State grant allows Propel mentor-protégé program to expand

Propel-teknoBy Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.

It had been several years since we last interviewed Doug Minter about the Knoxville Chamber’s Propel mentor-protégé program. In a recent discussion, we learned some significant developments have occurred.

“The biggest change is that we are now expanding into Innovation Valley,” the Chamber’s Business Development Manager told us.

The expansion comes as a result of a new State of Tennessee program – “LiftTN: Microenterprise.” It’s a pilot effort designed to expand microenterprise development across the state, and Propel was one of the initial five grant recipients.

Minter says the two-year, $50,000 grant will help him support other chambers in the region and incentivize them to use mentors. Besides the Knoxville Chamber, the grant will bring in Anderson, Blount, Jefferson, and Roane Counties.

“We will be able to accept between 10 and 12 small business owners from the new communities into the program,” Minter says. The maximum number of participants at any one time in Propel is about 30.

The state grant provides scholarships for participants in the outlying counties of Innovation Valley.

“We are looking for companies with the aptitude for and acumen to grow,” he adds. Applications are now being accepted for the program that starts in July. Interested small business owners can contact their local chamber or Minter via email ( or by phone (865/246-2662).

Propel is a two-year program launched in 2010 and designed to help small businesses survive and thrive. The centerpiece of the initiative is the mentoring component, something Minter learned firsthand years ago.

“Chambers are the largest business organization in most cities,” he says. As such, they are also the largest potential source of mentors for entrepreneurs.

“It’s not rocket science,” Minter observes. “Our vision is first for the Chamber to be as relevant to small businesses as possible. Knoxville has a wonderful group of successful firms who have a culture of giving back. All we had to do was make the ask.”

Propel pairs an established community business leader with a small business owner whose enterprise is generally between $100,000 and $1 million in sales.

“The LIFTTN grant allows us to expand the mentor protégé concept to firms that may have less than $100,000 in sales but have the ability to grow,” Minter added.

The mentor and protégé have at least one meeting a month. Propel also schedules monthly peer-to-peer sessions. The seemingly low-key Minter becomes more animated as he talks about another development with the Propel program. The concept is being adopted by other communities.

“We are in Evansville (Indiana) and Hampton Roads (Virginia),” he says. “We are using a train-the-trainer program. The hope is that we all learn from each other and create a model for chambers across the country to implement.”

The Evansville program, led by the Southwest Indiana Chamber, started in mid-April, while the Hampton Roads initiative, led by the Hampton Roads Small Business Development Center and supported by the Hampton Roads Chamber, launches in May.

“The program proves that Mentoring absolutely works,” Minter says of both local and expanded efforts. “Our focus is now on making the model teachable to other entities while being valuable to participants.”

As he works in Indiana and Virginia, Minter points with pride to Knoxville’s assets for small business growth. He cites support programs like the Small Business Development Centers, SCORE, Urban League, and technology generators like Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee, TVA, and a strong regional manufacturing base.

“We have a great small business ecosystem,” Minter says. “Sometimes it takes going to other places to know how fortunate we are to have what we have.”

Propel has graduated 14 firms from the program. With the expansion, he hopes to have even more impact going forward.

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