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  • Carol Hazard

Regional biz mentorship program jump-starts startups

Ruth Rau started her business as a hobby. Now, seven years later, her Winchester-based toy company — Mouse Loves Pig — is on track to generate revenue in six figures. The entrepreneur’s toys for babies and young children are sold in more than 250 stores in nine countries, and she’s partnered with a manufacturing company in Turkey that employs women refugees.

Her success has blossomed in part from her participation in Startup Shenandoah Valley (S2V), a business mentorship program that Staunton-based nonprofit Shenandoah Community Capital Fund administers. SCCF has helped 35 entrepreneurs and is set to run its fifth cohort Sept. 5 through Oct. 27.

“Starting a business from scratch is hard, but the tools that S2V helped me develop has made it less hard,” Rau says.

Mentoring is customized to the entrepreneur, says SCCF Executive Director Debbie Irwin. Participants take assessments to pinpoint their businesses’ riskiest aspects, and SCCF matches coaches and mentors with mentees based on their needs.

The mentorship — free to participants — goes beyond the program, during which entrepreneurs spend five to 10 hours a week in peer meetings and coaching sessions.

“We expect to work with them anywhere from nine months to three years,” Irwin says.

Irwin says budding businesses are plentiful in the region.

“We’re changing the way people think about entrepreneurs in rural America,” Irwin says.“Great ideas and great companies exist across the United States, but especially here in the Shenandoah Valley.”

Ventures to date include an organic flower farm, a cybersecurity software firm and an agricultural drone operation to spray pesticides.

Participants have created hundreds of jobs since the nonprofit started the program in 2020. The program is for companies with scalability — the ability to grow.

“I’ve hired help, trusted my manufacturers more and expanded my product line, thanks to the advice and ideas that S2V helped me develop in just those short eight weeks,” Rau says.

The nonprofit receives about 20 applications for a cohort and accepts between seven and 10 entrepreneurs into each.

“Starting a business can be incredibly lonely,” Irwin says. “When you are at the same place or close to the same place as someone else, it’s easier to connect and grow.”

SCCF launched S2V in 2020 with $1.2 million from the state’s GO Virginia economic development initiative. An additional $1.5 million from the U.S. Economic Development Administration has aided the mentorship program’s expansion.

This article originally appeared in Virginia Business written by Carol Hazard

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