Education

Fresno State business mentors slow 'brain drain'

Plenty of college grads leave Fresno after graduation, adding to a "brain drain" that worries Valley business leaders. But one little program is making a dent in that problem.

Students enrolled in Fresno State's entrepreneur mentor program are finding they develop so many contacts and grow their fledgling businesses so much that they'd be taking a step backward if they left town.

Those businesses are small, and the program only takes 20 students a year. But many of them are opting to stay in Fresno and continue their businesses, and experts say that contributes to job creation and a healthier economy.

The program is a three-unit class offered by the Lyles Center for Innovation & Entrepreneurship, an academic unit that offers workshops for community members and classes for students working on their business administration degrees.

Nancy Kobata, the office manager and head of the mentor program, said she sees attitudes about Fresno change as students go through the program.

"Almost all of our young people consider leaving town because they think that's the only way they can get ahead," she said. "This program shows them there is opportunity in the Central Valley because they develop a whole networking group."

The program, in its sixth year, is more formal and intensive than comparable efforts at other entrepreneurship schools. It pairs students with professionals in the area, including developers, lawyers and the founders of major companies. Mentors are required to meet with their students at least once a month.

Students get access to all the mentors in the program, who help them deal with everything from employment law questions to finding a manufacturer for a prototype, said Fresno bankruptcy attorney Riley Walter, vice chairman of the Lyles Center advisory board.

It's not unusual for a mentor to say: "Here's the name of in Shanghai, tell him I sent you," Walter said.

Reason to stay

Kenny Borg, 21, came from Long Beach to Fresno State to play football. He always thought he would return home after graduation. But now, with two thriving businesses, Borg plans on staying in town.

"I'm building a huge network of all these established businessmen in Fresno, but it's in Fresno," said Borg, who will graduate in May. "I can't really just leave -- and leave that all behind."

Borg started casual clothing business WallStreet Clothing in high school, but his primary focus in college was football. After tearing a ligament in his knee for the second time as a defensive end in December, he gave up football and returned his focus to the business.

The company sells its casual clothing online at wallstreet1929.com. He also founded Decade Screen Printing last summer. The business prints T-shirts and other promotional items for local companies.

Since starting the entrepreneur mentor program at the beginning of September, Borg said the number of clients at his screen printing company has jumped from 10 to 28.

Mentors have helped him get those orders and are in the process of connecting him to local retailers he hopes will sell his clothes.

"There's mentors who can pick up the phone and call five stores in Fresno and set up five meetings," he said. "To try to get into stores with no connections is really hard to do. It's nearly impossible."

The mentor program also takes students on three field trips to companies like Ruiz Foods in Dinuba. It's often an eye-opening experience because students don't realize there are large, thriving companies in the Valley, Kobata said.

"It's just a shift in their thinking that we see as they realize that you can achieve your dreams and your goals right here in the Central Valley," she said.

Persuading students to stay in town after graduation -- or return after years of living somewhere else -- is a goal of local economic development officials.

Last winter, several of them placed ads in the Fresno Yosemite International Airport aimed at persuading young professionals to return to the area.

Young people cross Fresno off their list for a variety of reasons, including a lack of high-paying jobs and a preference for life in a faster-paced city, said Travis Sheridan, director of member services for the Central Valley Incubator/Small Business Development Center.

"When the economy turns around, we may not have the talent here to start filling some of those jobs that are part of the recovered economy," he said.

And if outside executives see talent fleeing Fresno, they are less likely to locate a business here, he said.

But if students stay here and create their own businesses, those businesses will eventually create jobs and have a positive effect on the local economy, Sheridan said.

Creating jobs

One company run by a graduate of the entrepreneur mentor program has created three part-time jobs in Fresno, in addition to the owner's job.

Zingo, a franchise, sends its employees on small, folding motorbikes to pick up customers too drunk to drive home. The bike goes in the customer's trunk and the Zingo employee drives the car -- and the customer -- home.

Kaleb Schneider, 26, of Fresno runs Zingo here. He went through the mentor program and graduated from Fresno State in 2008. He once considered moving to Chicago after graduation, but the business kept him here.

Schneider said he doesn't think he would have the same network of contacts if he started from scratch in Chicago.

Another company run by two other students, A1 Recreation, is thriving enough to support four full-time jobs during the summer and several part-time contractors.

The Clovis-based company was founded by Chris Callison, 35, who partners with Sean Flannery, 22. They rent boats, jet skis and ATVs for use at nearby lakes.

Flannery, a senior from San Diego, wasn't sure where he wanted to go after graduation. But once he got involved in A1 Recreation, the answer was obvious.

"I really want to stay so I can pursue this opportunity and see this business grow," said Flannery, who will graduate next year. "I see a big market, especially here in the Valley."

The business, now seven years old, does between 30 and 40 rentals in a typical summer week, Flannery said.

Flannery and Callison are making pitches to investors with whom they connected through the mentor program.

And Callison, who will graduate in December, continues to bounce ideas off his mentors.

"Even though you're out of program, you're never really out of the program," Flannery said.

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