How Can We Bridge the Small Business Mentorship Gap?

Bridging the small business mentorship gap doesn’t require a feat of socioeconomic engineering. Rather, it requires all parties involved being ready to give.

Everyone—no matter who you are or where you work—deserves a mentor. However, it may be increasingly hard to find one. Professional paths are becoming less clear-cut, and cultural norms around business networking are ever-shifting, still unsettled in the wake of the pandemic.

No one feels this uncertainty more acutely than small business owners.

Mentorship is one of the most sought-after workplace benefits right now, especially among the Gen Z crowd (who are, coincidentally, a burgeoning class of small business entrepreneurs). But while the focus on bridging the mentorship gap has largely centered around white-collar workers, small local businesses have an even greater need: A massive 89 percent of small business owners who don’t have a mentor wish they did.

Small businesses are firmly anchored in their local communities, which should ideally make it easy to find support networks. Therefore, the problem isn’t that opportunity isn’t there—it’s that we need to empower small business owners with the resources, knowledge, and confidence to find (and become) mentors.

Small and Mighty: How Mentorship Drives Small Business Success

Local businesses are booming. Yelp reports a 40 percent increase in small businesses on the platform, the fruit of a pandemic-era swell in entrepreneurship. Naturally, a rise in the number of entrepreneurs means a need for more mentors.

Having a mentor can be a matter of survival for local businesses: According to research from The Organization on National Mentoring Day, 70 percent of small businesses that receive mentoring operate for five years or more. That’s twice the rate of those that don’t have mentoring relationships. By giving small business leaders and hourly workers vital knowledge, guidance, and social companionship, mentors help them shoulder their early stage growing pains and build a foundation for longevity.

Mentorship is also crucial for development of both soft and technical skills. On the technical side, a mentor might show a local worker new ways to market their business, train them in more efficient accounting practices, or help them to reorganize their storefront. At the same time, a mentor might help a business owner improve their interpersonal skills, so they can create a more welcoming atmosphere for employees and patrons alike.

Mentorship also helps local business leaders unlock new opportunities for innovation and improved business processes, based on their own experiences. In today’s increasingly automated world, that likely means revamping their tech. A strong mentor might introduce their mentees to a new payroll or scheduling software that slashes their time spent on these menial tasks. Or they might help them find new solutions for order tracking and fulfillment, or get them up and running with a new point-of-sale (POS) system. These are just a few examples of how having a mentor can help small business owners modernize their operations to attract new employees and better serve their customers.

Perhaps most importantly, mentorship helps small businesses to further establish themselves in their communities. With the endorsement of another prominent local business owner or professional, these new entrepreneurs will have more confidence to lay down their roots and become a part of something bigger. Knowing they’re part of a network will motivate them to constantly improve their service; help each other succeed; and become an even better place to work, learn, and grow.

Uncovering Opportunities for Mentorship

The pandemic fundamentally changed the way we network, with so many traditional opportunities going (and subsequently staying) digital. This comes with plenty of advantages: Business owners are no longer bound by geography when it comes to finding mentorship, and a wealth of online resources has unlocked access to knowledge and resources.

But while this shift has offered plenty of new ways of making connections, it’s also excluding business owners who may not be as technologically savvy. And even if they are, they may be too busy running their business to scroll through a social platform for leads on a mentor.

Cold outreach through venues such as LinkedIn won’t always be the best option for local businesses, as these platforms are overrun with unsolicited sales pitches and other spam that hinders the potential for connection.

That said, finding a mentor virtually can be a powerful supplement to in-person networking. Less labor-intensive options include joining an online group or forum. Facebook groups are accessible and full of knowledgeable business owners. And for the more technologically inclined, small business mentorship opportunities abound on platforms such as Reddit and Discord. My company, Homebase, has helped small business owners build connections through our Product Beta group, which offers them the chance to trial new features and discuss them together.

In the United States, there are many government and nonprofit resources available to help small business owners find mentors. For example, SCORE helps connect small businesses to volunteer mentors in specific operational areas, such as Human Resources and finance. Likewise, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) has local business development centers across the country, where business leaders can connect with potential mentors. Entrepreneurs also should explore opportunities with their city and local government offices, as these resources can connect them with prospective employees, as well as mentors.

Ultimately, small local businesses will find the most meaningful opportunities for mentorship when they invest in their communities. Getting involved with the local Chamber of Commerce, sponsoring a local event, and volunteering in the community are all impactful ways of networking. If feasible, small business owners also might explore ways to expand their business service to a wider area to boost awareness. Depending on the type of business, this could mean expanding delivery services, setting up a booth at a local pop-up or farmer’s market, or opening a new location. Even attending more local social events in their free time might lead to unexpected professional connections.

If small business owners are still struggling to find ways and venues to network, they should feel empowered to create them. Chances are, if there’s a lack of local mentorship opportunities, people will come looking for them.

How Small Business Leaders Can Become Mentors

Community is all about paying it forward. When leaders benefit from mentorship, they naturally want to extend that benefit to others.

Small business jobs are some of the best jobs precisely because of how closely teams work together with leaders; business owners and managers can become natural mentors within their own walls. This means taking a mentorship approach to training new hires, where they see every new employee as a potential successor. Even if these employees don’t stay forever, they’ll carry those skills into their next position—and maybe one day, start a local business of their own.

Mentorship is more than just a management style. It’s the start of a positive cycle of giving back.

As a bonus, businesses with mentorship-style management will garner a positive reputation as a place that cares about their employees’ futures. In tight-knit communities where word-of-mouth moves faster than light, reputation is everything.

Bridging the small business mentorship gap doesn’t require a feat of socioeconomic engineering. Rather, it requires all parties involved being ready to give. Potential mentees need the confidence and resources to put themselves out there. Mentors need the competence, skill, and—most importantly—the compassion to share their wisdom. At the end of the day, small business mentorship is about more than just work. It’s about building better, richer communities together. And the ones who can lead the journey are the ones who know the way.