Mentors on Call: The Baiada Center Gives Young Entrepreneurs a Head Start
This essay is the tenth and last in the series Drexel students write about Drexel innovations
Mentors on Call
by Joshua Ritz and Jay Majersky
Starting a business out of college can be an incredibly difficult task. Armed with little to no prior knowhow on how to start a business, and even less experience as an entrepreneur, budding entrepreneurs must face the challenges of researching the interest in their business, planning its marketing and promotion, and funding their venture. By themselves, it can become a nearly impossible task, and with a 60% failure rate, it may even seem too intimidating to start. Luckily, thanks to the Mentors on Call program at the Baiada Center, they don't have to go through the process alone.
Mentors on Call is a program started by program director and Drexel professor Dr. Milton Silver. Established in 2000, the goal of the program is to aid business students and provide mentoring in their entrepreneurial endeavors. “We’ve assembled a group of individuals who have had considerable experience with the starting, establishing and running of their own businesses,” said Dr. Silver in an interview, “…and they have indicated their willingness to come back and give back through advice counseling and guidance to those who are starting out. The 'On Call' is that we’re here, and if you make an appointment, we can work together.” After scheduling an appointment with the mentors, students are able meet with the mentors and present a concept paper; a document outlining the business idea and the factors to be aware of (ex. product, market, competition, feasibility) while starting the business. The mentors look this over, and offer advice and guidance on how they can more carefully and profitably focus on particular products and markets. This program is offered to all students at Drexel. "We typically get undergraduate and graduate students, from engineering to business," Dr. Silver told us. “…and we even invite our alumnus to come back and avail themselves of our services.”
In addition to offering guidance, the mentors also play a role in several other programs at the Baiada Center. The mentors work with the Baiada Center to offer several business competitions, each addressing a different level of intensity for wanting to create a business. Students that enter the Business plan competition have to write a plan on launching a business. “Some people do this almost as an academic exercise,” stated Dr. Silver, “because they want you to bring to bear all the things that they have been learning in Lebow or in engineering… and we judge them based on their merit on a certain academic view.” In addition to judging, the mentors help students edit some of their business plans entered into the competitions. “When students have ideas for a business plan they can come in and we will give them suggestions for that plan. Those that show potential and have a solid idea are able to move towards the Incubator stage.”
The Incubator competition “is reserved for individuals who really want to start their own business.” The reward for the winners of this competition is money and space in the Baiada Center, where they can utilize counseling from the mentors, whether it is accounting or legal advice, and even computers and infrastructure. “They come meet with us during the start-up phase and as they try and deal with various problems, both technical and marketing and financial along the way” said Silver. By providing such mentoring services, the program helps to make the real beginnings of a business easier by providing the tools, resources, and experience to make one’s business plan into reality.
The mentors don’t only work with Drexel students though. They also work with local high schools to help expose students to the world of business. Each year, as a part of their independent learning project, students at the local Science Leadership Academy choose an area of interest to learn more about and then acquire first hand experience in that field. When these students approach the Baiada Center for their ILPs, the Mentors take them under their wings for 13 weeks. “Each year, we take six students from the school and break them into teams,” said Terri McIlhenney, an administrator for the Mentors program. “Then they develop a business concept, and they work with our mentors to develop a feasibility analysis and they present it at the end. This is very valuable for these students. It can be life changing.” She cited an example from her own experiences to explain, “My first experience with accounting changed my life because it made business very understandable to me, so by the time I was 21 I already had my own small business. I think that these young students that come to the Baiada Center, and see the businesses in our incubator, and work with the mentors get to understand a little more about business, and that can change their lives forever.”
The Mentors on Call program has been growing for over a decade, even before it existed as a standalone program. “We ran our first Business Plan Competition before there was even a Baiada Center in 1995” said Dr. Silver. “Since then, we've improved the quality of our mentors, the diversity and we have witnessed a couple of companies that have spun out of here and are now in incubator space or regular business space across the city and a couple companies that are now in India." We asked Lori Banks, another of the mentors to elaborate further about the success of the entire program to which she replied, “[It] depends on how you measure success. I think that the high school program was very successful because the kids got a glimpse at what was involved in running a business […] We’ve got tremendous feedback from people thanking us, so I think it is quite useful”.
But what’s next for the Mentors program? Starting next fall term, Mentors on Call plans to begin collaborating with a project called the New Philadelphia Angel Investment Group. The NPAIG is an up-and-coming angel investors group created by a group of Drexel business students to help provide one thing that the Mentors on Call program lacks: funding. “We could listen to student’s propositions for days, and tell them how they can start their businesses,” said one of the mentors. “But without any way to fund those plans we’re just blowing hot air.” The group will provide a means for Drexel students, faculty, and alumni to launch their own business by connecting angel investors (usually wealthy investors who are willing to take risks by investing in start-up companies) in Philadelphia to local entrepreneurs (primarily Drexel students) so they can invest in their ventures. With this money, the entrepreneurs will be able to start up their business much easier, and will by using the money as a safety net of sorts, prevent the business from going bankrupt in its early stages.
The Mentors on Call program has helped create several companies that are located around the city of Philadelphia. Boasting mentors that have experience in various aspects and fields of business, the program has assisted a countless number of students, and now with the collaboration with NPAIG it will be able to assist students even further. So if you have an idea for a business, or you just need a little help with your latest venture, make a visit to the Baiada Center (located on 33rd and Arch Street) and make an appointment with the mentors.
Banks, L. Personal Interview. 24 February. 2011
McIlhenney, T. Personal Interview. 23 February. 2011
Silver, M. Personal Interview. 23 February. 2011