MIT-inspired effort provides entrepreneurial mentors

There’s no shortage of advice floating around for potential entrepreneurs.

But Jay Johnson thinks the advice needs to be provided in a structured, consistent fashion if the lessons of experienced business people and professionals are going to provide useful assistance to startup ventures in the northern Sierra.

Johnson, executive director of the nonprofit Summit Venture Mentoring Service, is spearheading a new effort to match up entrepreneurs with teams of seasoned business professionals.

It’s modeled after the MIT Venture Mentoring Service, which was created in 2000 to provide free counseling for prospective entrepreneurs affiliated with the Cambridge, Mass., university.

Now the MIT program provides immersion training to teach its techniques to disciples such as Johnson. About 30 affiliates — universities and innovation-oriented nonprofits — now use the MIT venture-counseling model.

“They’ve created a highly structured process,” says Johnson, one of five people from the region to attend MIT’s training late last year.

More than 1,200 ventures have gone through the program at MIT.

“In the process, we’ve really honed in on best practices, learning every venture is unique in its status, needs trajectory and priorities,” says Jerome Smith, co-director of the MIT program.

At the same time, he says MIT recognizes that local programs need to reflect local needs, and a cookie-cutter approach won’t be successful.

The key element to the MIT program is regularly scheduled, 90-minute meetings of entrepreneurs with their teams of four or five counselors. Each of the sessions follows a set agenda, and they’re designed to keep good ideas stay on track toward creation of successful startups.

“It’s deeply rooted in ‘What are you doing?’” says Johnson.

Summit Venture Mentoring Service is lining up its first batch of companies and mentors — probably about five companies and a similar number of mentor teams — to begin working together in early spring.

The nonprofit is exercising care in selection of companies for the pilot project.

The focus: Companies that have strong potential to scale up their operations, companies with leaders that have strong visions of creating a national or international sales footprint.

“We want these companies to be successful,” Johnson says.

The nonprofit has identified an initial cadre of about 20 experienced mentors to work with the companies.

The fact that those mentors will be working in teams with an ongoing commitment is critical to the success of Summit Venture Mentoring, says Johnson.

He acknowledges that numerous other initiatives have been launched in the region to assist start-up businesses.

“We’ve seen a lot of well-intentioned people, but the challenge has been getting been getting past the individual silos,” he says. “We want to provide continuity, to connect the dots.”

The Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada is underwriting creation of the venture-mentoring program, using grant funds from the federal Economic Development Administration.

Mike Kazmierski, president and chief executive officer of EDAWN, describes the mentoring program as a key element in his organization’s target of adding jobs to the region’s economy from startup ventures.

“If our young companies have the resources they need to grow and succeed they will help the entire economy and contribute to a vibrant community,” the EDAWN executive says.

The program also has drawn support of academic and business organizations throughout a region that stretch from Reno to Carson City, Truckee and Lake Tahoe.

“For us to be truly local, we need local people with skin in the game,” says Johnson.


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