When I was offered the opportunity to serve as a mentor to the Georgian Small and Medium Enterprises Association through CIPE’s KnowHow program, I jumped at it. Earlier I spent a couple of months in the Republic of Georgia, working with two other emerging associations, and fell in love with the country, its history, its culture, its people, and its potential.
Strategically located between Asia and Europe, with Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan to the south, the Caucasus Mountains to the north, and with glorious port towns bordering on the Black Sea to the west, Georgia represents an important opportunity for international investment. It’s a country poised to blossom as an important market partner, but to do so a stronger internal business community is needed. Under the leadership of Kakha Kokhreidze, President CEO of the GSMEA, that community is gaining strength.
While I didn’t hesitate for a minute to agree to do my best as a mentor, I wasn’t sure what that would mean. What I did know was that any mentoring relationship depends on regular communication, so my first step was to schedule a Skype call to introduce myself to Kakha and his teammates, and to listen to them describe what GSMEA was doing, what they were struggling with, and what they were succeeding at.
No two organizations have the same needs, or the same challenges. To make a contribution I knew I would have to understand what was needed. I already knew that emerging businesses in the country struggled with:
- Infrastructure issues – transportation and roads outside of the capital, Tbilisi, are in need of repair
- Corporate tax treatment of emerging business
- At best a fuzzy plan on the part of the central government to put in place policies that would nurture small and medium business and support the development of the economy
- A long history of “outside” help that has to some extent undermined the idea of individuals working together to improve business conditions for themselves
What I wanted to know was where GSMEA was in its planning, and what it had established as its priorities. What I found on that first call was an extremely bright, committed, and open executive, Kakha, who had already made major strides to begin to build the association and build visibility for it in government and the media.
A planner by nature, I suggested that we frame a strategic and tactical plan as a point of reference to focus and evaluate the association’s efforts, and I agreed to draft a structure for the plan.
We also agreed to schedule a Skype call at the same time each week – early in the morning for me, at the tail end of the day for Kakha and his colleagues. Sometimes our call is informal and rambling – a “catch up” on developments in the past week. Sometimes our conversations focus on specific issues that Kakha is considering. And sometimes we end up cancelling altogether, overtaken by conflicting schedules, or when weather over the Atlantic degrades the quality of the call and makes it impossible to communicate. But by committing to the regular communication, we are able to keep the lines open.
In between calls, I scan U.S. associations and chambers, the U.S. Small Business Administration, and others organizations for ideas and initiatives that might “translate” for Georgia.
Last September, CIPE made it possible for Kakha to attend association training in Washington, DC, along with other representatives from KnowHow mentee associations. This gave us the opportunity to spend time together and solidify our our friendship and our ability to communicate.
The mission of the GSMEA is to “Advocate common interests of the business community, aiming to improve the business environment and increase competitiveness and productivity of Georgia’s private sector.” Under Kakha’s impressive leadership, and with a little help from friends in the United States, and in Europe, it’s exciting to see how the association is moving forward on their mission.
Just last month, for example, after lengthy discussions and many visits by Kakha and members of his board, the Georgian Government passed a resolution to create a Council on tax disputes within the Ministry of Finance of Georgia, comprised of the Minister, as Chair, but including representatives of the Executive Government, the Parliament of Georgia and the business sector. Kakha was named a member of the Council, giving the association an influential role in looking out for the best interests of the SME sector in Georgia.
It’s always gratifying to see an association grow and develop and to feel that you’ve been of some help. But it’s especially so in an emerging economy where the very idea of a voluntary membership association is new, and where the association is having a real impact on the people and the country that it serves. Kakha has said that it’s great to have a mentor – I would say that it’s even better to be one, and to have a ring-side seat at the creation of democracy!
KnowHow Mentorship connects associations around the world with the know-how they need to be a force for change. If you have experience in association management and would like to mentor a growing business association in a developing country, or if you are a business association looking for advice from an experienced professional in the United States, visit the KnowHow Mentorship website.