By Victor Skinner
The global coronavirus pandemic is forcing SCORE Muskegon to rethink how the business mentorship organization connects with and guides local entrepreneurs, and one thing seems certain: the old way of doing business is going extinct.
Prior to the pandemic, 95 percent of SCORE’s client interactions took place during face-to-face meetings with mentors at the organization’s Muskegon office, located at the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, 380 W. Western Avenue.
“There was a point in time we actually covered Monday through Friday with mentors so people could come in,” SCORE Certified Mentor Dennis Warren told the Muskegon Tribune.
The public health threat and accompanying stay-at-home orders demanded a different approach, and mentors shifted to conducting meeting through online video conferencing and telephone from home. Requests for mentoring sessions also declined over the last year, and the organization scrapped in-person workshops on topics like digital marketing, search engine optimization, pricing, and other issues.
“Since the pandemic, we’re down about 20 percent from historical levels,” Warren said.
SCORE Muskegon is a local chapter of the nation’s largest network of volunteer, expert business mentors. SCORE’s mission is to help small businesses launch and grow, and it’s a nonprofit resource partner with the U.S. Small Business Administration.
The Muskegon chapter covers all or parts of Muskegon, Mason, Ottawa, Newaygo and Oceana counties.
“We actually cover from Ludington to Grand Haven with this chapter, so we’re engrained with several chamber of commerces within that area,” Warren said.
The pandemic-imposed shift to virtual meetings accelerated a transition that was already in the making, Warren said, and it came with several benefits – primarily the ability for volunteers and entrepreneurs to meet remotely.
“A lot of the mentors have got a lot more comfortable with that,” he said. “It’s more flexible.”
There were also significant drawbacks with the loss of in-person seminars and mentors.
“Right now, I don’t have somebody actually doing (seminars),” Warren said. “We’re currently looking for new volunteers.”
SCORE Muskegon recently reopened its downtown office and officials are now reaching out to remind the community about what’s available, while simultaneously reworking some services for a new era, he said.
“We’re only now coming out of that, but we know we will never go back to that model,” Warren said.
“What we’re doing now is limited in-person meetings,” he said. “Right now, the office is only taking appointments on Thursday mornings.”
“The only challenge for us is adapting,” Warren said. “We’re in a real restructuring and reorganizing of how we do a lot of things.”
“Part of our reorganization and restructuring is definitely in the seminar and workshop area,” he said. “We’ve not been doing any of the in-person.”
How and when SCORE Muskegon resumes services beyond remote counseling will depend in part on recruiting new business leaders to serve as volunteer mentors, Warren said.
“I have to depend on the volunteers I have to do everything,” he said, adding that “the backgrounds of many of our mentors are rather impressive.”
“It’s a very demanding and unique opportunity,” he said.
Many mentors, including Warren, are retired local business leaders with a passion for helping the next generation succeed and thrive. The Muskegon chapter has served the community for two decades, he said, and officials there want to continue that tradition indefinitely.
“That is really our mission and our goal,” Warren said.
To schedule an appointment with SCORE Muskegon call 231-722-3751.