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Mentorship program building 'strong foundation' for new entrepreneurs

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A mentorship pilot program by Business Link is assisting new entrepreneurs.

The goal is to help people starting up small businesses by allowing them to learn from others who have a few years of experience under their belts already.

"Business Link is a government-funded non-profit and we really help businesses start and grow," said Matt Hill, director of operations and sales.

"We put on events, we provide resources and one-to-one support programs like this to really give businesses a strong foundation for their continued growth."

Hill says the program launched in January 2024 and so far, 300 mentees have signed up.

He says conversations between new owners and mentors are valuable.

"The great thing about the program is it can be in person or it can be through virtual Zoom calls," Hill said.

"We actually have mentors and mentees from right across the province as well as here in Calgary, connecting."

Business Link has seen a lot of interest in the program from people new to Alberta who are looking to form connections within their communities.

"People are coming here, (and) they're wanting to start small businesses. Perhaps they had a great business back home, they have expertise in that area and they want to launch something here as well," Hill said.

Aspiring business owners must be based in Alberta and up and running for less than a year or in the initial stages of developing a business plan to be eligible for the program.

Once a mentor and mentee are matched, there is a 30-minute introductory meeting, allowing them to establish their objectives and discuss potential challenges.

A more focused 90-minute session follows, aimed at developing strategies and setting the path for future success.

"The impact of programs like this is helping businesses move toward sustainability," Hill said.

"It's easy to start but are we going to be here in five years? In 10 years? That's why it's so important for the Alberta economy."

Lauren Wilson registered her small online business, Wren Bakehouse, in October 2023.

She's passionate about making bread and other baked goods and one day hopes to open a brick-and-mortar bakery.

"I just really enjoy doing it. It's working with my hands and I see the direct impact of feeding other people."

Wilson gets up at 3 a.m. four days a week to bake and a few other days to make deliveries and attend markets.

She says without mentorship, her passion would just be an expensive hobby.

"I'm into this for the long haul and in order to be in it for the long haul, I have to be well-prepared and I have to plan," she said.

"To do that, seeking out advice from people who have gone down that road before is crucial."

Wilson's mentor has a small business in Banff.

"She has been really great," Wilson said.

"Because the questions I have about staffing, finances, bookkeeping, growth, that kind of stuff -- stuff I don't really know about -- she's done it all before, so she can help me out with that."

Before starting her own business, Wilson had a conversation with her old boss after she was laid off.

"I realized the value of mentorship and he said to me, 'This business is going to own you for at least five years, so be prepared for that,'" she said.

"I'm very grateful he set up the expectation that I was going to be working very hard because I am working very hard. I think if you don't, you're not invested."

Dennis Scanland's SunnyCider is celebrating its fifth anniversary in June.

He's one of close to 70 mentors who've signed up for the program.

"I started doing urban farming with a company called Dirt Boys. I opened that up in 2013," Scanland said.

"YYC Growers was another business co-operative that I started and then the opportunity for cider came around with a bunch of neighbours.

"We were collecting apples and fruits, that sort of thing, and trying to make decent cider and a few years later, we decided to go into business with it."

His mentee is a baker with a home-based business in Edmonton.

"To help somebody start up a business, they can come to me if they have a question on licensing or marketing or that sort of thing," Scanland said.

"It makes you feel good to be able to share that information, rather than just keep it to yourself."

Business Link says it's looking for more mentors.

"We'd like to see a close match in numbers of mentors and mentees," Hill said.

"They don't need to be an expert in everything but we're looking for people who've been in business perhaps three to five years, who've got that experience to pass on to provide to their community and support a new business."

You can learn more about the program at businesslink.ca/programs/mentor-program/.

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