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The Warsaw Voice » Society » September 17, 2008
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Mentoring Young Entrepreneurs
September 17, 2008   
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Foreign companies in Poland have in recent years stepped up social responsibility initiatives. Hilary Heuler talks to officials from three organizations leading the way in this field.

Sarah McMillan, operations director at British-based Youth Business International, and Kamila Kaszkiel, program manager at Youth Business Poland:

What is Youth Business International, and what does it do?
Sarah McMillan: It's the leadership body for 38 Youth Business Programs that provide a combination of startup loan capital and business mentoring, given on a voluntary basis by members of the local business community. We help young entrepreneurs start a business who wouldn't otherwise be able to start up because they don't have the collateral to get a loan, or don't have the experience. The model was an initiative of the Prince of Wales [Britain's Prince Charles, the heir to the throne] in the early 1980s, when there was high youth unemployment in the UK. He created a trust to provide young people, who had a good business idea but didn't have the money to start, with access to capital in the form of a "soft" loan-without collateral or high interest rates-and to provide them with a business mentor. That evolved into a successful program, and a number of other countries began replicating the model. In 1999 a network organization was created for these programs. That was YBI.

What is YBI doing in Poland?
Kamila Kaszkiel: Youth Business Poland uses the model of YBI to issue loans to young entrepreneurs aged 18-35. One part is issuing loans, with no interest, and the other part is a mentoring program with a volunteer mentor who cooperates with the entrepreneur in support of the business. In 2006 we issued nine loans, all very successful. These involve all kinds of businesses, from renting bicycles, running a shop, photography, cosmetics... many different things.

Where else does YBI operate?
SM: On nearly every continent. We're in Europe, Asia, Africa, Asia-Pacific and Latin America, as well as in a huge variety of economies and contexts, from developed to developing countries to transition economies like Poland. The model seems to work very well in transition economies, where you have a business community that's well-developed, an economy that's doing fairly well and the beginnings of corporate social responsibility in the business community. So for young entrepreneurs wanting to start up, there's a sufficient economic base to draw on and become excited by. In terms of mentors, you've got businesspeople operating successfully, so all these things combined make it a very interesting environment for these programs.

What are the challenges of the mentoring component of the program?
SM: While this is the unique part of YBI, it's also a difficult part to manage well. Some of the challenges are finding people who are prepared to volunteer their time-around four hours a month. Then you have to think of how to train them. Often these are experienced businesspeople who may not think that they need training, but this is a different kind of role they would be playing. Mentoring is not the same as consulting. Really what it turns into is a professional friendship, providing business and emotional support as the entrepreneur goes through the process of starting up. The matching of mentors to entrepreneurs is also key if it's going to be a successful relationship.

KK: There have been some great success stories, and great cooperation between mentors and mentees. But we're still looking for new mentors in this program. It's not a huge commitment, but it gives a lot to these young people.

How are the entrepreneurs chosen?
KK: We have a selection board. The main criteria is motivation and whether the business idea is realistic and has a chance to survive. Also the person is very important. They have to be well prepared and have the business drive to succeed.
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