access it? A lot of people go into business. They have their heads down. They are doing what they need to do and don’t understand what programs are available to them or how to get access to them in the first place.
[00:08:26] We at the foundation are helping SCORE to the extent that our corporate sponsors are involved in spreading that word and being on a show such as yours is another channel to reach the small business audiences that perhaps haven’t heard too much about the SCORE mentoring that’s available or the other programs. Getting the word out is a very big part of SCORE’s mission. They do a tremendous amount of social media outreach and public relations but there’s always a new business company getting started.
There’s always a new market to get in front of. Being on the programs such as yours is so important to keep the dialogue open and the awareness out there so that a new business owner can learn about what SCORE offers at no charge and can take advantage of it. We are thankful and personally, I welcomed this opportunity to chat with you so that your audience perhaps might learn about what’s available and take advantage of it. There are very few resources around the country as robust, as deep, and as free as what SCORE offers small businesses.
[00:09:52] Let’s get into that in terms of what is available to these people. You told me there are chapters across North America or at least across the United States. I can avail myself if I live in Dallas, New York City, in Seattle. There is a local chapter full of people that are interested in being mentors. First of all, how do you make sure that these people that want to volunteer their time are prepared to be of service to the people that need help to be able to make sure?
Not everybody who says, “I want to be a mentor,” may have the understanding of what that means, what is going to be expected of them or what they can offer, or what they can’t offer, and how truly to be of help. How do we prepare the people who want to be mentors to be able to be the best service to the new business owners they can be?
[00:10:45] There is a process that has been honed over the decades, whereby SCORE is able to interview, vet, and provide a certain amount of training so that those potential volunteers who want to be those mentors, have the requisite background in their field, to begin with. We want to make sure that if someone is volunteering to be an accounting mentor that there are the necessary background skills and business experience that will make them a proper mentor and provide accurate and important information.
That process has been in place for quite a long time. The second aspect of it is how much time is that mentor willing to commit because we don’t want someone that’s going to do one mentor session then never be available again. That doesn’t help the small business because many small business owners have several sessions with their mentors.
In many cases, they may have more than one mentor. If they need financial help, that’s one type of mentor. If they want help and put a social media marketing campaign together, that’s a very different mentor. If they need someone with experience in their industry, if it’s anything, retail or operating a food truck, for example, that might be yet a third type of mentor.
SCORE, as the organization has in place a proper channel for identifying new potential mentors, receiving inquiries from new potential business experts that would like to be mentors, and checking the background and interviewing them and see if there’s a good fit. Both from an experienced standpoint, as well as a time commitment standpoint.
[00:12:36] That’s so important because as I said, I’ve mentored probably at least a decade, if not longer. It has been at least a decade. Quite honestly, when I first started, I had no idea what I was doing. My thought was, “Listen to the person, find out what they need and not be afraid to say I don’t know.” Be able to sit there and say, “I don’t know. Let’s help them find the right answers.”
For instance, you don’t want me doing your accounting for you. You don’t want me giving you financial advice when it comes to reading the spreadsheets and figuring out in detail how to be able to move from X. I’ve got people that do that for me. I certainly will rely on those people. I wouldn’t want to be the person telling a brand-new business owner the details and the minutia of their spreadsheet and financial situation.
It’s not what I do but you also need to sit there and say, “What are the boundaries? How much time do I have? Can I afford five hours a week? Maybe yes. Maybe no. How do you set expectations? How do you set boundaries? How do you make sure that you are available when you need to be available?” I applaud that because a lot of mentors are trial and error.
Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes you don’t know why it didn’t work. Having an organization that you can rely on to sit there and say, “They’ve got a process. They’ve got a veteran.” They have people that the mentees can go to and say, “I’ve never run into this problem before.” Do you have places where those people can go and say, “I need help. I’ve got this person that’s asking me this question. I haven’t got a clue how to answer it. Is there somebody else that has an answer that we can give them?”
[00:14:16] It’s so important for the small business community to understand that these SCORE mentors as a program have been in place for decades. It isn’t like a new incubator may start up in a particular city and is figuring out, “We need to do some programs for the companies coming in here or put some mentors together.” In many cases, those are very, let’s call it loosely put together organizations.
They are hoping to fill a local community need. With the SCORE mentor network, there are processes that they have honed over time. They understand what are the important criteria for an individual who is willing to be a mentor to be able to fulfill so that those small business clients are getting the best of what they need in a particular company, functional area or at a particular time in their life cycle.
They are trying to go from one stage to the next or grow their revenue from here to there. They are trying to hire five new people and put them in place to help grow their business. I can’t underscore enough, no pun intended with a SCORE thereof the efficiency and the credibility of that SCORE network and supporting the small business community. As a small business owner, you want to make sure that the advice you are getting is good advice.
[00:16:19] Let’s look at this from your foundation partner’s point of view. You are midsize, large-sized corporations that utilize the talents within their organizations to be able to support our mentors for the mentees.
[00:16:34] In most cases, the large corporations that we work with at the foundation are helping to support the programs in general.SCORE operates this vast mentor network of some 10,000 business experts that volunteer their time to help any small business owner. Click To Tweet
[00:16:43] Financially or they are not providing experts within their organization who can become mentees or mentors?
[00:16:51] Correct. They are not bringing their employees to become mentors. They are basically underwriting some additional programs in the educational area in different corporate functional domains to help those small business owners have access to the information they need. Let me give you an example. FedEx provides educational content focused on startups on eCommerce and that includes webinars, other information, as well as what we call the startup roadmap, which is a series of 10 or 12 different chapters in a step-by-step guide to help a business get up and running by a startup founder.
Equitable Foundation, which is also a sponsor is providing various types of content and supporting programs for the Black entrepreneur’s educational hub. It’s working with one of the SCORE chapters in Charlotte, North Carolina, to help them with their diversity and inclusion-focused events. In many cases, if not all, a corporation has certain strategic goals in supporting the small business community.
Their philanthropy and financial underwriting, help SCORE add more programs, either to support underserved communities, whether it’s women, Asians, Hispanics, veterans, minorities or all entrepreneurs in general. Corporations dial in with collaborations on those programs that match their own corporate strategies while at the same time helping SCORE do more.
[00:18:43] Are these custom programs that are developed in partnership with SCORE or are they programs, let’s say, FedEx would already have as in-house training that they are utilizing in other places that they are making available to the small business and the entrepreneurs?
[00:19:00] In most cases, the SCORE Association headquarters team is developing the programs. I use Ken Burns’ TV documentary series as my example on PBS. Ken Burns has done tremendous series on World War II, the Civil War, baseball and so many topics. Companies like General Motors help underwrite the production of those programs very much the same with the foundation corporate sponsors and the programs that the SCORE Association is creating. The association has its wish list to meet the needs of the small business owners that they are getting feedback on. The corporate sponsors help through their funding. The association team and their experts put those programs together.
[00:19:51] It’s almost like a PBS-type model where, “This show was sponsored by FedEx. This show is sponsored by IBM, whatever.” IBM, FedEx or whoever would come in at the foundation level to be able to provide the funds for the content to be developed. They are not involved in helping to develop the content themselves. They are more than likely saying, “We are going to provide the financial wherewithal to the foundation to make the materials available.”
[00:20:19] That pretty much is the way it works. One more example, Trend Micro is a software company in the cybersecurity protection space. They have been a corporate sponsor of the foundation for several years. What they have been doing is sponsoring various webinars to help small business owners understand, “How do I protect my data? How do I protect my backend systems? If I’m a sole proprietor and I’m working from my home office, my needs look like this but if I run a retail bakery and I’ve got customers from the public coming into my store every day, what do I need to protect my backend, my payment, my billing, and my cash systems?”
Trend Micro is helping to underwrite various webinars where we have learning environments on those issues, as well as different forms of content. The 5 things to look for, the 5 things to stay clear of, and what are the 5 cybersecurity problems that are currently servicing that you need to be aware of. Companies come with their thought leadership such as in the case of Trend Micro and their experience in cybersecurity to help the small business owners understand and make the right decisions on how to protect their information.
[00:21:39] In that particular case, would they provide the experts to run the webinars themselves to be able to facilitate this knowledge?
[00:21:49] It’s not just pure financial play. It’s being able to provide not only financial support but possibly expertise as well?
[00:21:58] Most definitely. It varies by the sponsor and what they wish to do in terms of their collaboration from a sponsorship standpoint. What fits their strategic goals and how can we leverage what they want to accomplish through, either purely financial underwriting to the other end of the spectrum, where we are utilizing some of their expertise on, “Here are the five big cybersecurity threats this year that’s floating around the world?”
[00:22:31] Let’s change gears and talk about the mentees. Let’s talk about these people that are traditionally young, idealistic, starting an organization, don’t know what they don’t know because I have been one of those. I admit. I was the person that had a great idea and a passion and knew a lot about what I knew a lot about. There were a lot of things I do not have a clue about. How do we enable those people to be able to understand?
First of all, what are the questions that they need to ask not only to engage the mentor community but be able to utilize it in a way that’s going to be able to benefit them? We don’t know what we don’t know and we muddle through in the do-it-yourself mentality and, “Don’t bother me. I will figure it out. I will watch YouTube.” That can be a dangerous place to be. How do we break into that mentality and allow people to realize there’s a whole community here that’s set up to help you and help you benefit not only yourself but your employees and your clients?
[00:23:35] Let me share that point in question, Ben. Some of the areas are the top 3 or 4 subject areas that the small businesses served by the SCORE mentors tend to need help in. This is probably universal and not just limited to the United States of America. It’s endemic to small business owners in general around the world. The number one subject that is requested for assistance by a mentor is marketing. As you and I both know, with a background in marketing, covers a lot of things.
“How do I price my product? Should it be this? Should it be that? How do I get in front of my customers? Who are my customers?” If I’m selling to consumers, is it every consumer? Is it women? Is it men? Is it senior citizens? Is it Millennials? Marketing is the number one area. Followed closely by business plan development and other finance things. Why? A lot of the small businesses are served by the mentors that SCORE provides programs for our Main Street businesses.
They are organizations in our community that run the restaurants, that might have the yoga studios, and some consulting, and graphic design services, the whole gamut of the organizations that are neighborhood and local community-based. If they are running a donut shop or wanting to open up one, there’s restaurant equipment that they need to buy and ovens and different types of machinery that they could potentially get a business loan to cover so that they don’t have to buy it out of their pocket.
What do you need? You need a business plan if you are going to walk into a bank. You need certain financial statements to show the banker that you are a good credit risk. Business plan, finance, and accounting represent another common area that the small business owners come to SCORE about. The main thing to hit home, and there are probably 15 or 20 other subject areas that are very universally popular.
When I think about my time for many years working with a tech company and growth-stage companies early, most technologies are founded by technologists and software developers. They came up with great ideas on how to solve this, how to make this easier or faster for consumers or business executives but lack the business background. They didn’t go to business school. They didn’t take Business courses. They became Computer Science majors or computer science experts from maybe age 6 or 8.As a small business owner, you want to make sure that the advice you're getting is good advice. Click To Tweet
They don’t have those business background skills as part of their own personal makeup. Enabling them to reach out to someone who could help them with those things that they are not good at will make the difference between them spending a lot of time in trial-and-error approaches. They don’t need to. Why waste your time when you can talk to somebody that can give you the shortcuts that can help you not make those mistakes?
When I look at my own entrepreneurial journey, I wish that there were more potential advisors available back when I was one of the Cofounders of that software company. There was a point where one of my cofounders and I were out raising capital. What did I know about that? At an early age, I didn’t know anything. We had to do the best that we could do in putting the slide deck together.
When we walked into the venture capital office to say, “We’ve got this great piece of software that’s going to do this and this. We are going to grow like this in three years and we want you to invest.” I could have taken advantage of the expertise of people who had done that before. Having this network of thousands of people around the country that are there to help. They are there to help because they get great personal satisfaction from it. You have been a mentor for a very long time. The reason why you keep doing it is that you get the satisfaction of being able to help a company. If you didn’t, you have been doing something else.
[00:28:06] It’s amazing to me when you think about the opportunities that are available to people now. I need to shorten this because we are running out of time and I want to make sure that I get my thoughts on this properly. How do we make sure that people are getting the right information? There’s so much information out there. There is an enormous amount of information out there. Most of it is irrelevant to us. It may be good information for somebody but it may not be applicable to our clients, our space, our situation, whatever.
How do we help the young entrepreneur learn how to ask the right questions to be able to make sure that they are put on the right path? The path to failure is a superhighway. More organizations fail every single year because of lack of information, bad information, bad communication, whatever. How do we make sure that we help the young entrepreneurs get the device that they truly need in a way that’s going to enable them to succeed?
[00:29:18] The first step there is understanding the role of the mentor in many cases can be in helping that startup founder recognize what the right questions are. I was moderating a group of women business owners in a monthly round table series that I do in the DC area. One of the women founders said, “I was thinking about a month and a half ago that I needed to bring on a finance executive because I know nothing about finance.”
Her company is in the life sciences space. She said, “I don’t know anything. I would benefit by having this person on board because we are getting traction and there are lots of financial decisions I don’t know how to make. I reached out and got a mentor. What that mentor taught me is I need to define what kind of person I’m looking for in this finance person that I would like to hire. I just figured I needed a finance person but I didn’t think it through. What role do I want them to play? What do I need them to bring to the table in the background? Should they come from the life sciences industry? Is that an important criterion? Should they be a CPA? Does that matter?”
That mentor helped her think about what questions to ask to create a job description or a role for that person, by the way, she might have hired the wrong person by thinking, “All finance people are the same.” It’s knowing what the questions are that a quality mentor can help guide that founder to get to where they need to be. They don’t always have to give them the answer. They need to give them the roadmap to get to that answer.
[00:31:07] That’s a good place to stop. I have a couple of last questions before letting you out the door but you have been amazing. You’ve given know the road map to be able to sit there and say, “If we don’t ask the right questions, we will never get the right answers.” That comes from the mentor and the mentee stage. That’s how we are all going to succeed. Now, the best way for people to get in touch with you is through ScoreFoundation.org. Is that the best way?
[00:31:47] Here’s the same question that I asked you last time and I asked every single person this. As you leave a meeting and you get in your car and you drive away, what’s the one thing you want people to think about you in SCORE when you are not in the room?
[00:32:00] I would say that there’s a tremendous value and supporting the small businesses that add the vibrancy and the neighborhoods we choose to live in that give us the variety of products and services that we have that create jobs, help our economy, and the states we live in. If there is any interest in supporting those communities, a small business owner locally or nationally, that they know to contact us at the SCORE Foundation.
[00:32:32] Liz, thank you for shining a light on this, for being a yet, again, a wonderful guest, and for all the things you do for small businesses.
[00:32:41] Thank you so much, Ben. I appreciate the opportunity to be in your program. I’ve always enjoyed it and will continue to enjoy it. Thank you.
[00:32:48] Thank you.
- SCORE Foundation
- Equitable Foundation
- General Motors
- Trend Micro
- @LizSara – LinkedIn
- SCORE Foundation – LinkedIn
About Liz Sara
Liz Sara has more than 30 years of experience in the national entrepreneurship community as a strategic business executive, non-profit manager, startup champion and angel investor. In January 2022, she became President of the SCORE Foundation, the philanthropic arm of SCORE which provides free mentoring and business programs to small business owners and entrepreneurs around the country.
Prior to joining the Foundation, she successfully ran the strategy firm, Best Marketing LLC, that she founded in 2001. During those 20 years, she provided expertise to more than 100 early stage and growth-stage tech companies on their go-to-market strategies, delivering increased revenue, market adoption and brand awareness.
In 2018, she was appointed by the President as Chair of the National Women’s Business Council, a federal agency that advocates for female founders. She elevated the role of and challenges faced by women business owners during her tenure. She is a past Board Chair of the Dingman Center of Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland, where she increased its academic ranking in the country during her term and tripled the board size and endowment.
She is a past mentor of startup CEOs at the leading incubators and accelerators in the Washington, DC area. She invests her own capital in women-owned startups as an angel investor. She is a frequent author, podcast guest and conference speaker on topics related to entrepreneurship, small business and angel investing.