An Interview with John Engstrom: Maximizing the Mentor-Protégé Program

Written by
Tom Schmedding
Published on
22 January 2021

In our quest to explore the potential of the Mentor-Protégé Program, we had the privilege of interviewing John Engstrom, an experienced professional who has guided numerous small businesses through their journeys as a SBA Business Opportunity Specialist.

Engstrom shares valuable insights on how small businesses can identify mentors, benefit from their guidance, build relationships within the protégé community, and continuously improve their operations. Here are the highlights from our conversation (lightly edited for clarity):

Q: How do you identify and select your mentor? What qualities or criteria would you recommend considering while choosing a mentor?

A: As a protege, it’s essential to focus on the benefits you can gain from the mentorship. I recommend looking for mentors based on NAICS codes, seeking someone with expertise in the relevant field. Additionally, considering the mentor’s government certifications, such as 8a or HUBZone, is important. I suggest choosing a mentor who can help strengthen your weaknesses and conducting a SWOT analysis beforehand. This analysis will identify areas where you may need guidance, such as business development, technical expertise, or proposal writing.

Q: Can you share specific examples of how mentors have provided guidance or support that has been particularly helpful in a small business’ journey?

A: Regarding specific examples of how mentors provided guidance, I have found that mentors with past performance in a specific area are invaluable. For instance, if I’m pursuing a construction contract, having a mentor with a strong construction background allows me to leverage their past performance. I recall a situation where a small business had extensive service experience, but limited construction knowledge. In that case, she attended a short course on construction, which enabled her to pursue a contract with a larger partner. Together, they leveraged each other’s certifications (e.g., WOSB, SDVOSB) to win the contract.

Q: What strategies or approaches have you implemented to build and nurture relationships within the protege community or with other industry professionals?

A: From my perspective, it is important to attend conferences. SBA representatives help matchmake among proteges. Building rapport with firms and individuals is key to establishing a strong foundation for collaboration and support.

Q: Can you give examples where small businesses incorporated the knowledge gained through workshops, seminars, or training sessions into your business operations? How has this knowledge made a significant impact?

A: I have been actively involved in speaking engagements on behalf of the SBA, covering topics such as the viability of government contracting, the NPA/JV process, and the government contracting landscape for SDVOSBs. Small businesses have benefited from the knowledge shared in these workshops, which helped them better understand government contracting and make informed decisions.

Q: How should small businesses pursue government contracting through the SBA or other channels?

A: In my experience, I advise small businesses to start by exploring the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS) and attending demos to familiarize themselves with successful firms. Taking advantage of free business consultations available through platforms like the SBA website and seeking assistance from Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) in their local area is crucial. I recommend updating information on platforms like Dynamic Small Business Search to maximize visibility. Sending capability statements to various agencies and attending workshops are also valuable strategies for building relationships and finding opportunities.

Q: What have been some of the most significant challenges or setbacks you’ve seen proteges face, and how did they overcome them?

A: The challenges I’ve observed include selecting a mentor who may not meet their expectations or who does not last long in the mentorship. In such cases, my advice to proteges is to trust their instincts and avoid partnerships that do not feel comfortable. Another common challenge is when an 8a graduate finds it difficult to secure 8a contracts without a joint venture. Understanding the limitations and requirements of the 8a program is crucial in overcoming this challenge.

Q: How should small businesses continuously improve their business processes and operations?

A: I suggest that each firm seek advice from their assigned business specialist. Engaging with federal agencies, requesting reviews and explanations of areas for improvement, can also be beneficial. Seeking continuous improvement is key to success.

Q: What advice would you give to new proteges or aspiring entrepreneurs looking to make the most of the SBA program? Are there any specific strategies or practices that you believe have been instrumental to your success?

A: My advice to new proteges and aspiring entrepreneurs is to take advantage of the free training opportunities available. I also emphasize the importance of being involved in the certification application process and not relying solely on others to complete the work. Talking about compatibility and trust with a mentor is crucial. It’s essential to ensure that the mentorship is a mutually beneficial partnership.

Interested in learning more about the SBA’s Mentor-Protege program? Our experts can help.