“SOS Experts on Demand” – crisis mentoring for struggling small business owners in Israel

For a young entrepreneur in crisis, a mentor who listens and supports with creative problem solving can make all the difference. To reach as many struggling entrepreneurs as possible with mentoring support during the COVID-19 crisis, our member in Israel, Keren Shemesh, set up an SOS mentoring digital platform. 

We caught up with Hagit Halperin, Director of Operations at Keren Shemesh, to find out more about their mentoring support as part of our Rapid Response and Recovery programme with Google.org

What is Keren Shemesh and what do you do? 

We are a non-profit organisation providing holistic support to small businesses in Israel, including business management and skills training for up to 1½ years. 

What kind of businesses do you support? 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic we focussed exclusively on young businesses, both in terms of the owners and the businesses themselves. But since the start of the pandemic, we have opened our doors to all small businesses in Israel worth up to 5 million Israeli shekels (ILS) – that’s how we define ‘small business’ – even if the business owner isn’t young or the business isn’t new. In May 2020, after the first Covid lockdown in Israel, we also started a new support programme for non-profit organisations (NGOs) and matched them with mentors because we noticed that many were struggling. 

How has COVID-19 affected micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in Israel? 

Let me start by saying that even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many small businesses in Israel’s major cities had gone through a digital transformation. Many businesses in downtown Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa weren’t doing so well for various reasons and were forced to transform into digital, which meant when the first COVID lockdown hit, they were prepared. Additionally, consumers actually purchased and spent more during the first lockdown, stocking up on products due to uncertainty. This was good for MSMEs.  

But the situation changed during the second lockdown when people realised the crisis was here to stay. That’s when they started to feel it impacting their income. At the same time, the Israeli government started a loan scheme for businesses in crisis, which gave them some breathing space, but wasn’t a long-term solution. As a result, during the third lockdown small businesses really began to struggle. They used up all their loans and savings, and that’s when we saw many small businesses closing and people left without jobs. 

Now, with the large-scale vaccine rollout in Israel, we are slowly seeing small businesses recovering and reopening. But sectors like the nightlife and tourism will still take a long time to recover and there is no investment in these businesses. In general, people are still hesitant to spend a lot of money. A recession is ahead. 

“For all young entrepreneurs and business owners… we found that the most important thing for them was to have someone who would listen to them. This is one of the main purposes of having a mentor.”

Why do you think that mentoring is important for young entrepreneurs, particularly in times of crisis? 

For all young entrepreneurs and business owners who came to Keren Shemesh for support during the COVID-19 crisis, we found that the most important thing for them was to have someone who would listen to them. This is one of the main purposes of having a mentor – someone you can call when you don’t know what to do and they will listen and share their experiences. Apart from listening, Keren Shemesh mentors also provided support on creative problem solving, whether it was to strengthen digital platforms or adapt products to reach new customers. 

How have you adapted your mentoring programme as part of the Rapid Response and Recovery programme with Google.org to meet the needs of struggling entrepreneurs? 

The first thing we did after the first lockdown was to create an SOS mentoring digital platform, “SOS Experts on Demand”, to quickly connect entrepreneurs with volunteer crisis mentors who have expertise in relevant fields like finance, government assistance, creative problem solving, and digitalisation. Entrepreneurs sign up to this platform giving details on their business and the kind of support they need and the system then matches them with a relevant mentor. We presented this platform at YBI’s Global Youth Entrepreneurship Festival last year and won the innovation award for it. Following our presentation at the festival, around 50 more mentors signed up to support struggling entrepreneurs via our platform, which was great. The second thing we did was reach out to our alumni; entrepreneurs who have completed our programmes, but don’t have a mentor anymore. We offered support to them. Thirdly, as I mentioned before, we extended our support to small business owners of all ages and started a new mentoring support programme for NGOs. 

In addition, we started offering two different mentoring models. The first one is the classic one-to-one long term mentoring relationship that lasts one and a half years. The second one is a mentoring community in which entrepreneurs can find mentors who can help them with specific problems or areas, such as finance or marketing, in a short-term consulting format. 

Can you give an example of a mentor who has helped a young entrepreneur through the COVID-19 crisis? 

I have many examples but one that stands out is a mentor who helped a carpenter from Tel Aviv come up with the idea of manufacturing foldable desks for people who suddenly had to work from home. The carpenter created three or four prototypes of these desks and presented them to big companies, which was very successful. This is a great example of a mentor helping an entrepreneur with creative problem solving which not only saved a small business but helped it grow. 

“The Rapid Response and Recovery programme with Google.org has opened many doors for us… the programme enabled us to expand the range and reach of our mentoring support to struggling entrepreneurs of all ages, as well as NGOs.”

What other support services have you offered as part of the Rapid Response and Recovery programme with Google.org? 

The Rapid Response and Recovery programme with Google.org has opened many doors for us. For example, we have been able to partner with another entrepreneurship support organisation in Israel that offers seminars on digital marketing to our entrepreneurs, and we are offering support to their entrepreneurs in return. It’s a great collaboration. And, as I outlined earlier, the programme enabled us to expand the range and reach of our mentoring support to struggling entrepreneurs of all ages, as well as NGOs. 

We are also receiving ongoing support from volunteer mentors from Google Israel. Recently, Google volunteer mentors offered one-to-one specialty consulting to our entrepreneurs in the financial sector. Next will be a seminar on marketing open to all Keren Shemesh entrepreneurs. 

What support are you offering to Israel’s MSMEs in 2021 to continue the COVID-19 recovery? 

We have taken all of our support services from 2020 into 2021 as many small business owners continue to face the same challenges. We are now also accepting entrepreneurs into our community who are looking for short-term specialist mentoring rather than long-term mentorship. Additionally, we are working on improving our training for both entrepreneurs and mentors, as well as creating organisational memory so that all the experience and knowledge we have accumulated in 2020 doesn’t get lost. Furthermore, we are working on setting up an alumni club. This idea was born at YBI’s business model innovation bootcamp which our CEO Monika Lev-Cohen attended in January 2020. We’ve also extended our geographical reach with new regional managers and are looking into expanding our partnerships with local communities, authorities and organisations to increase our impact. 

To find out more about Keren Shemesh’s work, visit their website

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