Retirees teach entrepreneurs the score

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Bad business decisions had put Amsale Saife-Selassie's bakery at serious risk of going under. Dama Restaurant and Bakery, a 10-year-old, family-owned business located in Arlington, Va., ran into difficulties when expansion plans to open a second location didn't work out as the owners had hoped.

"When you're emotionally and financially drained and you can't even think straight, you really need professional help," said Saife-Selassie, 53.

Through BizLaunch, a small business assistance network that is part of Arlington Economic Development, Saife-Selassie discovered the volunteer group called SCORE (Service Corps of Retired Executives), an organization that provides free advice to entrepreneurs.

She was matched with volunteer Joe Clarke, a 63-year-old IT consultant who has worked with SCORE for about three years and mentors clients two days a week: one day at SCORE's Washington D.C. office and one day in Arlington.

Objective advice

Clarke acknowledged that often it's difficult for business owners who are too "emotionally wrapped up" in their situations to see clearly.

"What I'm able to do is get them to step back and look at the situation objectively, and I think that's what serves people the most," he said.

Thirty years ago when Clarke was launching his first business, he heard about SCORE himself. But he said he failed to follow up on the lead and enlist the services of the group.

"In hindsight, I should have gone in to talk to them, because I wasn't successful and the company folded," he laughed.

Clarke said he came across SCORE again when he retired from a position with Gartner, a large IT consulting firm, and was exploring volunteer opportunities.

During his career, he has worked for federal clients as well as commercial ones. Early on, he worked for a consulting company that grew from 12 employees to 150 before being sold.

Clarke was recently named the chair of the Washington area's main office for SCORE. There are 10 SCORE offices around the Greater Washington metropolitan area. Nationally, SCORE has 380 chapters.

In addition to his volunteer work with SCORE, Clarke has his own practice. "I started a one-person consulting shop to keep myself current in technology, which I do on a part-time basis," he said.

Many avenues for assistance

Entrepreneurs can seek assistance from SCORE in the manner that works best for them. The group offers one-on-one consultations with mentors, and will perform an on-site evaluation at a business location.

SCORE also offers low-cost workshops and seminars on a variety of business issues, and lets entrepreneurs submit questions to counselors with particular types of expertise on the group's website, www.score.org. 

 All SCORE volunteers go through an extensive screening process and orientation period, explained Clarke. A membership panel reviews applicants to ensure that "it's a good fit for what we're trying to do with the program."

There is also a strict code of ethics that members swear to observe. The oath is renewed every year. 

 "We have a number of different rules on how we do things so it's very clear that we only have one interest in mind — and that is the best interest of the customer," Clarke said.

Business owners may contact the organization at any point where they need advice and guidance. SCORE hired Gallup to do a survey of 10,000 small business owners who had been clients of SCORE. They found that one-third of the people had been exploring the idea of starting a business, one-third were in the active stages of starting or launching a business, and the final third were established business owners that needed help.

Tara Palacios, director of BizLaunch, gives Clarke high marks for his dedication and contributions to businesses that have sought his help. The organization donates office space to SCORE in Arlington. In D.C., space is donated by the Small Business Administration.

"I could not ask for a better partner," said Palacios adding, "It's a pleasure to work with someone who has such a high ethic of giving back to the community, and is such a strong supporter of small businesses."

It's a sentiment echoed by Jennifer Ives, director of Business Investment at Arlington Economic Development. "He works tirelessly to help entrepreneurs and business owners address challenges, as well as seek out opportunities for growth," Iverson said. 

Clarke said he enjoys the work with his SCORE colleagues and business partners. He cites the intellectual challenges presented with each situation, and appreciates the out-of-the-box thinking required.

"Intellectually it's a demanding environment — it's more than a bunch of old people telling war stories," he joked.

"A big part of the satisfaction you get from helping people is seeing the light bulb go on," Clarke said.  "We get paid back by the satisfaction of seeing our clients succeed."

Saife-Selassie credits Clarke's assistance with saving her family's business, which she said is back on track these days.

"Somebody that you pay does not give you that much attention and that much care, and it was genuine care…I always thank him in my heart," she said.

To learn more about SCORE or to volunteer, visit www.scoredc.org or call (202) 272-0390.