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Building Trust and Fostering Mentorship to Support Entrepreneurs

Mcpl Entrepreneurs

Pictured (left to right): Dan Smith, Co-Founder and Principal, The Porter House KC; Morgan Perry, Outreach Business Specialist, Mid-Continent Public Library; Charon Thompson, Co-Founder and Principal, The Porter House KC

by Morgan Perry, Outreach Business Specialist, Mid-Continent Public Library

Establishing Trust with the Local Business Community During COVID-19

Community engagement is critical to the mission of every library. But engagement is not as simple as outreach. Engagement involves bringing a symbiotic mindset to developing relationships.

In order to best serve their communities, libraries must be present in their communities. Libraries need to actively engage with individuals and organizations, gather information and listen to feedback in order to establish a deep understanding of each community’s particular needs.

One of the most impactful ways of helping minority business owners is by providing them with the opportunity to work with mentors. In fact, research has shown that mentorship as a whole improves business survival rates significantly.

As Mid-Continent Public Library’s Business Outreach Specialist and a founding member of the library’s Square One Small Business Services team, I have dedicated my career to helping small businesses and entrepreneurs – and community engagement has always been central to that work. But, as the local business community faced unprecedented challenges in the early days of the pandemic, I was at a loss for how to engage and support business owners and entrepreneurs in the COVID-19 environment.

So, when The Porter House KC’s Co-Founder and Principal Dan Smith called me in early March, I was happily surprised to find that he knew exactly what I needed – I needed to talk about what I was feeling and predicting for the local business community’s near future. That pivotal conversation quickly mushroomed into a weekly virtual event focusing on Building the Black Economy.

At Mid-Continent Public Library, we spent more than 30 weeks involved with PHKC as part of these virtual community discussions. PHKC is an organization that helps minority entrepreneurs within the urban core of Kansas City. From these weekly discussions, we were able to foster a great relationship with local minority leaders in the entrepreneurial community and deepen our relationship with PHKC and its founders.

As Dan Smith put it, “Our goal has always been to bridge gaps in our communities, and we feel like MCPL is doing that. It made sense for us to partner to enhance the learning and networking opportunities for our audience.”

PHKC Co-Founder Charon Thompson said, “We have been successful with our Wednesday shows in hopes of bringing awareness of the library to our community. The library was the first place I went to when I started a business and found everything I needed.”

Recently, when Forward Cities opened up a request for proposals for a Kansas City organization to implement a minority business focused mentorship program, PHKC chose to reach out to MCPL to see if we would be willing to partner with them for the proposal. This type of collaboration would likely not have been possible without the weeks of listening, learning and engaging that occurred during the virtual community discussion series. The trust that was established led to a fantastic opportunity that will allow minority local business owners in one of KC’s most underserved neighborhoods to gain access to experienced mentors.

Fostering Mentorship for Underserved Entrepreneurs

Minority business owners are among the most overlooked and underserved individuals in the business community. Because of systemic access barriers to capital and cash flow – combined with a lack of support for establishing business structure, licensing and compliance – at-risk entrepreneurs often find themselves in a position to fail before they ever begin.

Now imagine these same entrepreneurs with access to experienced, successful business owners as mentors. How many needed to see themselves reflected in role models for successful business ownership? How many could launch successful businesses with some sage advice or a foot in the right door?

One of the most impactful ways of helping minority business owners is by providing them with the opportunity to work with mentors. In fact, research has shown that mentorship as a whole improves business survival rates significantly.

Unfortunately, many business owners do not have effective means of locating quality mentors. According to data presented by the Kauffman foundation about 25% of Black and Hispanic owned first-year startups have one or fewer fellow business owners that they can turn to for advice and assistance. In the Kansas City area alone, 25% of Hispanic respondents desired a mentor relationship but weren’t sure how to go about finding one.

So, what can the library to do to help these business owners? This is an area where partnering with an organization like Forward Cities can help make a significant impact.

Forward Cities is an organization that strives to help communities achieve a more equitable economic ecosystem. In the summer of 2018, they convened local entrepreneurial ecosystem builders – such as business owners of color and support organizations like the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce – to identify impactful and easy-to-implement approaches for creating a more equitable business environment. The result was a program designed to aid minority business owners in finding an effective, meaningful and productive mentorship relationship.

One of the things that sets this program apart is that the mentorship relationships are determined in part by utilizing a personality test. Improved self-awareness can be critical in getting the most from this relationship. Once individuals are matched, a SWOT analysis is performed and two specific goals are established. The mentorship then focuses on achieving those two initial goals. By having weekly mentorship cohort meetings, we are able to help foster and accelerate the process. By providing access to infrastructure, and administering programs like the one that Forward Cities created, libraries can help bridge the gap that exists between minority entrepreneurs and quality, real-world advice that only comes with experience.

At MCPL, we’re proud to say that we are able to play a small role in furthering the mission of Forward Cities and The Porter House KC. But it didn’t happen overnight. We had to take the time to listen to and engage with our community. We still have weekly meetings with PHKC and they’re more productive than ever. And it all started with two people having a conversation.

Morgan Perry

Morgan Perry

Business Outreach Specialist, Mid-Continent Public Library

A founding member of the Square One Small Business Services team, Morgan Perry has dedicated her career to helping small business owners and entrepreneurs. Her innovative work with food businesses has been featured in two different books, Kansas City Food Trucks: Stories & Recipes and the upcoming American Library Association publication 'Round the Table: Food Literacy Program, Resources and Ideas for Libraries. Morgan is an active participant in the ULC’s Strengthening Libraries as Entrepreneurial Hubs Cohort.

Looking for more insights on serving entrepreneurs? Check out ULC’s resource Closing the Gap to Entrepreneurship: Tools for Libraries to discover more strategies and resources to help libraries level-up as entrepreneurial hubs, including COVID-19 responses.