For volunteers at Greater Aiken SCORE, life is all about getting small businesses off the ground.
SCORE is a nonprofit organization that provides free business counseling, advisory boards and workshops to small-business owners.
“It’s good for Aiken because people who want to start or grow small businesses sometimes have nowhere to start,” said Leslie Whelchel-Mathews, a business counselor with Greater Aiken SCORE. “They don’t have a business plan or understand marketing – the basics. They also haven’t done the homework to see if there’s a need for it or if people are doing it successfully or unsuccessfully.”
SCORE assists local small-business owners in a variety of ways. Small business seminars are held monthly in Aiken and North Augusta on a wide range of business topics taught by professionals. Volunteer advisory boards for existing businesses provide a confidential way to get non-binding feedback from SCORE volunteers. Confidential counseling for business owners is also provided.
There is no fee or specific requirement for small-business owners to take advantage of SCORE. Whelchel-Mathews said people should “just ask” if they want assistance by filling out a simple online form.
Greater Aiken SCORE covers territory outside of Aiken County. According to John Carman – another volunteer counselor – the Aiken chapter also assists the Aiken-Augusta area and parts of four South Carolina counties and eight Georgia counties.
“We’re the all-volunteer arm of the SBA (Small Business Administration),” Carman said.
Volunteers in SCORE generally have a wealth of business experience. Carman said they are also looking for people who can be “empathetic” to their clients.
“As a SCORE volunteer, you typically bring a wealth of experience and a network of other folks who are also experienced or might be able to advance the business idea,” Carman said.
Both Carman and Whelchel-Mathews became involved with SCORE after finding they still had the energy and passion for business work, without wanting to actually go back to an office.
“We moved to Aiken … and I realized you can only ride your horse for so long,” Whelchel-Mathews said.
“Or people realize they can only play golf for so long,” Carman said.
The benefits of having a volunteer organization include a vast network of people that can help small-business owners improve their success or get their ideas off the ground. According to Carman, a recent survey showed that the average SCORE volunteer belonged to three to five different volunteer organizations.
In Aiken, SCORE partners heavily with the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce.
“The chamber is a great partner,” Carman. “… They’re so great that sometimes we have to explain that we’re not a part of the chamber. We reach people in ways the chamber doesn’t have the resources to reach, typically those who are getting started or thinking about getting started.”
They also frequently meet with high school and college students who have small-business ideas. Whelchel-Mathews said the first piece of advice is for them to always finish their degree first.
They also want to see small businesses grow in Aiken, but that comes with its own set of challenges.
“Our greatest challenge is to expand to fulfill the CSRA’s demands without losing our identity as Greater Aiken SCORE,” Whelchel-Mathews said. “… What we want to do is broaden, not change fundamentally.”
Aside from getting people aware of SCORE as a free resource, they are also working with the FDA to assist small farmers in South Carolina.
“Rural community business is not strictly farming, and a lot of people aren’t aware of that,” Whelchel-Matthews said.
As a nonprofit, Greater Aiken SCORE relies on donations to help provide resources to small-business owners. Carman said that hasn’t really been a problem, given that Aiken is a “generous” community.
“It’s much more giving than other places I have lived,” Carman said. “The community has been very willing to contribute to the activities the SCORE members are involved with.”
For more information about Greater Aiken SCORE, visit greateraiken.score.org.
Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.