Helzberg mentoring program turns 20 years old

Barnett Helzberg
Barnett Helzberg

Barnett Helzberg considers it a matter of extreme good fortune that he grew up in an entrepreneurial family.

And that Ewing Kauffman guided him on the business path.

And that his family’s business grew into a chain of jewelry stores purchased by Warren Buffett.

And that he’s been able to “pass it on” to hundreds of other Kansas City area entrepreneurs who have participated in the Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program, which he founded in 1995.

Since then, more than 300 business developers have participated in the program, and the organization estimates that the collective economic impact of their companies totals $748 million. Since their involvement, their revenue growth has averaged 43 percent, and their company head counts have grown 30 percent.

The program, sometimes known as HEMP, will hold its 20th anniversary celebration Nov. 19 in Helzberg Hall at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is lined up to speak, and the “HEMP Hall of Fame” will be inaugurated to recognize mentors who have devoted their time to helping up-and-comers. Tickets are nearing a sellout at $75 each and up.

Helzberg recently sat down with The Star to talk about the program, which has about 170 active participants, a combination of mentors and mentees. Questions and answers are excerpted from longer remarks.

Q: Since everyone is so busy these days, isn’t it hard to continue to get mentors and mentees to devote time?

A: No, it’s never been a problem. There’s no shortage of volunteers. And it really wasn’t until about two years ago that I really understood that it means as much to be a mentor as a mentee. Some amazing business leaders have realized that.

Q: How hard is it to be selected as a mentee?

A: I’m very much involved in selecting them. First we look at applications. Then we visit their businesses if we think they’re a fit for the program. We troop in, 12 of us on a bus, and walk through. We look at the relationships within their workplaces — or the lack thereof. Then we agonize. If there’s a difference of opinion, we visit them again.

Chemistry is important. We joke that HEMP is a cult. There’s more to mentoring than sitting in a class. The class has to be significant. You can’t have a foul ball in the class. You can’t ruin the unity. … We take great care in matching mentors with mentees. It’s another long process that involves a “speed dating” event, where mentees fill out their three top choices, and mentors choose their top three mentees, too. Then we finalize the matches by committee. There’s a lot of agony. …

There’s no real minimum business size for admission, but we aim for $1 million in revenue, at least five employees, a record of integrity, at least three years in business, at least three years as a decision maker and financials open for us to review. Those are the guidelines. We break them.

Q: There are lots of networking organizations and entrepreneurial support groups in the Kansas City area. What makes this program different?

A: We have two inflexible rules: Absolute confidentiality and “put your worst foot forward.” We don’t know how to fix a problem if you don’t own up to what it is.

It’s a three-year program. … We require mentees to meet 75 percent attendance at our key meetings each year, and we require mentors to make 50 percent. It’s an incredible time commitment on top of the mentoring relationship. But we think meetings, small groups, forums are a big deal. That’s where open discussion happens.

Q: Are some of your retired business leaders truly able to help some of the young, high-tech entrepreneurs? Do they understand each other?

A: You don’t have to be in the same generation, the same industry or the same business. You just need fresh eyes, a new perspective. If nobody disagrees, there’s a problem. And a lot of the relationships are providing strengths in someone else’s area of weakness. … We’ve had some “divorces” that just didn’t work between mentors and mentees, but not many. We have really good screenings.

Q: What does the program need to do better?

A: We need more African-American mentors and mentees. I’ve learned that we need to get better at that by starting with more African-American mentors. We’re also not as strong with women as I’d like. We were up to 40 percent women at one time, but this year not as much.

Q: How much does it cost to keep the program running, and where does its funding come from?

A: We have a $400,000-a-year budget. Half comes from our (Helzberg) foundation and half from our members. We’ve actually built up an endowment. It’s a $4,000 cost to our mentees, which may sound like a lot, but it’s a steal when you think of all the mentoring help, the networking opportunities, the financial and human resource advice you get. You’d pay a lot more than that for individual consulting. The organization is well funded. It will last, mainly because we keep getting these staggeringly incredible people.

Diane Stafford: 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford