Written by The Business Journal Staff
Originally known as the Service Corps of Retired Executives, the nonprofit association is a division within the Small Business Administration dedicated to offering mentoring services for entrepreneurs. From financial advice to marketing assistance, the group is designed to help guide entrepreneurs through the process of opening and growing their small business operations.
The Central Valley chapter has been around for decades, and traditionally featured a volunteer membership base with a median age of 65. Several recent changes within the Central Valley office have helped skew the focus to a younger crowd, however and local staff says the office is gaining a reputation as a leader in the national network.
“It’s really setting the tone for the rest of the nation since a lot of other chapters are shutting down,” said JP Holeman, chapter chair of SCORE Central Valley. “We’re actually growing and we’re hoping to make chapter of the year in 2016. We think we have a very good shot at that.”
Holeman, 37, was named to the position in January, making him the youngest chair in chapter history and one of the youngest SCORE administrators nationwide. By bringing in younger members, the Central Valley chapter is hoping to connect with the next generation of entrepreneurs and create a brighter future for the local economy, he said.
“This area is being called the Appalachia of the West and we want to change that. The social and economic conditions are justified for that name, but there’s really no reason for it to continue,” Holeman said. “Fresno is at a tipping point. It’s finally at a place where the economy is going to start growing and expanding and we need people to invest here and take pride in what we do locally.”
Holeman originally approached SCORE as a client while running a surfboard business in San Diego. From there, he joined its ranks, taking on a marketing position with the Central Valley office in 2008.
Today, he and his wife Andrea Holeman are both actively involved as mentors with the group and are hoping to continue growing the chapter along with Peter Fong, district director for the 38 county region of Central California, which includes the Central Valley office.
“I came down here seven years ago and people didn’t think there were the resources down here like in LA or the Bay Area,” Fong said. “I just started onboarding fresh faces to the board in hopes of helping make the community aware of the resources we had.”
The office also began making a big push for diversity within its members, growing from nearly 0 percent Hispanic to 43 percent in the last few years, and hosting its first-ever small business workshop in Spanish in 2015.
All the class materials were provided in Spanish and Holeman said the group is hoping to expand the model to include more events throughout the Valley.
“We heard it was the first one of its kind in the nation, which is surprising. We really wanted to add that as part of our goal of being more representative of the local community,” he said.
That approach has helped attract the attention of fellow SCORE chapters and Fong said he plans to present the Central Valley’s recruitment strategy to the network’s districts throughout the Pacific Northwest and Midwest regions later this year.
“I’m hoping to take some of these programs to the leadership in different regions since I think there are a lot of cues they can take from it,” he said. “Our exit surveys have shown a good response to these changes and so far it’s been overwhelmingly positive.”
The Central Valley SCORE office helped start more than 300 local businesses in the Fresno area and saw more than 1,400 entrepreneurs come through its workshops last year, setting new participation records for the area, he said.
Central Valley SCORE has also done more outreach to local chambers of commerce recently, and both Fong and Holeman said the group plans to partner with the organizations to continue spreading the word about its mentoring resources.
“By holding public meetings with chambers, local agencies and banks, it’s really helping our community outreach throughout the Valley. More people are growing aware of what we have to offer and the amount of resources available here,” Fong said.
Gender diversity is another top issue for the group, and he said SCORE has added more women to the executive board in recent years. Gains have also been made on the membership level and the volunteer base is currently comprised of 47 percent female and 53 percent male mentors.
By establishing a more diverse makeup, the office is helping to shed the “good ol’ boy” mentality of exclusion, and make SCORE a more appealing resource for local business owners, Holeman said.
The Central Valley office brought in 50 new members last year, marking the top growth of any SCORE office across the country. That figure is expected to double in 2016 and Holeman said the group will continue expanding services specifically targeting traditionally underrepresented sectors of the small business community.
Already scheduled on its calendar for spring 2016 are several Spanish and bilingual small business workshops and a women-focused event in March.
“We really want people to understand that no matter what industry they are in or what their background is, there’s a place for them at SCORE,” Holeman said. “In sending that message out we’ve added members who truly reflect the community within the Central Valley and they’re participating and they’re taking ownership of the chapter.”