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SCORE’s volunteer mentors offer a helping hand to entrepreneurs

Steve Records believes in the power of entrepreneurs, but he sees a big challenge on the small business landscape.

“The Great Recession cost the U.S. about 4 million small businesses that have not come back,” said Records, national vice president of field operations for SCORE, a business mentoring group.

Records said SCORE’s 300 chapters and 10,0000 volunteers can help new and existing small businesses grow. The group provides an outlet for people who have business experience and a desire to volunteer to put their skills to work as mentors.

Records’ own experience is varied. He grew up on a farm in Indiana, earned a chemical engineering degree at Purdue University, and an MBA at the University of Nevada. Before joining SCORE in 2011, he worked for a chemical and energy company, and then as a consultant for the Gallup Organization.

Records recently visited Amherst to meet with members of SCORE's Buffalo Niagara chapter, which has 65 certified volunteer mentors serving an eight-county area. He spoke about the challenges small businesses – including farms – face, and how SCORE, which used to be short for Service Corps of Retired Executives, has changed with the times.

Q: What is the climate like for launching a small business?

A: With a 4 percent unemployment rate, a lot of folks don't see a need of perhaps pursuing entrepreneurship or they're more comfortable growing wages in their current job.

Steve Records joined SCORE in 2011. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

I think in this very immediate point in time, there's a challenge in being able to spur and foster the idea of entrepreneurship. I think SCORE can help with that.  ... There's a whole bunch of macroeconomic factors that impact (entrepreneurs), from the economy to a whole generation of kids graduating with six-figure student loan debt and things that sometimes make it more difficult to make that leap.

Q: What are you impressions of the Buffalo chapter?

A: The Buffalo chapter has always been a real strong chapter. There's always been a good cadre of people at its center that have always sustained a level of operations and performance. Like most chapters, though, I think there's a lot of opportunity to continue to grow and expand to better serve not just the Buffalo market, but all of the surrounding markets that ultimately we cover, as well.

Q: How do you measure a chapter's success?

A: We're trying to be more outcome focused. There's really three main ones: the number of people that start businesses; the number of jobs those businesses create, and the jobs existing small businesses we serve create. And then, are they driving revenue growth and being more profitable? Those are the metrics we go back to our stakeholders with, including the federal government, and report on the effectiveness of SCORE.

Q: How does SCORE connect with potential clients?

A: SCORE's not a household name and probably won't be anytime soon. One of my goals, though, is to be one person away from someone who needs help with their small business. We want to be in those networks and communities that people go to seek out information and seek out support.

Q: How can SCORE stay relevant to small business owners?

A: 'Clients matter' is our key value. ... Being accessible, anytime, anywhere-type mentality for mentoring and service. How much of service can be virtual versus in-person. How do you serve the disparate needs between an entrepreneur walking in at 60 [years old] as an encore entrepreneur, versus someone that has just graduated college, and is on to technologies that no one is even aware of if you're not in college? So that's a real big task for our volunteers in particular, but our organization in general.

Q: Why did SCORE partner with the U.S. Department of Agriculture?

A: The USDA already has this huge of network of people already out in the field, talking with ranchers and farmers and doing economic development. But they've done it more from a technical side of (agricultural) experience. What we're going to bring to the table in conjunction with their work is the business side of the business.

Workers pick broccoli on a farm in Eden. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

There's a desperate need for our agricultural industries, I believe, to be thinking more like a business. Most people go into farming and (agriculture) because it's the family business, they inherited it or whatever, similar to a lot of small businesses today. A farm by any other name is another small business, whether it's a dry cleaner or a restaurant or a farm.

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