Mentoring programs offer minorities a chance to grow

Small-business owner Patricia Watts recently graduated from a two-year mentorship program for minority-owned companies.

But Watts, who is chief executive of FCI Management Consultants in Long Beach, didn’t get just know-how out of the program. She also scored a job for her energy services company from one of the corporate mentors, sports and entertainment giant AEG.

It’s a small job for Watts’ company, but it opens the door to possibly do more work for AEG, which owns Staples Center and other major facilities.

“The bottom line is, people do business with people they know,” said Watts, who started her business in 1998 after working at Southern California Edison. She manages 75 employees who design and implement energy-efficiency initiatives for companies.

Mentoring programs, such as the one put together by the nonprofit Southern California Minority Business Development Council, allow small companies not only to network, but also to hear about opportunities to do work for corporations.

“I’ve always said that for some people this stuff happens on the golf course, where relationships are formed and information exchanged, but some people don’t get asked [to play], so how do they get the opportunity?” said John W. Murray Jr., president of the council.

The programs, which are typically free for participants, often include training in establishing efficient accounting procedures, navigating social media and seeking loans and other capital. Some also teach presentation skills.

The programs can be as brief as a few afternoon sessions or can last for months and include one-on-one coaching.

Programs for minority-, women- or veteran-owned companies are often sponsored by corporations that want to diversify their base of suppliers. The corporations do this, at least in part, in hope of establishing a wider range of stable, well-run businesses they can rely on for services and products.

Janice Bryant Howroyd, chief executive of Act-1 Group in Torrance, said the suppliers who attend such mentoring programs might offer a good product or service, “but they may not come to the table with the scale needed by a large corporation, initially.”

Bryant Howroyd, whose 300-employee company offers staffing and other employment services, credits such programs with helping build her business. Most recently, she was one of 16 business owners who graduated from one run by Accenture, a large consulting and technology services firm.

Watts, one of seven minority-owned suppliers chosen for the Southern California Minority Business Development Council program, practiced presentations onstage at a Disney facility, honed marketing processes and polished business strategies. She and her teammates met regularly with their mentors to report on their progress and seek help for challenges. They also got a firsthand look at corporations’ individual cultures.

The five corporate mentors gained exposure to minority-owned businesses and learned how other corporations handle supplier challenges. A larger mentorship program will begin in January, Murray said.

Cheryl Harris, director of supplier diversity at Accenture, hopes to nurture mentoring programs by requiring next year’s participants to launch their own.

“The only thing I ask they do is to pay it forward,” she said.