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CAPE TOWN - A new model of mentorship and coaching developed through the University of Stellenbosch Business (USB) School’s Small Business Academy’s (SBA's) development programme is shaking up conventional wisdom on the subject.

The programme has smashed several barriers since it was begun in March 2012. The USB SBA’s aim is to make a difference in the lives and enterprises of small business owners in low-income areas. The programme offers training in business skills, with lectures, as well as mentoring, workshops and student engagement.

The students are all small business owners from low-income areas in the Western and Eastern Cape, which means that they face extraordinary challenges.

They often run their businesses from home, are working on their own, have families, may be single women, or women with children, and the balancing act they face is a different challenge when it comes to support and encouragement, and this is what has led to an innovative style of mentorship. Mentorship is the glue that runs through the USB SBA programme; it dovetails with the academic side of the programme and operates unlike typical business mentoring or coaching.

Mentors are volunteers who commit to spending at least 12 hours face-to-face with the participants for the duration of the nine-month programme. So, how do these mentors work with their mentees?

Unlike traditional business coaching, where a business may give an accountant a more senior coach in the same profession, and where the coaching is on traditional business practices and limited to increasing outcomes in one specific field, this programme offers a fresh perspective.

It’s a model of people-centric mentoring where the first thing that a mentor is asked to do is to meet the participant at their place of business.

That’s important, because they get to know the person in their business situation as well as finding out what their life is like. It’s a shift from focusing on business improvement aspects to really understanding what each participant’s challenges are.

The mentors are drawn from alumni of the USB (mainly former MBA students) and once they get to know their participant they can form an often vital link between them and the academic work they are doing.

Through offering practical skills that are applicable to the mentee’s business, they are able to gain far more out of the academic aspects of the course. And, in applying theory they have been taught to their own small business, the participant is able to work towards completing their assignments for the USB. Assignments are based on using the small business owners’ own business to test ways to grow it, and develop sustainable business practices.

The relationship between the participants and their mentors also offers networking opportunities, a small business person who sells, for instance, cleaning materials may link up to a bigger business through her or his mentor and begin supplying to them.

It’s a dynamic process and not a prescriptive one. Mentors and participants are randomly matched and, over and above the minimum 12 stipulated hours, often find themselves communicating on WhatsApp groups. Mostly, it’s a blended approach of mentorship and coaching where the work is firmly located in the needs of the participant.

With the stresses of running a small and often marginal business, it makes sense that mentors give support which can range from the academic to being a voice that the participant can trust.

We’d like to think that it has reduced the drop-out rate in the course, but we haven’t been doing it long enough for us to draw firm academic conclusions about that. What we do know anecdotally is that when someone wants to quit, they reach out to their mentors, who step in to encourage and help to find solutions to problems of working, studying and finding a lifestyle balance.

The mentorship programme, sponsored by Distell, has had some unintended but positive consequences. For the second year, a few of the mentors are graduates of the SBA programme. This indicates not only that their businesses are doing well but also that they have gained the skill of being able to mentor and coach a new student.

This undoubtedly enriches the process, as many of these mentors will have an immediate and rich understanding of some of the challenges that face small businesses in a low-income area. It underscores the empowerment that this type of experiential learning creates in participants.

The SBA is running a research project at the Business School, which enables the academy to learn about mentorship and other development needs of small businesses. This knowledge has already spawned a follow-up SBA Growth Initiative for SBA alumni.

This offers post-SBA advanced training and is offered to those who have been through the SBA course and applicants who are accepted after applying the principle of acknowledged work experience.

With the commitment of our sponsors and the academic learning that comes back to us as the courses develop, we think we have developed a model of mentorship.

JP Cronje is the head mentor for the SBA, responsible for training the mentors and mentees as well as overall management and co-ordination of the mentorship programme in both the Western and Eastern Cape. He holds a Master's in Management Coaching from the USB.

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.