Kent Sutherland talked his way into Sam Walton's office 18 years ago--and hasn't stopped relying on the legendary entrepreneur's advice ever since.

Plus: How--and where--to find a mentor of your own, and eight tales of life-altering mentor moments

Kent Sutherland won't forget the day 18 years ago that he first drove up to Bentonville, Ark., past the big American flag and the imposing sign welcoming him to Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters. "That sign'll scare you." Sutherland was only 23, working his first job out of college as a vendor for a supplier of health-care products, and was by his own description "really green." As he appraised the company's imposing building through the windshield of his car, he found he'd locked his grip on the steering wheel to keep his hands from shaking.

Wal-Mart buyers were tough, legendary for stirring as much dread as expectation in the hearts of hopeful vendors. What further quickened Sutherland's pulse was the prospect that the man himself might even amble out front--as was his occasional habit--to greet the anxious vendors clustered around the coffee machine and the bulletin board announcing Wal-Mart's stock price and store openings, each of those numbers in relentless ascent. On one level, Sam Walton was just folks, the guy with the red dented pickup with the bird dogs in back. On another, he was the flinty entrepreneur, there to peer as deep into the salesmen's souls as into their sample kits. Sutherland wanted to get into business for himself, as Walton had. He figured that if he could get the elder's ear, then perhaps he could glean some of his precious knowledge. "I wanted to pick his brain and see how he could help me," Sutherland recalls. "I wanted to ask him, 'How'd you do it? What's your secret?' "

Fate proved kind to Sutherland. He worked for Becton Dickinson, a multinational supplier of health-care products with plenty of clout to get Sutherland in the door at Wal-Mart. (Becton Dickinson happened to sell a certain syringe that Walton himself used for allergy shots.) Sutherland first met Walton on his third visit to Wal-Mart, and over the next seven years Walton would grant Sutherland brief, intermittent audiences, in which he would take the younger man aside and they'd talk business, like coach and quarterback crafting a game plan. Milas Hale, a Little Rock lawyer and a friend of Sutherland's, says, "Sam tutored him. It was almost impossible to get in to see Sam, but Kent did. Sam took a liking to Kent because I think he saw something of himself in him."

Today, Kent Sutherland is a company builder, and the late Sam Walton continues as the angel at his shoulder. "I feel that he has had a tremendous impact by motivating me to do things a different way than I might have," says Sutherland, who has started a range of Main Street businesses that are the sorts of unglamorous enterprises that demand a hands-on, small-town operator like Sam Walton to run them right. They are businesses that require as much common sense as a common touch, and it is those qualities that Sutherland courted when he befriended Walton.

While Walton's advice to Sutherland over the years was hardly the stuff of an M.B.A. tutorial, it represents the kind of grassroots counsel that many entrepreneurs readily acknowledge--but too seldom heed. (People have a knack for making business more complicated than it needs to be.) What Walton showed the world was that success was rooted in a mindfulness of a few basic principles, coupled with a relentless drive to put them into practice. Walton was as dogged as he was smart, and that would similarly describe his erstwhile disciple, Kent Sutherland.

"Sam said you should always diversify, spread your risk," says Sutherland, noting that while Walton may have had his fortune tied up in one business, he still sold everything under the sun. "I keep my eyes open for so many things so I can make the most out of the property I have," he says.

Kent Sutherland has been selling insurance since 1988 in Sherwood, a suburb of Little Rock, and has built his customer base in that business to 2,000. Four years ago he built a mini-storage facility across the street, shoehorning it onto a tongue of land between two churches. No one saw much use for such an oddly shaped lot--82 feet wide by 1,000 feet deep--except for Sutherland, who imagined a row of storage lockers there and was able to buy the land from the bank for a song. In 1995 he opened a car wash a mile down the street from his office. This year Sutherland plans to invest in a mortgage company which he says will be "a big deal." He has also looked into buying billboards and leasing his land to builders of cell-phone transmission towers.

Five years ago Sutherland's net worth reached $1 million, and it has since climbed by another $500,000. His goal was to reach $1 million by age 40, and he got there three years ahead of schedule. Sutherland's wealth will likely always be a small fraction of his mentor's, yet he has come to fashion himself as a small-business man and entrepreneur in the elder's image, using the advice he gleaned from Walton in those seven years of banging on the door at Bentonville. In Kent Sutherland's world, Sam Walton's wisdom proffers the guiding invisible hand. "I feel that he has had a tremendous impact by motivating me to do things a different way than I might have," says Sutherland.

Sutherland starts each weekday by trading stocks on-line from home. He's up by 6:30 to read the overnight business news before wandering into his home office. There is a lone book on the shelf above the computer, Burden of Truth, by Charles Colson, once of Watergate fame and since born again. The TV is on, with CNBC's talking heads jabbering away. Sutherland's Compaq computer, black and as sleek as a Ferrari, radiates a glittery array of stock quotes and market information. His goal is to make $500 in the first half hour of trading by taking a big position in one blue-chip stock that seems particularly active--and then quickly dumping it at a gain of a half point or so, before heading out the door to pan other streams of cash.

On this day Sutherland squeezes a half point out of 1,100 shares of Microsoft, which he holds for 20 minutes before heading for his chariot in the garage, a bright red Jeep Cherokee. Loose-leaf binders on the backseat contain study materials for the broker's exam; some of his insurance clients now want him to start trading for them. "People like to see success. You know what I'm saying? And besides, I enjoy the ride and thrill of the stock market," he says. A sign nailed to a tree advertises a nearby empty lot for sale, with Sutherland's name and phone number on it. He bought the land for $19,000 last December. In January he was offered $28,000 for it, but he's holding out for $30,000.

Highway 167 leads north out of Little Rock into lush farmland before rising through rolling piney hills and toward the Ozarks beyond. Sutherland, with his cell phone perched on the console, sips a large coffee from McDonald's drive-up window. He is heading out to look at a piece of land in Greers Ferry, about an hour north, on which he's hoping to roll out more mini-storage lockers.

About 20 minutes outside Little Rock, Sutherland motions admiringly through the windshield at a picturesque hilltop horse farm belonging to one of the owners of the Indiana Pacers basketball team. The foreground offers simpler domestic displays: trailer as home, tar paper as construction material, automobile as lawn sculpture. As he drives Sutherland focuses on other roadside attractions: car washes and mini-storage facilities, two businesses he knows something about.

Sutherland learned from Walton the value of tempering action with sound preparation. "Sam always did his homework," he says, adding, "I think people don't do their homework. They don't see all the pros and cons, the whole picture. I've got to be able to envision exactly what I want to do."

Sutherland got into the car-wash business because it was a cash business, the cost of entry was low, and the number of car washes in his neighborhood were few. The business beckoned. But still, he didn't plunge right in. "I didn't do anything right away. I subscribed to Car Wash magazine for a year," he says. He did some seat-of-the-pants market research on a nearby competitor. "I sat right across the street and counted the cars at that car wash once a week for two months," he recalls. He called the city to get more traffic information, learning that 20,000 cars would pass his proposed car wash daily. He sent out 10,000 pieces of direct mail, polling strangers on their car-washing habits. He looked at every car wash within a 100-mile radius. People, he discovered, wanted two things: cleanliness and equipment that works.

Suffused with market intelligence, Sutherland still waited for a critical piece to fall into place. Across the street from his proposed site lay a 42-acre parcel of land. "I was always scoping that land out; I knew there was interest in it," he says. Sutherland worked his sources in the business community and in the town planning office, finally learning that an apartment complex was planned for the site. He called the developer, who confirmed the project. He then talked to town surveyors and the planning commission to gauge how receptive they'd be to a car wash at his proposed site.

The land he wanted was owned by a widow who had little interest in selling--and less in talking to Sutherland. She was asking $80,000. After six weeks of on-and-off-again conversations, Sutherland sweet-talked her down to $60,000. By the time the story broke in the local paper, announcing the proposed apartment complex, he had signed a purchase agreement for the land across the street.

Sutherland is a stranger to business failure. Nothing he's started has ever flopped. He believes he will prevail in business because he has internalized something Sam Walton told him: If you want it bad enough, you'll find a way to do it. "There's a steep price you pay for success, and successful people in business know that," says Sutherland. "Doing the things I've done has not come easy. There's been a lot of sacrifice."

Sam Johnson, a friend of Sutherland's, says, "He started out with nothing, and while we were all out playing golf, he'd be working." Sutherland grew up in southeastern Missouri and went to a small Baptist college in Arkansas. After graduation, he moved to Little Rock. It was a place where he knew no one. "My father warned me, 'You know, Arkansas is a real good-old-boy state," Sutherland recalls. Translation: in Arkansas people do business with people they know. That's how Sutherland wanted it. He was fixing to pay the price.

For housing, all he could afford was a $110-a-month apartment in a forlorn, forgotten, and dangerous part of town. The sudden blaring of boom boxes and collateral street action jolted him from his first night's sleep at the Merribale Apartments. The next night, a man in the unit below Sutherland's apartment was murdered. Sutherland was scared, but, unable to break his six-month lease, he hung on. He bought 30 boxes of macaroni and 30 cans of beans so he could subsist for a month before he landed a job.

Those early years taught Sutherland that he could always endure by running lean. That would become his edge. Sutherland remains a determined avoider of debt. He has no business loans, and he recently built a new quarter-million-dollar house sans mortgage. He was the general contractor on the job, and he used subcontractors whom he happened to insure. Dealing with them--now good-old-boy style--Sutherland figures he saved $50,000 on the house.

Sutherland and Walton spoke often about the seductions of money. "Sam always had this belief that you can't spend more than you're taking in--that leverage will always come around and bite you." Conversely, Walton told Sutherland, tough times magnify opportunity for those who avoid debt. "Sam always said that there will come a time when big opportunities will be presented to you, and you've got to be in a position to take advantage of them."

Sutherland also reasons that by dealing with his own--and not other people's--money, he is more in touch with his costs because his equity is on the line. "I know exactly what my costs are before I do a project. I know exactly how many nails, how many pieces of lumber it's going to take," he says.

As we pull into Greers Ferry, population 724, Sutherland outlines the deal that has brought him here. "I'm looking at 10 acres. They want $25,000. I may offer 20." At the offices of Preferred Real Estate, Sutherland is greeted by an agent, Carolyn Hall, a dark-haired middle-aged woman in jeans and a sweatshirt. The two quickly fall into a discussion about the property. Sutherland wants to build mini-storage lockers in which vacationers at a nearby lake can store their boats and RVs. There are some houses adjacent to the site, but farther down the road is a motel and a country store. Is the area commercial or residential? "What about planning?" Sutherland inquires. Hall almost seems not to understand Sutherland's question. "We don't really have any planning in town. You could put a zoo in the middle of town and nobody would care," she says.

On the way out to look at the land we pass a freshly built mini-storage facility, and Sutherland slows the car to admire the product. "Good God, this guy is throwing up some storage units here," he says. He does some quick math in his head and finds a chink in his prospective competitor's armor. The owner has opted for poured slabs of concrete, when crushed rock would have done fine. That's overkill--too much expense just for keeping boats out of the rain. Down the road, Sutherland takes a left onto a dirt road that heads back through what appears to be a budding pine plantation. As he and Hall get out and walk the land, thick with thorns, more real estate chitchat ensues. "The lay of the land is critical," says Sutherland. There can't be too much slope. He'll need to see a topographic map. "Anybody ever perked it?"

"Don't know," says Hall. One of the two owners, she relates, is in the music business in Memphis.

Sutherland has previously gleaned that the partners paid $20,000 a year ago and suddenly want to sell. "Something went sour between them," Hall confides to him. Back in the car, Sutherland says, "I try to catch people in distressed situations."

Sutherland recalls Sam Walton relating to him how back in the late 1970s, when Wal-Mart had about 250 stores, he received a call from the chairman of Kmart offering to buy Wal-Mart. Walton replied, "Gee, that's funny. I thought we'd buy you." The Kmart people were amused. After all, at the time Kmart had five times as many stores as Wal-Mart. But Walton knew that termites were gnawing at the footings of Kmart's house. The company was overleveraged and lacked focus. Kmart was a retailer in distress. Walton could see that, and he knew it was time to seize the moment and go for the jugular. In the sluggish, high-interest-rate economy of the early '80s, Kmart faltered and Wal-Mart ate its proverbial lunch.

Back at Hall's office, Sutherland borrows a calculator and pores over a plat map. He can't believe how microscopic the property taxes are--just $110 a year, and even after he develops the site, he doubts if they'll exceed $500. He concludes, "I'll make an offer for $18,000."

Hall leaves the room to find an offer sheet, while Sutherland confides, "I've already done my checking on this. I've been over to talk to three of the people on that road. He's really hurting; he wants to dump it. She doesn't know that." The seller, Sutherland has learned, had asked his three neighbors if they wanted to buy the land.

Kent Sutherland left Becton Dickinson in 1988 and went into business for himself. He became an agent for Farmers Insurance. He specifically chose Farmers over other insurance companies because with that insurer he would not be a direct employee but an independent contractor. That gave him the freedom to explore other business opportunities beyond insurance.

Sutherland describes insurance as a "lazy man's business." Many agents do a poor job of cross selling--peddling a home policy, but not a life-insurance policy, to a client, or vice versa. Sutherland was not a lazy man. He won Farmers' "Order of the Blue Vase," awarded to the agent who sells the largest number of life-insurance policies in his first four months on the job. Sutherland's record--114 life policies--still stands.

Sam Walton told Kent Sutherland that "a customer's not a customer until he's a repeat customer," and what creates a repeat customer is consistency.

Sutherland saw insurance as a means of creating a consistent business from which he could create repeat customers--and repeat opportunities. It gave him access to a cross section of Little Rock's--and, by extension, Arkansas's--business community.

Today, Sutherland keeps what he calls "a mental file" of his insurance clients, which means that "when I sell somebody insurance, I ask them what they do." Translation: "I've helped you. Someday maybe you can help me." Sutherland buys steel for his mini-storage buildings directly from the mill because he insures its owner. Traveling around Arkansas for Becton Dickinson, Sutherland set foot in numerous pharmacies statewide. He has subsequently sold insurance to about 5% of them. Local pharmacists will make good land scouts and advance men as Sutherland tries to roll out his mini-storage business to other parts of the state. "They might know people on the planning commission," he says. "They can say, 'I know this guy. He's not a newcomer on the block."

For Sutherland, part of doing business amounts to spinning a web of relationships, with each deal, no matter how small, strengthening the bonds that support his mini empire. A policeman lives directly behind Sutherland's car wash--with another policeman directly behind him. "I insure a lot of the cops in Sherwood," boasts Sutherland. "Man, they watch it [the car wash] close for me." Would-be vandals know that Sutherland's car wash is one place to avoid. When he sought a zoning change on the land for his mini storage, Sutherland approached various neighbors, many of whom were also insurance clients. "I told them, 'Now, you're not gonna fight me on this, are you?"

Heading back toward Little Rock after lunch, Sutherland is running prospective Greers Ferry mini-storage numbers in his head. The entire project would amount to six buildings, with 44 units each. He'll build one at a time, making sure they fill up before moving ahead with the next. The six buildings would generate $79,000 in annual revenues, while overhead costs would total a paltry 13% of sales. That's what he finds so enticing about mini storage. "Return on investment is very important to me," he notes.

Sutherland figures the whole project would cost $80,000, thus allowing him to recoup his initial investment in little more than a year. "I've got a friend with a bulldozer. He doesn't live far from here. I'll fence it, buy the steel direct from the mill. My price for steel hasn't risen in three years. All I've got to do is put up an 8-by-16-foot sign, and I'll go in at a price that's guaranteed to be the cheapest."

Sam Walton often counseled Sutherland, "Don't reinvent the wheel." Choose a business you understand and can get behind. There is often good money in unglamorous businesses--provided you're a smart and disciplined operator. The market won't bail you out; you are the one who must add the value.

Just as Sam Walton figured out the formula on discount stores and then rolled them out with a vengeance, Sutherland hopes to do the same with mini-storage lockers. His goal is to have 1,000 buildings in 10 years, up from his current 100. Walton also drove into Sutherland's head the power of positive thinking. Says Milas Hale of Sutherland, "He looks for the best in every situation. He doesn't think there's anything you can't do."

The road between Little Rock and Greers Ferry seems littered with mini-storage lockers. Doesn't Sutherland worry about a glut and fierce competition?

No way. The demographics are too right--and Sutherland can recite them. People can't afford big houses with attics anymore. The average-size house being built these days is just 1,250 square feet, and, even in a state like Arkansas, that can cost $80,000 to $100,000. Meanwhile, baby boomers are inheriting a lot of things from their parents and are loath to throw them away.

Is he worried, then, that he won't get the land?

No. The seller will be back. "I'll tell her, 'Call me when he gets his price right.' He'll probably counteroffer $21,000. I wouldn't pay more than $22,000. I know he hasn't gotten any offers on it. When people want to sell something, they'll do almost anything to get rid of it." (After more digging in subsequent weeks, Sutherland learned that the owners actually paid only $19,000 for the land, and he decided that would be his top offer.)

Well, what about the competitor who has already built the fancy storage units in Greers Ferry?

"I'll guarantee you those are financed. I've made some calls. I've looked into the individual. I could cut him $100 a year [in rent per locker] and hurt him bad."

Grassroots market research was a Sam Walton trademark. Sam rode with his truck drivers, asking, "What can I do to make your job easier?" He buttonholed customers and queried vendors. Sutherland recalls how Walton was once driving his pickup in a parade in Bentonville. Passing one of his stores, he grew so intent on counting the cars in the parking lot that he ran into the back of the truck ahead of him.

Kent Sutherland readily acknowledges, "I'm definitely not the smartest guy in the world," but he compensates by working hard--and by always doing his homework. On weekends he hangs out at his car wash and talks to customers. He figures he has interviewed 250 of them on how to improve the car wash. Buying the land for his mini storage, Sutherland realized he would end up landlocking the property owner behind him, which forced a subsequent sale to Sutherland at a fire-sale price, allowing him to build even more storage units. Spend a little time with the man and you come away believing him when he says, "While I'm here on this earth, I want to learn as much as I can about business."

Sutherland arrives back at his office five minutes before the stock market closes. The television is on, tuned to CNBC, and his computer is running, flashing stock quotes. Something has caught his eye. "I'm going to try to buy Exxon. It's down 1 5/ 16 for the day." Since the market is about to close, he places the order by phone. "I need to buy 2,364 shares of Exxon at 59 9/ 16. Please hurry." The broker asks if that price is indeed available. Sutherland can see from the information on his computer screen that it is, and that makes him impatient. "It's there. Yeah, yeah, put it in, please." The trade goes through in the nick of time. Sutherland will look for a pop in the stock when the market opens tomorrow. He will look to squeeze a little more profit from one more in a stream of opportunities coming his way.

Edward O. Welles is a senior writer at Inc.

Other Entrepreneurs Talk About the Mentors Who Meant a lot to Them

Tom Stemberg, founder, chairman, and CEO of Staples, a $5.2-billion chain of office-supply superstores

Mentor: Harvard Business School professor Walter Salmon

Best advice given: "Apply your supermarket efficiency skills in a new business that's underserved by modern distribution channels." --Stephanie Gruner

Katharine Graham, chairman of the executive committee, the Washington Post Co.

Mentor: Warren Buffett, chairman, Berkshire Hathaway Inc.

How they met: Graham took control of her company in 1963. The company held an initial public offering in 1971. Buffett began to amass a stake in her company. Graham sought Buffett out for a meeting to determine whether his intentions toward her company were hostile. The two became fast friends, and Buffett helped Graham develop business savvy and confidence.

How often they meet: "Several times a week--less now, as he is busier," Graham says.

Best advice given: "To repurchase our stock," as Graham did in 1979. The average price the company paid was about $22 per share. The stock is now worth $528 per share. --Mike Hofman

Lynn Frydryk, founder of $1-million-plus J&L Peaberry's Coffee & Tea Co., in Oakland, Calif.

Mentor: Alfred Peet, specialty-coffee guru

How they met: Frydryk worked for Peet at a company he had founded called Peet's Coffee and Tea. She never solicited him as a mentor. She says he adopted her.

How often they meet: Frydryk and Peet used to visit about once a month. Now they meet irregularly.

Best advice given: Peet told Frydryk, "Before starting your own business, you really would be wise to make your mistakes on the payroll of someone else's business. It's a very sound theory." --Stephanie Gruner

Steve Leveen, cofounder and president of Levenger, a catalog business in Delray Beach, Fla.

Mentor: Stanley Marcus, chairman emeritus of Neiman Marcus

How they met: Leveen read Marcus's book Minding the Store and wrote him a fan letter. Marcus wrote back.

Best advice given: "No sale is a good sale unless it's a good value for the customer." --Stephanie Gruner

Jenai Lane, founder and president of Respect Inc., a $2-million accessory company in San Francisco

Mentors: Tara Donohue, co-owner of a children's clothing wholesaler called Loo NÄ, and Cecilia Lynch, a strategic-planning and brand-development consultant at Beam Inc.

How they met: Lane found Donohue and Lynch through WISE (Women's Initiative for Self Employment), a microlending program through which Lane qualified for three loans and a mentoring arrangement.

How often they meet: Lane spent six months each with Donohue and Lynch, meeting with each woman twice a month for up to five hours at a time.

Best advice given: Lynch stopped Lane from hiring the wrong key manager. "In one case, Cecilia helped me screen candidates for a management position. She was really instrumental in helping me choose the right person for the job. I probably would have hired the wrong person. She's very seasoned. And I was completely new at it. It was really helpful to have another opinion." --Stephanie Gruner

Kevin Eldredge, president of recently acquired RapidFire Solutions, in Hillsboro, Oreg.

Mentor: David Pitassi, founder of Drypers, a $287-million baby-diaper manufacturer

How they met: At a luncheon sponsored by the Young Entrepreneurs Organization (YEO), a networking organization. Pitassi was speaking at the luncheon, and Eldredge approached him.

How often they meet: Pitassi and Eldredge meet every three months.

What mentor has learned from the relationship: "You learn just as much from mentoring someone as you do from having a mentor. I've learned a lot from Kevin. Like the fact that I don't have all the answers. I've also learned a great deal about the software industry. I'm much more technologically savvy than I used to be. I now invest more in software companies--not only public but also private companies." --Stephanie Gruner

Beth Marcus, president of Glow Dog Inc.

Mentor: Bob Metcalfe, founder of 3COM

How they met: Luck--Marcus met Metcalfe on a buffet line at an MIT Media Lab reception in Boston. They both went for the chocolate-chip cookies at the same time and struck up a conversation. As Metcalfe has since recalled the meeting, Marcus wouldn't let him leave the conversation until he gave her his business card.

How often they meet: Periodically. Marcus estimates that she tracks Metcalfe down every three or four months. He often hosts "entrepreneurial salons" at his home, and she always tries to attend.

Best advice given: That networking is critical. Marcus's first company, Exos Inc., went through a rather dramatic metamorphosis--from a serious medical-products research-and-development company to a designer of video-game joysticks. Metcalfe put Marcus in touch with entrepreneurs who made mice for PCs. Out of that meeting, the change in strategy was born. "Bob's a fantastic networker," Marcus says, "and it's one of the very most important things we entrepreneurs do. What can be more boring than standing in a food line at a reception, and yet what could have had a more material impact on the history of my company than that moment? Bob has taught me not to overlook any interaction that you might have with anyone. Every successful entrepreneur is a master networker." --Mike Hofman

Ben Feder, CEO of .Comfax Inc.

Mentor: Strauss Zelnick, CEO of BMG Entertainment

How they met: Feder met Zelnick when he took his first post-M.B.A. job at 20th Century Fox. Though Feder did not report directly to Zelnick, the two worked together on some projects. Zelnick then left to found a Silicon Valley company, and the two kept in touch. "He was someone I respected a great deal--he has extraordinary judgment--and so, when I had an idea for a business, I asked him to take a look at the business plan simply for his feedback," Feder recalls. "I got that and more, since he was more interested than I had expected. Today he sits on my board and is highly active in the company."

How often they meet: Often. "We meet once weekly and exchange E-mail or talk almost daily," Feder says.

Best advice given: "Treat a start-up like a real company," Zelnick told Feder. "Keep your standards high and get the best help you can, given limited resources." The advice has been valuable, Feder reports. "Every time I've cut corners because I've thought of this as a small company, I've regretted it," he says. "Strauss showed me that start-ups are about building value quickly. You can become a real company only if you behave like one from the start." --Mike Hofman

Finding the right mentor for you

People like Kent Sutherland may make it look easy to talk your way into the good graces of a great role model who will help you grow your business, but it isn't always easy to find that one special person. In fact, suggests Kathy Kram, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Boston University School of Management, putting all your mentor eggs in one basket can be a mistake. "I think people really ought to think in terms of multiple mentors instead of just one," concludes Kram, the author of Mentoring at Work. And they don't all have to be grizzled business veterans. "Peers can be an excellent source of mentorship," she says.

Once you've identified a mentor candidate, how do you persuade him or her to sign on to your cause? Would-be mentors are most receptive to people who ask good questions, listen well to the responses, and demonstrate that they are hungry for advice and counsel, Kram says.

In the best of all worlds, it's not just the protÉgÉ who benefits from the relationship. The mentor, as well, should see the opportunity as one for personal growth. "In today's context, mentors learn new skills and competency themselves," observes Kram. "It's a chance to revitalize their own learning." --Karen Dillon

Mentoring programs

If you can't find a mentor on your own, there are many places you can turn to for mentor "matchmaking." Here's a selection of some of the options across the country:

Organization: Service Corps of Retired Executives Association (SCORE) Services: SCORE offers formal mentoring arrangements as well as team counseling, one-on-one counseling, and advice via E-mail.

The scoop: SCORE's 389 local chapters deploy 12,400 volunteers each year, all of whom have experience in owning or managing a company. Phone: 800-634-0245

Web site:

Organization: Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs)

Services: SBDCs offer free counseling, with access to training programs and information resources.

The scoop: SBDC counselors are located at 970 centers across the country, 48 of which are on college campuses. The centers offer "nuts and bolts, A to Z" mentoring, according to Kathleen Kelley, director of membership services at the Association of Small Business Development Centers, in Arlington, Va.

Phone: 703-271-8700 (for the national organization)

Web site:

Organization: The Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC)

Services: The ICIC studies and fosters entrepreneurship in urban neighborhoods. Its Inner City Advisors program provides a variety of mentoring and advisory services for free. One arm of the program matches business owners with teams of local M.B.A. students and professors.

The scoop: The ICIC is the brainchild of Harvard Business School guru Michael Porter. Though it currently operates in just four cities (Boston, Baltimore, Kansas City, and Oakland), it is expanding. And the ICIC offers referrals, maintaining a list of like-minded programs (most of them affiliated with universities) in about 20 different states.

Phone: 617-292-2363

Web site:

Organization: National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO)

Services: The free NAWBO mentor program pairs a woman entrepreneur with a NAWBO member who has experience running a company. NAWBO provides members with an array of benefits including national networking and discounts from corporate sponsors like IBM and AT&T.

The scoop: Terry Neese, an Oklahoma business owner and a past president of NAWBO, participated in the program herself. "What the program did for me was make me reevaluate what my company was doing and look for ways to make it better," she says.

Phone: 800-55-NAWBO or 301-608-2590

Web site:

Organization: Silver Foxes Advisors

Services: Silver Foxes provide long-term mentoring and also put together ad hoc advisory boards and offer short-term consulting services. Initial interviews are free, but an hourly fee (of $45 to $145) is assessed after the first meeting.

The scoop: "We make sure you water your plants," adviser Tom Gillis says. "It's a continued relationship--we stay long enough so that the plans and suggestions we come up with are carried out."

Phone: Connie Smith at 713-467-5900

Web site:

Organization: Menttium Corp.

Services: Menttium offers formal, one-to-one mentoring, group mentoring, and other training programs.

The scoop: Menttium tends to deal with corporate types, more so than the other programs, but it has several initiatives, which, says spokesperson Susan Eilertson, "a mix of companies--both large and small--find relevant." The Menttium 100, for example, is offered in six cities: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. It pairs women in business with senior executives at other companies, in the hopes of helping women advance.

Phone: 612-814-2600 or 800-863-5127

Web site:

Organization: Center to Develop Entrepreneurs (CDE) at San Jose State University

Services: The CDE helps people start businesses in and around Silicon Valley. Particular attention is paid to women, minorities, and "mom and pop" businesses. The center provides one-to-one mentoring or "coaching," as well as distance learning. It also uses multimedia teaching tools.

The scoop: Founded as the Center for Women Entrepreneurs in 1993, the CDE has branched out in terms of the constituencies it serves.

Phone: 408-924-5863

Web site:

--Mike Hofman