Mentoring can push businesses to new markets

Filed under Women

By Ann Meyer

Shelly Sun, CEO of BrightStar Care, started the business when she saw a gap in the marketplace

Entrepreneur Shelly Sun learned about franchising through a mentoring program several years ago. Read her guest column about franchising on SmallBusinessExecutive.

Entrepreneur Shelly Sun would rather learn from someone else’s mistakes than make her own on the path to expansion.

That’s why she was quick to sign up for a mentoring program for women entrepreneurs that the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center offered several years ago. “I was able to triple my business because of what they were able to help me do,” said Sun.

Sun’s Chicago-based medical staffing company, BrightStar Care, saw sales climb to more than $6 million in 2006 from $2 million in the fall of 2004 when she started the program.  While in the program, Sun launched a franchising arm, selling six franchises the during the first quarter of 2006 representing 20 new locations, she said.  The company now has about 200 locations throughout the United States. (See Sun’s SmallBusinessExecutive guest column on franchising.)

Reaching out

Significant to her company’s long-term success, Sun said, is the lesson she learned about reaching out for help. “Just even knowing it’s OK to ask is what I got out of Athena,” Sun said.

Sun established a board of advisors several years ago by calling on entrepreneurs like Gloria Jean of Gloria Jean’s Coffees in Irvine, Calif., and Jim Evanger of Designs of the Interior, a Barrington-based interior design franchise. All she had to do was ask, she said. “It’s very refreshing to see how willing to help people are.”

Such mentoring is critical, experts say, particularly for women entrepreneurs who often don’t have access to the same business networks as their male colleagues. In fact, that’s the idea behind the AthenaPowerLink program, created by Athena International, a nonprofit focused on female leadership. The program is designed to level the playing field by helping women-owned businesses entrepreneurs overcome obstacles to growth.

Businesses participating in the AthenaPowerLink program on average have experienced an 88 percent increase in sales, a 37 percent increase in business net income and a 36 percent increase in full-time employees, according to a recent Athena study of women who had participated in the mentoring program.

Learning about franchising

Sun entered the program with a goal of learning how to franchise her business. As a result, her panel consisted of experts in intellectual property, franchising law and marketing, she said.

Other mentoring programs also are available for entrepreneurs, including SCORE, a no-fee counseling program run by the Small Business Administration. Many of SCORE’s counselors are retired entrepreneurs and business executives who help thousands of  entrepreneurs each year through one-on-one sessions and workshops.

Though entrepreneur Leslie Lancry was a Harvard graduate and had experience as a management consultant, she turned to SCORE for help starting Language Stars, an immersion-based foreign language program for children now in its ninth year.

Lancry used two Score counselors, one with expertise in child care and another who provided general business advice. The first encouraged her to focus the company on instruction rather than child-care, while the other guided her on the best corporate structure for the company, which helped her raise capital, she said.

Seeking advice

While Language Stars has expanded considerably, Lancry still recognizes the need for advice from those outside the company. She relies on an advisory board for guidance on topics ranging from curriculum to IT systems, she said. “Their advice has been irreplaceable,” she said.

Bogged down by day-to-day business, many entrepreneurs end up winging their growth plans. Sun started BrightStar with her husband, J.D., in 2002 after J.D.’s grandmother became ill and Sun experienced first-hand the challenge of finding quality medical care.

With no formal experience in medical staffing, the pair built the company “by figuring it out as we went along,” Sun said. But with a goal of expanding through franchising, she sought the help of mentors.

Without the expert advice, “I would have made more mistakes,” Sun said. “I think I’d still be talking about franchising today” – instead of doing it.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on April 3, 2006.

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