Last month, BumbleBerry Farms of Somerset, a fledgling business that makes edible honey and honey-based skin care products, held its first board advisory meeting on the Chatham University campus in Shadyside.
Company founder Karen Mosholder made the hour-and-15-minute trip from Somerset County and was joined by three of the board mentors assigned to BumbleBerry through a peer mentoring program at Chatham's Center for Women's Entrepreneurship.
Ms. Mosholder's fourth mentor, Debra Le-Blanc, joined the meeting via laptop from her office in Houston.
"It was an interesting challenge," said Ms. LeBlanc, a software consultant. "I watched the presentation, and through [Karen's] laptop and a projector, the others could see me ... but I think they forgot I was there. The flow was not right."
That's one of the risks of conducting business with some people in the room and others connected virtually. But despite a rough start, Ms. LeBlanc is confident the kinks can be worked out by the next time BumbleBerry's board convenes.
More importantly, she said, the meeting ignited a number of ideas she plans to offer as feedback for improving BumbleBerry's website and she's already referred Ms. Mosholder to a farmer in France who, via email exchanges, is helping the new entrepreneur figure out how to add lavender to BumbleBerry's product mix.
"If we get the cadence right and manage the technology, things can happen when people engage," said Ms. LeBlanc, 50, a Chatham graduate recruited to participate in the MyBoard mentoring program because of her strong ties to the school, including a recent three-year term on its alumni board of directors.
The goal of the MyBoard virtual platform is to allow mentors and those they are helping to post and exchange information on a communal website where they also can conduct live meetings -- even if everyone in the group is based in the Pittsburgh region, said Rebecca Harris, director of Chatham's Center for Women's Entrepreneurship.
"The point is to look at the interactive technology," she said. "If there are certain times a mentee and mentors can meet in person, that's great. But there could be one-hour travel time to and from meetings. So this gives them flexibility to schedule meetings when they want and maximize their time."
Launched in January, the program is funded by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, the Alcoa Foundation and Bridgeway Capital. More than 40 mentors -- men and women -- have signed on to advise 10 women-owned businesses for a year.
Through the MyBoard technology, the budding entrepreneur schedules and distributes agendas for meetings that can be held in-person or remotely. The technology also links to an online community Chatham already had in place, CWE Connect, that has a library, chat groups, webinars and other resources.
By matching seasoned mentors with less experienced entrepreneurs, Chatham hopes to help grow more women-owned enterprises in southwestern Pennsylvania, Ms. Harris said.
"The mentors have taken the risk. They are business owners and finance people who can help the mentees work through some tough decisions. Women in small business feel very isolated, and that's a problem."
According to data from the National Women's Business Council, women launch businesses at almost twice the rate men do. But many fail to grow in terms of sales and employees and flounder before they reach $1 million in revenues, Ms. Harris said. "That stability mark of $1 million is when you can breathe."
For Ms. Mosholder, 52, a former high school English teacher, doing business virtually isn't new. Prior to launching her honey production company in 2011, she was a consultant for DeVilbiss Healthcare, a respiratory products manufacturer that has a facility in Somerset but executives in places such as Chicago and Boulder, Colo., with whom she worked virtually.
"They have people spread all over the world. So I've had some experience with that," she said.
But it's been old-fashioned, hands-on sweat equity rather than virtual communications that has fueled growth of her current venture. For the capital to invest in bee hives, bottling tanks and other supplies, Ms. Mosholder pitched a business plan to a community bank, Somerset Trust Co., and obtained a line of credit.
Working out of her home -- which sits on 7 acres where she also maintains her bee colonies -- Ms. Mosholder studied properties of honey and bee populations while she experimented with different formulas to create her product line. In addition to pure honey, she produces flavored cream spreads such as Mayan honey cocoa and body care products such as honey lip balm and bath salts.
Two part-time employees help tend the bee hives and bottle and label the products, which are sold at Whole Foods stores in the Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., and New York markets; Marty's Market in the Strip District; Omni Bedford Springs and Nemacolin Woodlands resorts; and in a cafe at Fallingwater, Fayette County.
Through a class for women entrepreneurs that she attended at Chatham in 2012, she learned about the MyBoard program and was selected as one of the inaugural participants.
"This program really gives me the opportunity to tap the best resources available no matter where they are," Ms. Mosholder said. "My [mentors] are helping me define who I am, what my message will be and what my next step is to grow the business. I'm hoping they help me figure out the financial piece of how to seek other funding and put together a really solid presentation ... to take it to the next level."
Another participant, Kate Romane, 36, held her first mentors meeting in late February at E2, the restaurant she owns in Highland Park. All the mentors were present in person.
"We all ate dinner together here ... and we outlined what we're going to do. It was very constructive," she said.
"It's hard. You have to open up and tell people the vulnerable parts of the business. But I was thrilled. The more help I can get, the better."
Ms. Romane has worked for several other restaurateurs but has been a sole proprietor for only 18 months.
Her business goals, she said, are to develop employee incentives, grow off-site event catering and create a clear identity for the restaurant, which uses locally produced ingredients as often as it can.
"The local food movement is very trendy. We don't want to stamp it on everything we do, but we want people to know we do it," she said.
Her advisory board includes an attorney, a communications professional, an event planner and a representative from the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority whom she hopes will help with issues surrounding the building in which E2 operates.
Career and business advisers say virtual mentoring is a natural given the amount of time people spend connecting on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs and other Web tools. And it might help cash-strapped entrepreneurs establish valuable relationships without the cost of travel and meals.
"It allows individuals to garner advice from a wider pool of mentors in their field ... and makes for an adequate substitution for the more traditional method of face-to-face mentoring," said Heather Huhman, president of Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm Come Recommended.
Ms. Romane's mentoring group will use MyBoard for communicating and sharing information. But, "We agreed it was easier for us to meet in person," she said. "Plus I make meatballs, and there's always free coffee here."
Joyce Gannon: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1580. First Published March 24, 2013 4:00 AM