Foundation Helps Sharon Businesses Help Each Other

SHARON, Pa. – A Pittsburgh development initiative aims to help Shenango Valley businesses grow – in part by encouraging them to help and advise each other.

Kelly James and Terry Doloughty, small-business specialists from the Mansmann Foundation, met with 15 small-business owners and economic development specialists Monday afternoon at the Shenango Valley Chamber of Commerce.

The two facilitators led the first in a series of monthly sessions their organization will conduct with businesses in the Shenango Valley. The next is scheduled for Oct. 4.

Participation in the program normally requires a $50 monthly membership fee. For the sessions through the Shenango Valley chamber, the first three programs will be offered at no charge to businesses and at $12 per month after that.

The Mansmann Foundation was created and funded by fourth-generation entrepreneur Joseph L. Calihan, founder and operator of Bradford Schools Inc., a private provider of career training programs. It is named in honor of Calihan’s grandfather who founded the former Mansmann’s Department Store in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh in 1888.

“We tend to target evolving communities while they’re on the way up,” James said.

To this point, the foundation has focused on Greater Pittsburgh, and has 14 groups operating in various neighborhoods.

James and Doloughty looked at the Shenango Valley after Sherris Moreira became executive director of the Shenango chamber. Moreira had served on the board of the Pittsburgh Public Market, which James and Doloughty operated until it closed last year.

When Moreira moved back to Sharon last year, James and Doloughty “kept an ear out for what she was doing,” James said.

“When we decided to branch out from the Pittsburgh area, we gave Sherris a call because we knew that she was a connector of people,” she continued.

“And we love the area. We came up and viewed the area and absolutely adored the main street [of Sharon]. We felt it had a lot of potential,” she added.

Moreira said the foundation is “here to help everyone grow. I love that they’re coming in with that fresh attitude and fresh ideas. They have a vetting process that they use that we know will work because it is working in Pittsburgh.”

That process includes the monthly work sessions that allow business owners to get out of their work environments and focus on refining their operations. “It’s a retreat, almost,” James said.

Key to those sessions is the peer-to-peer mentoring that the participants offer and receive. People who have operated their own businesses are hired to serve as the facilitators. The program is also backed by online support.

“The peer mentoring model works because of everybody’s collective experience,” James said, “and it’s also a support group.”

One example James offered was a woman who purchased a frame shop from its previous owners. Although she had been a “fantastic employee,” she struggled with operating the business and questioned whether she should continue.

A mentor offered that she didn’t sell frames but “happiness,” an observation that caused the businesswoman to change her perspective. “She was thinking about linear feet of lumber, but he looked at it from an outside perspective,” she remarked.

Participants in Monday’s inaugural program appeared satisfied.

“My head is spinning with things that I think that I can do, at least look at that I need to do,” said Nancy Tusinac, owner of The Bake Shoppe & Café downtown. While she did well when working in human resources because she was organized, she said she never felt organized in her business. “These people can help me,” she said.

Mike Sakony, co-owner of Blissed Out Design, shared his concerns about cash flow and the ability to expand his product line. He was impressed with the sense of collaboration and connecting of dots in the community “that we hadn’t seen before.” Following the meeting, he said he intends to connect with a Farrell business owner who has had the same issues.

“What was most significant was the willingness for people to start the conversation,” Melissa Holmes, Sharon development director, said. “We’re having conversations in a collaborative place about needing a facility for more collaboration.”

Moreira and James also declared themselves pleased with the session.

“I’m so impressed by the sense of community here,” James said. “We’re lucky to be able to come to this evolving community and help in any way that we can. It’s exciting.”

Added Moreira, “I saw a lot of excitement in people, but I also saw something else — a lot of hope. People have hope that this area is changing, that their neighborhoods can change, that their businesses can get better.”

Pictured at top: Kelly James and Terry Doloughty are small-business specialists from the Mansmann Foundation.

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