Getting funding can be challenging, and whether it's your first of third venture, supportive communities and mentors are essential to success--these were some of the recurring messages I heard last month when I found myself back at The Dallas Entrepreneur Center (The DEC) for a networking breakfast and panel conversation with small business owners and entrepreneurs in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The discussion centered on a recent report, "Breaking Through: Harnessing The Economic Potential Of Women Entrepreneurs," which examined how Dallas-Fort Worth fits within the national dialog on entrepreneurship and the ascendance of women business owners. The invite-only event was packed--approximately 100 women executives, business owners and investors crowded into The DEC's co-working space early that May morning to hear insights from:

Moderated by Trey Bowles, co-founder and CEO of The DEC, the event coincided with National Small Business Week and was part of Capital One's ongoing efforts to raise awareness of the significant economic contributions women entrepreneurs have made in Dallas-Fort Worth, and also nationally. Through its $150 million Future Edge initiative, Capital One works with hundreds of leading community and nonprofit organizations that empower women entrepreneurs in Dallas-Fort Worth and beyond, including The DEC, Grameen America, Accion and the Business Outreach Center Network.

The DEC was perfectly situated to host this particular event, given the panelists' emphasis on the essential role community plays in the life of an entrepreneur. For those not familiar with The DEC, it is a 501c3 non-profit whose goal is to provide physical locations where entrepreneurs can come together for training, mentorship, co-working and programs/events, as well as providing access to peers, investors, and other key stakeholders in the community. As Trey Bowles noted during his introductory remarks:

"By establishing a hub for not only entrepreneurs, but also for other key stakeholders (such as entrepreneurs, investors, accelerators, incubators, corporations, academic institutions, municipalities, media outlets, etc), you create a place for collaboration, community and business to occur. We are committed to serving the entrepreneurs in their community and that creates not only economic development (through company creation and job creation) but also community development by people feeling responsible to support and serve the entrepreneurs in their community."

Trey's words were echoed by Capital One's Chandra Dhandapani who stressed that "all [stakeholders] can have a part" to play in the success and momentum of entrepreneurial communities and that "corporations, banks, community leaders and consumers all play a vital role in the success of local businesses."

That said, ensuring everyone is working with each other to support entrepreneurs is no easy feat--there's a tension between immediate, short-term interests and investing time and know-how to someone else's venture. This is where strong stakeholders come in and why having strong community advocates as a cornerstone in the ecosystem is essential.

As Trey underscored at the event, "The key to getting them to work together is show them how the long-term value to them far outweighs that short-term costs of time and money. Stakeholders need to recognize that a rising tide raises all ships and a win for one entrepreneur or accelerator raises the awareness of the entire region. If we can work together and develop a 'give first' mentality, then the whole community is elevated and everyone wins."

Mentorship is another cornerstone of a strong entrepreneurial community--and unsurprisingly, the importance of mentors was raised repeatedly by all of the panelists. The DEC has a few hundred mentors who will meet with any member of the co-working space at no charge to answer questions, make connections and assist the entrepreneur in eliminating the obstacles that stand in the way of success. Having access to high quality mentors is game changing. As Trey put it, "An hour of mentorship time can save entrepreneurs months of heartache." That said, mentorship success requires entrepreneurs take steps to maximize the value of the mentoring relationship. Yes, entrepreneurs the onus is on you to find the mentoring you need. Brenda Stoner, a serial entrepreneur who participated on the panel, freely admitted that although she's been down the "starting her own company" road before, she now knows the importance of continually seeking out advice. She stated, "I still look for daily guidance. The best advice I have come up with is to use (in a good way) the people around you. Success is only gained by leveraging others."

The panel dished out some key insights on mentoring, and while the advice may seem obvious to many, it is worth stressing. The value of mentorship is not just getting in front of an expert once (or seeking help only when there is an urgency or dire need). Neither is it assuming one person has the answers to all of your business questions. Mentoring is truly valuable when, as Brenda suggested, you're seeking advice from those around you on a regular basis.

Here are more of the panel's top tips on how entrepreneurs and business owners can maximize mentoring opportunities:

  1. Know why you want to meet with that mentor. Understand how their expertise can help you address a current business challenge--and be prepared to explain this to them when you meet. By knowing how the mentor's background, industry experiences and community connections can help you, you can concisely and succinctly get the most value out of a mentoring meeting.
  2. Be the one who takes the initiative in reaching out, whether that is asking an assigned mentor to meet or tapping into a mentor pool such as that offered by The DEC.
  3. Prepare for every mentoring encounter. Have a focused agenda for every mentoring meeting, regardless of whether it is a 15-minute speed-mentoring event or lunch meeting. What's the obstacle you're facing in your business or expert guidance you need at that very moment? You want to walk away from the meeting with a fresh perspective or the tools to help you surmount the challenge.
  4. Deliver on the advice from the mentor by following up with and/or reporting back to them on how you applied or used their advice. If you chose to ignore their guidance, tell them why! Mentors provide their time and insights willingly, and in return, they want to feel that their advice was valued. Don't leave a mentor wondering what happened next.
  5. Understand that one mentor is not in your business' best interests. Think about your business needs--from gaining new customers to hiring talent--and look for mentors with a variety of backgrounds to help you. Only talking to the generalists will continually get you "general" advice.
  6. Don't overlook business community contacts you already have in your network. Seek guidance regularly from existing business connections, after all, these are the relationships with a strong vested interest in your business success.