Coach-mentors help get entrepreneurs up and running

You want to “give back” to the community in a meaningful way. And while it’s nice to paint someone’s house or pick up litter or collect food for the hungry, that doesn’t quite work for you. Instead, you’d like to share some of the skills that have made the difference for you, professionally.

The Coach: Business Mentorship Project, a program of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay’s Volunteer Action Center in partnership with about a half-dozen nonprofits engaged in community development, is a vehicle for doing just that. “One-on-one support can often make the difference whether a business succeeds or not,” says Ilana Schatz, director of the volunteer center.

Coach acts like a shadchan, a Jewish matchmaker, pairing successful professionals with fledgling entrepreneurs.

The “coaches” range from young professionals to retirees, but all share a desire to help others and a strong connection to the Jewish community.

Michael Levy, retired vice president of Levi Strauss and an active member of Oakland’s Temple Sinai, is working with Karen Schwartz, the co-founder of a San Leandro women’s apparel company. “I advised her on handling personnel, working with manufacturers — what to ask them, what things to look out for … We’ve met many times, in person,” since the beginning of the year, he said.

Levy was recruited by Coach coordinator Tova Rabinowitz, who is pleased that the program is “starting to get some momentum going,” with a small but strong corps of volunteers and a good working relationship with its partners. “We’re getting to the place where the partnering agencies are requesting names” of mentors they want, she said.

Karen Schwartz, the co-founder of ContourWear, said Levy has been helpful in everything from negotiating with contractors to learning about financing. “It’s worked out perfectly.” In August she and partner Julie Liveris launched their business, manufacturing women’s active- and travelwear made of high-tech fabrics.

It was through Nicole Levine at the Oakland Business Development Corporation that Schwartz was connected to Coach and Levy. “It was really funny,” she said. “It was three Jewish people, networking.”

For Jori Carmel of Lafeyette, a brief item in the Temple Isaiah newsletter set things in motion. “It caught me when I had a little bit of time to give back to the community,” she said. The owner and executive director of Creative Learning Center preschool in Alamo, Carmel, who has developed educational programs and “built schools from scratch,” was paired with Tamar Ragir, a math instructor who wanted to build up her business, Learning Advantage Tutoring.

“I was in the first year of running my business and felt like I could use a little help,” said Ragir, who is Jewish.

The two reviewed Ragir’s brochure and worked to develop a more focused marketing plan, said Carmel, who remains available for follow-up assistance. “It made me feel good to impart some of my 30-plus years of experience.”

Ragir found “what was really helpful to me was just knowing that she was there.”

Then there’s Ben Marcus, a busy commercial real estate agent and attorney with a retail background that includes “running my own [espresso] shops for a number of years.” He helped a couple with an Oakland coffee shop expand to a second location and negotiate a lease, among other things. “It was a perfect match,” he said. “I was able to give them a lot of information.” Now he’s working with the owner of a coffee shop in the Fruitvale area, “helping her move her business identity.”

No stranger to volunteering, Marcus, an Oakland resident who is married with three children, oversees building maintenance for Beth Jacob Congregation’s rabbi’s residence.

Coach is seeking additional mentors as well. “We really want to encourage anyone who has a strong business background to approach us,” said Rabinowitz. She especially needs volunteers who can speak Spanish or Asian languages, she added, to work with the agencies that serve the immigrant community.

To volunteer, contact Tova Rabinowitz at (510) 839-2900, ext. 266, or e-mail coach@jfed.org.

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Liz Harris

Liz Harris is J.'s arts and supplements editor. She can be reached at liz@jweekly.com.