Atlanta Business Chronicle | Contributing Writer Bill Chastain

Creating a culture of entrepreneurship does not happen overnight.

Take Cherokee County in metro Atlanta, “an overnight success, 188 years in the making,” said Jonathan Chambers, community manager of entrepreneurship for the Cherokee Office of Economic Development (COED).

Looking to take their strategy to the next level, COED engaged Boyette Strategic Advisors in 2015 to evaluate the community’s overall economic development plans and COED’s programming.

The company recommended the county enhance its workforce, film and entrepreneurship initiatives, Chambers recalled, and his department dove in. “Part of this new strategic plan was to create a culture of entrepreneurship through educational programming, a coworking space and the launch of a mentorship program.”

Born through those efforts was the North Atlanta Venture (NAV) Mentoring Service, Georgia’s first entrepreneur mentorship program principled and trained by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Venture Mentoring Service (VMS). Thanks to the launch of Cherokee by Choice, COED’s first-ever public-private partnership for economic development, NAV was able to obtain the funding it needed to pioneer this pilot program in Cherokee.

“We spent a lot of time listening to Cherokee’s entrepreneurship community,” Chambers said. “There was a common thread of people continuing to say, ‘I need a mentor. I need someone to come alongside of me and guide me.’”

Over about two years, Chambers and other members of the county’s business and government communities visited Southern cities such as Greenville, S.C., and Asheville, N.C., to examine mentorship programs that worked. They compared programs on both the state and national levels.

What set the MIT program apart, Chambers said, was its team-based approach. The 20-year-old program also operates in 23 countries.

“Instead of one-on-one mentorship, an entrepreneur can be even more successful with a team of mentors. This model gives entrepreneurs access to a diverse community with varied perspectives, backgrounds and skillsets,” he added. “As a result, the weight and responsibility of a mentor is shared by the team rather than one coach.”

COED sent three team members and two entrepreneurs to Cambridge, Mass., in January 2019 for training, including: Michael Caldwell, Black Airplane managing partner and co-founder; and Russ Sanders, FactoryMation president and founder.

Along with training, MIT VMS also provided guidance on how COED could adapt the program for Cherokee’s community. The NAV program launched on July 1 and the COED office continues to receive support and visits from its MIT VMS trainers.

At an event for all mentors, the trainers set expectations for the program, talked about methodology and “outlined the do’s and don’ts,” of being a mentor, said Odessa Mann, president of Hydrochem, a division of Linde Engineering North America, who is a mentor.

“We were not only given boundaries but expectations.”

The MIT model of group mentoring “makes so much sense,” said Caldwell, also a mentor, adding that he had never seen a similar program. “I really like the idea of having several people who have been there, done that, sitting around an entrepreneur and coaching them how to think about the problem rather than how to fix the problem.”

This philosophy works for Jim Nichols of Half Machine, one of seven entrepreneurial ventures in the NAV program. The company is a film agency focused on lead generation using film, stories and data.

“As a startup, there are many questions,” Nichols said. “We have not had a previous mentor relationship, but see great value in the team mentorship approach of NAV. That was one of the strongest values we saw in joining the program. It’s invaluable to have multi-faceted input as we chart new territory in the video marketing industry. Each mentor is coming from a different background, and we welcome their unique feedback and wisdom.”

Caldwell said the NAV program can propel the county’s reputation. “My hope is that this proves to be a foundation on which to build this idea that Cherokee County is the ideal entrepreneurial capital of Atlanta,” he said. “Good programming and high-quality resources in the form of mentorship programs are vitally important in helping entrepreneurs see that future here.”

NAV is in its pilot year and plans to review new applications for both mentors and ventures in January 2020.