Mentors power American Dreams

March 22, 2017 | GET MORE : Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

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U.S. Bank mentors helped entrepreneurs pitch their ideas in HSN's Project American Dreams competition.

Just before Kat Wilkinson-Smith and her husband prepared to pitch their invention on Home Shopping Network, Wilkinson-Smith was overcome with nervousness and froze.

"You’re going to be all right," soothed Linda Escorcia Norquist (pictured above, right), a U.S. Bank small business specialist from Phoenix. "You got this! Think of this like talking to a patient."

To Wilkinson-Smith, a registered nurse in Dallas, that tidbit of advice made all the difference. She and husband, James Smith, made their pitch to the HSN judges in front of a phalanx of bright lights and cameras, while Escorcia Norquist looked on. Their Giraffe razor extension handle was a hit.

"In the corner of my eye I saw her and I made eye contact with her," Wilkinson-Smith said. "I was on a roll and the look on her face…

"Like a proud parent," interjected her husband.

"It was such a wonderful feeling. We feel very fortunate to have her," Wilkinson-Smith said.

Escorcia Norquist is one of five U.S. Bank mentors to coach entrepreneurs who competed in Project American Dreams, the first Hispanic-focused business contest on national television. Out of nearly 100 entrepreneurs who applied to be featured on HSN, five were selected to showcase their products before 94 million viewers in March 2017.

To prepare for the first round of pitches to a panel of judges, the bank mentors counseled 17 entrepreneurs on a wide variety of topics and questions that the business owners selected. The questions ranged from how to better market their products, how to prepare to apply for a loan, what different funding sources exist and how to get the most from professional service providers such as lawyers and accountants.

"Every day we see business owners coming in and they have the same issues. They have to have somebody walking them through it," said mentor Alejandro "Alex" Saucedo (pictured above, left), a former U.S. Bank branch manager in Chicago who now is a private banker in the bank's wealth management group. "An accountant may have 50 clients or more, so do you think they can spend a ton of time on your business?"

That was certainly the case for one of the Project American Dream competitors.  When he was working with Escorcia Norquist, she asked him what his sales were and where were they coming from?

"I don’t know," he said. "My accountant does all that."

Escorcia Norquist explained that no business would succeed if the owner didn’t know who its customers are and how much it sold each month or quarter.

"As a business owner, you need to know where you are and how to read a financial statement," she said.

To help the women's accessories seller better understand his business, she coached him on the basics of how to read a cash flow statement, balance sheet and a profit and loss statement.

"He discovered a lot of things he didn’t know about his business," she said. "And [he found a new accountant the next day]. It's worth it to spend money on a good accountant and a good lawyer."

Leslie Wilson, who invented the Glam-n-Go hair bun with partner Victoria Flores, said the financial education the investors received from the U.S. Bank mentors was a helpful reminder of business fundamentals.

"We’ve been in business five years but it’s always good to have a refresher," Wilson said.

For Wilkinson-Smith and her husband, the Giraffe razor owners, the mentoring from U.S. Bank affirmed decisions they had made such as signing up to be listed with credit database Dun & Bradstreet.

"We are sincere when we say that behind every great company, there are people like at U.S. Bank that make that company what it is," Wilkinson-Smith said. "They are so passionate about what they do."