How SCORE Mentors Help Northern Michigan Businesses

Through mentoring and education, SCORE helps create vibrant small business communities across the nation, including Northern Michigan. Read on for the benefits of working with SCORE mentors, or how to become one.

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Sharon Schappacher is no stranger to volunteering. You’ll find the Petoskey resident active in her community’s YMCA, Women’s Resource Center, garden club and local arts center. But while she loves and supports each of those causes, there’s an extra level of satisfaction, she admits, to one volunteer position she’s held for the past five years: being a business mentor through SCORE.

As the current director for the Tip of the Mitt chapter of SCORE, this CPA and long-time hotelier draws on both her regional connections and a long professional career to help the region’s small businesses. And, having owned and run hotels in Mackinaw City along with her current entrepreneurial investments in hotels, billboards and more, Sharon’s experience hits home with the many entrepreneurs that she mentors.

“I love the feeling when I’ve come out of a meeting and feel I’ve really made a difference,” Sharon says. “I’ve met with so many business owners who’ve come in so scared, worried they’re messing something up. We sit down, ask them some questions and have them tell us what’s going on with their business. And at the end, we’re able to give them steps to solve a problem. Sometimes I feel like I’ve just been a superhero. It’s a pretty wonderful feeling.”

SCORE is a nationwide network with some 10,000 volunteers. As a taxpayer-funded partner of the U.S. Small Business Administration, the program offers free business mentoring and education to anyone who seeks it out, and it has helped 11 million entrepreneurs since it was formed in 1964.

The Tip of the Mitt SCORE chapter has 24 volunteers, most in Petoskey, with some volunteers in St. Ignace and Gaylord. Volunteers bring many different career backgrounds to the work, and while most mentor monthly, others add their expertise to special projects such as when a nonprofit turns to SCORE for help in strategic planning. Among Sharon’s duties is handling the training of volunteers, who sometimes need a bit of coaching themselves before realizing how well suited they actually are for the work.

Rex Winter, of Boyne City—retired from a long agribusiness career at Cargill with experience in commodities sourcing, risk management and asset management—has worked with dozens of businesses and individuals looking to start a business during his five years as a SCORE volunteer. It’s extra meaningful, he says, to use the things you’ve learned over a career to help others. “For some of us,” he says, “we’re beyond the point of wanting to work, but still want to contribute.”

SCORE work is 100 percent about helping a small business owner or owner-to-be make an informed decision, and small businesses drive the economy of Northern Michigan, he notes.

“You’re applying your experiences and resources to help entrepreneurs and small businesses fulfill their dreams and hopefully make their business successful … I find it very satisfying to work with people, help them make a good and informed business decision,” Rex says.

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At the Tip of the Mitt chapter, as with many other SCORE chapters, mentors are paired up in teams when they meet with the business or prospective business owner seeking ideas or assistance. If one mentor can’t answer a question, usually the other can. The additional person adds a lot to brainstorming sessions, sometimes about product development, other times marketing, Sharon says. Often, the main success is in matching the businessperson with the right mentor for their solution—that might be a community member volunteer, or another agency or organization. During mentorship meetings, Sharon and her colleagues have helped with everything from profit calculations to spreadsheets to patents to the sourcing of supplies.

Some of the region’s best-known businesses have been clients. While all meetings are confidential, the clients of the year are invited to publicly share stories of their participation and success. Among those are Crooked Tree Breadworks, Van Dam Custom Boats, Great Turtle Kayak Tours and Archer Full Throttle, an online business that sells archery supplies. That business came to SCORE looking for help in setting up a local store, but took the mentorship advice and now successfully sells 20,000 archery and hunting items online.

“It’s all very rewarding,” Sharon says. “They all might have been successful anyway, but I think we’ve made it easier for them by giving advice they didn’t have to learn the hard way.”

Get Involved: Visit score.org to find a local chapter where you can volunteer, or to request a business mentor.