An avowed advocate for mentors who made a different in his professional life has led Doug Minter to launch and lead a Knoxville Chamber’s Propel program focused on helping small businesses realize their own full potential.
Minter, who serves as Business Development Manager for the Chamber, described for teknovation.biz a challenging period in his life in late 2007 and early 2008. At the time, he owned a property, casualty, life and health insurance company that was tied in with 1500 other agents in a consortium. He saw dark clouds on the horizon and wondered what direction he should take.
“I had several mentors who helped me a great deal,” Minter said. “They told me to sell now as well as what to sell and what to keep.”
Minter followed his mentor’s advice and began to consider his next professional pursuit. Ironically, he was involved in Leadership Knoxville and a project where he and fellow teammates interview 100 people who had recently relocated to Knoxville. The team’s goal was to understand their perceptions of the community. He found that the common theme was “how friendly these transplants found Knoxville.”
The Leadership Knoxville experience with the Chamber was very rewarding to Minter. He also said that, while he had only spent about six months in the corporate world, “I vowed never to work” in that environment. But he states that the Chamber has been one of the best work experiences of his life. “We have an atmosphere of teamwork, and we have some of the brightest people I have ever interacted with.”
So, Minter developed a concept that has become known as Propel, pitched it to Chamber CEO Mike Edwards and was offered the opportunity to implement the idea. This was in October 2008 just as Innovation Valley Inc. (IVI), the five-county regional economic development initiative, was launching. (EDITOR’S NOTE: More on IVI can be found at www.innovationvalleyinc.org.)
Minter explained that Propel is a three-part program designed to help small businesses survive and thrive. One component provides small business development one-on-one counseling sessions for any business in the IVI region or those interested in doing business here. In addition to the one-hour consultations, companies are also referred to a variety of partners including the Tennessee Small Business Development Center, University of Tennessee’s Procurement Technical Assistance Center and Agricultural Extension Service, Urban League and Service Corp of Retired Executives (SCORE).
“We do a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis, then route you to the proper resource in the community,” Minter said.
A second Propel component is the Mentor-Protégé program that aligns large established firms with smaller companies to help guide the latter up the success ladder. Minter describes this effort as the “hallmark” of the Propel program.
“We currently have 25 teams and just graduated our first class,” he said, proudly adding that each of the initial graduates has become a mentor.
The Mentor-Protégé component adds from eight to 12 new companies as protégés each year. Capacity is capped at 25, Minter said. “Each protégé has a targeted objective to reach while in the program.
The third component of Propel is called the Diversity Champions Taskforce that is comprised of more than 60 diversity officers with the Innovation Valley. Minter explained that the primary purpose of this group is to “raise the bar of importance for economic inclusion in our region’s workplaces.” The group will be issuing a diversity report in April outlining the economic impact of diversity and inclusion within the region.
“The government sponsored mentor-protégé programs for years,” he said. “The missing piece is that there are very few of these programs in the private sector” as evidenced by a benchmark study that Minter conducted. It found that fewer than 15 such programs existed outside the governmental sponsorship. Minter added that this concept is so rare that professors from Cal Poly and Harvard are studying the program.
“The coolest thing about East Tennessee is the collaboration that exists,” Minter said. “The biggest value of Innovation Valley is cutting down some of the walls so we can work together to promote the region.” Among the positive new alliances with which Propel has aligned is the East Tennessee Regional Accelerator Coalition which provides mentors to high growth potential small businesses.
As he continues to expand the Propel program, Minter cites statistics and espouses a philosophy. On the data side, he says there are over 35,000 small businesses in the region that need help. He notes that close to 50 percent of our regional gross product comes from public sector expenditures, a reality that will require existing companies to expand their regional markets as cutbacks occur at the federal and state levels.
“We need to outreach to other regions,” he said, promoting the idea of joint ventures, teaming arrangements and partnerships.
As he goes about his role of championing the Propel program, Minter stated firmly and sincerely that this region will benefit if “we pursue a stronger ecosystem, not an ego system.”