ROANOKE — Former business owner and entrepreneur Cynthia Lawrence found herself drawn to Sarah Snider, and to her company, as soon as she heard her pitch.
During that presentation at a Regional Acceleration and Mentoring Program (RAMP) meeting, Lawrence listened as Snider explained that her company, BEAM Diagnostics, planned to create an application that could help medical experts determine a patient’s risk for abusing addictive substances. To launch that app, Snider needed help from an experienced business professional.
“Because I’m a researcher, I had no experience or background in business whatsoever,” Snider said. “I needed some guidance on how to implement this great scientific idea into an actual business and product.”
For Lawrence, the potential partnership resonated perfectly. Snider’s company, a spin-off of efforts at Virginia Tech’s Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, complimented Lawrence’s work with Carilion Clinic, where she directs the regional medical provider’s partnership with Virginia Tech. More importantly, teaming up with Snider gave Lawrence the chance to give a burgeoning businesswoman the kind of resources she didn’t have when she started her first company.
“When I was building my business, there were very few female senior executives or entrepreneurs available to me in our region,” Lawrence said. “I had to reach deliberately out to find and learn from other women who had navigated business ownership or senior leadership.”
Over the course of RAMP’s 2018 session, Lawrence and Snider developed a professional relationship and friendship that has endured past the year-long program’s end. Without Lawrence’s guidance, Snider said BEAM Diagnostics’s wouldn’t have connected with industry professionals who could serve as potential collaborators or customers. Working with Snider has also proved invaluable to Lawrence, who said she’s learned from the challenges that Snider faces as a developing entrepreneur.
“It’s a joy to work with her and see this thing start to emerge and take shape,” Lawrence said. “It’s personally and professionally rewarding.”
Sarah Snider, left, and her mentor, Cynthia Lawrence
For 2019, RAMP is looking for passionate mentors who, like Lawrence, are willing to develop relationships with the CEOs behind promising startups in the fields of science, technology, engineering, math and health (STEM-H). While RAMP mentorships require time and commitment, they can also help regional professionals develop lasting connections with talented entrepreneurs who are heading early-stage companies. At least one mentor will be chosen for each of the five companies RAMP accepts into its 2019 cohort.
“For eight to 12 weeks, you agree to meet the mentee for a minimum of two hours a week. You also agree to attend our course for the first two and half days, so that you understand what the company is being asked to do,” RAMP Director Mary Miller said. “They share data with you on a regular basis and vice versa. You really become a very hands on, engaged mentor that works very closely with this company.”
RAMP mentors can come from a variety of fields, Miller said, and don’t have to share a professional background with their mentee. During past cohorts, selected mentors have largely been entrepreneurs who have owned and subsequently sold one or more company. Some have been high-level banking executives or professionals who work in STEM-H fields. The ideal mentor, Miller said, is someone with skills and qualifications that leave the cohort member slightly in awe.
“We’re looking for people that have a high level of experience and success,” Miller said. Candidates, she added, should be able to teach cohort members “how to stay on task, stay focused and not to get caught up in the sideshow.”
“Anybody who’s grown a company can help with that, regardless of the content that you’re dealing with,” she said.
If a professional is selected to be a potential RAMP mentor, he or she will be paired with a prospective partner through an interactive process Miller calls Mentor Madness. During that event, company representatives and potential mentors socialize and learn about each other. Cohort members deliver ten minute presentations about their company’s concepts and its goals, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. Mentors spend five minutes describing their qualifications and any preferences for potential collaboration. Each company and mentor is then separately asked to list which three candidates they’d most like to partner with.
In previous years, Miller said the mentor pairing system has yielded a high rate of success because both cohort members and prospective mentors weigh in on whether the match will be mutually beneficial.
“It’s an evening where the doors are closed, the mentors are there, the companies are there, but the public is not there,” Miller said.
While RAMP requires that mentors and mentees spend time building their relationship, Lawrence and Snider said the program did not interrupt their professional obligations. On average, the pair meets twice a month in person; Snider also reaches out whenever she has a question or concern.
“As an example, last week I was working on my taxes,” Snider said. “Having access to a mentor that I can call right away and ask ‘Am I doing this right or not?’ is valuable.”
If a mentor and mentee truly want the relationship to be valuable, the two should ideally be able to build rapport on a personal level, Lawrence said.
“There’s got to be a little investment upfront of time on the mentor’s part to learn the business model and to get to know each other a little bit better, but then it needs to be a natural relationship,” Lawrence said.
Business professionals who want to help STEM-H entrepreneurs but can’t meet RAMP’s time requirements should consider reaching out to Miller about a prospective database that will be used to form more relaxed relationships between startups and regional leaders. These mentorships, which can take the form of an occasional in-person meeting, would not require the same commitment level as RAMP.
“We’re interested in people that would be willing to support technology companies at any stage — to support them and consult with them and help them think through issues,” MIller said.
RAMP will host the first meeting for its newest cohort in May 2019. Any business executives, entrepreneurs or STEM-H professionals who are interested in serving as mentors should contact Mary Miller at (540) 595-7315 or email@example.com.
Mary Miller, Director
Founded in 2017, RAMP is a public/private business accelerator serving high-growth startups in the STEM-H fields. It operates from the historic Gill Memorial Hospital building at 709 S. Jefferson St., along downtown Roanoke’s Innovation Corridor. RAMP’s founding partners include the City of Roanoke, Virginia Western Community College and the Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council. To learn more, visit www.ramprb.tech.
ABOUT THE ROANOKE-BLACKSBURG TECHNOLOGY COUNCIL
The Roanoke-Blacksburg Technology Council is a nonprofit, member-driven association of businesses and organizations in the greater Roanoke-Blacksburg region, working together to promote the growth and success of the region’s technology sector. Its membership includes more than 250 organizations. The RBTC is the leading resource for the region’s growth and success. It exists to connect and unite the region’s technology community, develop and educate thought-leaders, mentors and the technology workforce, and improve access to talent. To learn more, please visit www.rbtc.tech.