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Innovation

Giving Them Wisdom

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How Delaware’s culture of connections and mentoring shaped these innovators

The right mentor can distill years of business know-how into lessons on marketing, strategic partnerships, or even a blueprint to pivot a business for maximum success. Given Delaware’s tightknit entrepreneurial community, finding that mentor is arguably easier in the First State than just about anywhere else.

Meet three Delaware mentors — and their mentees — who apply various approaches to help the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators chart their course. 

Mike Bowman & Ken James

Mike Bowman | Photo c/o Delaware Small Business Development Center

As State Director of the Delaware Small Business Development Center, Mike Bowman is no stranger to advising startups. And with his office in the Delaware Technology Park, location proved a boon to lending “neighborly advice” to Ken James, owner of Supercritical Fluid Technologies Inc., housed on the same campus.

According to James, Bowman’s advice was reassuring as his business evolved. “I am a scientist,” he says. “A lot of entrepreneurs think they know everything, but you want to surround yourself with those who cover your weaknesses. I’ve always found that with Mike.”

Bowman said one of his goals was to help James — whose product separates fluids using carbon dioxide — keep his budget and growth parallel.

Early on, Bowman encouraged James to build a website with tracking features, and he helped him identify the right strategic partners. “It’s making the best of your business by thinking things through in a way you haven’t,” offers Bowman, on his mentoring approach. “It’s a reflective thing.”

“Once you have folks you trust, pay attention,” says James, whose company has experienced 10 to 15 percent growth each year, with millions in sales and exports worldwide. But as a scientist, James turned to people like Bowman for some business basics. “He guided me on how to write instructions for Confirmed Irrevocable Letters of Credit, a banking tool,” says James. “I sell $100,000 pieces of equipment and it could sink the company if [customers] don’t pay me. It’s a common thing in business, but I’d never heard of it.” But Bowman knew, and told James how to get it done. He also helped James identify whether an unusual opportunity was the real deal.

“Early on in our company’s history, Russian scientists came to me and wanted to purchase equipment, but they had no hard currency,” explains James. “But they offered things to trade.” James says he went to Bowman for advice, who confirmed the offer — and the option — was viable.

“Mike’s advice has always been golden nuggets in the wash of everything that goes on,” James says.

“It gives me self-worth to do what I do,” says Bowman. “It’s implied credit, the joy of transferring what you know to someone else and they can grow…that’s what makes you get up in the morning.”

Joshua Martin IIIDan Young & Jordan Gonzalez

Just like parenting, one sure sign that you’ve done right by your mentee is watching how they lean into the next generation. For veteran Delaware business leader Joshua Martin III, the fruit of his time with mentee Dan Young is seen in Young’s influence in the life of Jordan Gonzalez.

Joshua Martin III

“It’s hard to remember a time when they weren’t around,” says Young, of Martin and his wife, Cynthia. “As a couple they’ve had a profound impact on my success.”

That Martin made time for Young speaks volumes of this powerhouse business patriarch. A former president and CEO at Verizon, Delaware Superior Court Judge, and now senior counsel at Potter Anderson & Corroon, Martin has a robust resume and decades of experience in the legal realm, navigating boardrooms and successfully changing careers. His advice to Young, a rising financial professional turned academic, was powerful, but less focused on strategy and more on countenance and courage, according to Young. 

“Whenever I have a question, like making a move from being a financial advisor to academics, he’s always available to meet for coffee, and he talks about how to manage people, and how to manage people’s expectations,” explains Young, director of the Doctor of Business Administration program at Goldey-Beacom College and the curator of TEDxGoldeyBeacomCollege. “His thoughts on how to manage my own identity as a young man of color and how to carry myself, or just the way he had time for me, made it clear that I always have someone in my corner.”

“We just had very flowing conversations over an extended time,” says Martin, who describes his mentoring style as one of semi-structured guidance. “Basically, I used the opportunity to give him some things to think about as he was preparing for his career.”

Young says the conversations created a framework for the kind of man, boss, friend and mentor he is. “That focus on work ethic, on integrity, doing the right thing and giving back — that was always present and it’s incredibly unique about him. He’s able to walk with just regular rank-and-file people and then meet with CEOs and heads of state and be highly respected.”

Five years ago, Young had the chance to become a mentor in his own right. As an adjunct professor at the University of Delaware, where he taught a class on entrepreneurship, he met Jordan Gonzalez at the Horn Entrepreneurship’s Venture Development Center.

Jordan Gonzalez

“He was friendly and enthusiastic,” says Young of Gonzalez, a finance major who was working on an engineering study website aimed at fellow students. As the only black professor in entrepreneurship, Young says it was natural to befriend Gonzalez and learn about his interests. “There are not a lot of African American students in entrepreneurship,” he says.

“Jordan always wanted to learn what it took to be successful, but he was far more tech-focused than I was,” says Young. “I tried to give him advice about target marketing and customer discovery. We started talking in generalities. I think that as Jordan went from freshman to senior, he would ask more and more questions and ask more advice.”

The website wasn’t Gonzalez’s only hat in the innovation ring. By his senior year, he and two other students had created GeoSwap, the app that helps brands get a digital presence at events. With the promise of scalability, development and marketing of the app soon dominated his meetings with Young.

“We talked about what a good team looks like in terms of the folks you’re working with, as well as creative ways to market,” remembers Young. “He was one of those students that whatever was on his mind, he would ask if I had dealt with it.” 

One challenge they tackled together? How to identify the right target market for GeoSwap. Young told Gonzalez his team should pay attention to where students gathered.

“It was in relation to testing the first iterations of our product and getting it in front of people,” says Gonzalez. “It was the best way to access a lot of people and make big steps forward quicker. Some of our first groups we went to were registered student organizations at UD. It was a great way to get a lot of opinions in one go.”

What he valued about Young, Gonzalez says, “is he really treated me like an equal. While I knew he had more experience and valid information, it always seemed like a friendship.” Gonzalez sold GeoSwap a few years ago and is now a co-founder of Greenville Studios, a consumer commerce startup. 

But he still keeps in touch with Young, and even participated as a TEDx presenter.

For Young, mentoring Gonzalez was just an extension of the things he’d been taught by Joshua Martin. “Entrepreneurship runs counter to higher education. It’s key that you fail over and over, and most of the impact we make on these students is outside the classroom, giving them wisdom.”

Ellyn Herbert & Linda Farquhar

Linda Farquhar, funder or entre-Donovan | Photo c/o entre=Donovan

Linda Farquhar, founder of entre-Donovan custom fashions, had already been through the first cohort of WeTHINK, the program founded by Ellyn Herbert and Antara Dutta that gives women-owned businesses tools for business growth and leadership development. Herbert is an economic development specialist at the Delaware District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Farquhar started her company more than eight years ago with the goal of transforming women’s apparel through custom fittings. Her trump card? Scanner technology that features 3-D simulation. “I wanted to incorporate technology into this business that I would build,” explains Farquhar, a former stock analyst. So as she hammered out her business plan, she reached out to the Small Business Administration for help — and found herself in the freshman WeTHINK class, an initiative piloted by the Small Business Administration’s Delaware District and SCORE Delaware.

The 12-month program was much more in-depth than Farquhar imagined, but it also proved to be the genesis for an ongoing friendship with Herbert and Dutta. “It helped me accumulate knowledge so that when an opportunity or challenge presented itself, I was better equipped to take action.”

When WeTHINK relaunched as THINKMainStreet in 2017 with an emphasis on helping businesses “modernize, digitize and supersize for growth,” Farquhar was invited back. She says the timing was perfect. She had closed her brick-and-mortar store in downtown Wilmington and was looking to target her technology to retailers.

“[THINKMainStreet] really had a program put together where we would try and look at our whole business and determine the ‘x’ factor,” says Farquhar. “I wanted to build a company that was scalable so that women across the world would have clothing that would fit well. The boutique was a good laboratory for learning…but I really thought we needed to be in markets with bigger concentrations of professional women.”

Herbert says she and Dutta agreed.

“We had to identify high-end boutiques and establish conversations with them,” says Herbert, who adds that this discovery process is crucial with each participant. “We wanted to understand how she could make a splash in the industry, and we had to focus on customer experience.”

For Farquhar, that meant both the retailer and the end-user, or customer, with no friction points in the transaction, and she relied on the extensive research provided by Dutta, an expert in strategy and innovation, and Herbert, who boasts broad experience in sales and marketing.

With entreDonovan now a wholesale enterprise, Farquhar works out of a warehouse in Marshallton, and continues to market her technology to interested retailers. She admits it’s not easy, but she has some knowledgeable people — and good friends — at her disposal.

“There are always roadblocks or things you’d never predict and you just need someone to talk things through; and I can just call Ellyn or text and ask her questions and I can talk through something and she gives me some insights,” she says. “The relationship with Ellyn and Antara has been longer and richer than I expected, but it’s helped to develop a whole ecosystem around me.”


— By Christi Milligan

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