Twenty-four years ago, when she was 14, Lena Fafard's fate seemed sealed. The eighth grader was a repeat runaway who rarely attended school and hung out with a dangerous crowd in Pasadena.

If they met her today, none of her old friends would believe she was the same person they knew. A few months ago, Fafard, along with two partners, sold their recruiting and employment agency to a much larger Torrance-based company. When they sold out last June, the company was the fifth-largest placement firm in Los Angeles, with annual revenues of $4.5 million.

Fafard attributes her personal achievements to having a series of mentors who steered her in the right direction and drastically changed her life.

Mentoring is a hot new trend in business now, with dozens of non-profit organizations, social-service programs and corporate initiatives focusing their mentoring objectives on shepherding "mentees" into entrepreneurship.

Mentoring is also creating new consulting opportunities, such as personal coaching and mentors-for-hire. Roz Relin, president of Dial-A-Mentor in New York City, was working as a communications, marketing and public relations consultant when she realized she was also providing clients with strategic career and life planning advice.

"What I bring to my clients is not my success but what I've done wrong, what I've learned from my mistakes," said Relin, who uses her expertise in building client relationships and customer service to mentor small-business owners.

Relin has been mentoring Ellen Sills-Levy since 1983. Sills-Levy, founder, president and CEO of Strategic Surveys International in Manhattan, said she considers the fees she pays Relin to be "not an expense but a huge investment in growth." Relin charges between $100 and $125 an hour.

"I always call her for advice on business and personal matters," said Sills-Levy, whose firm provides competitive intelligence and market research for clients. She said the most important thing a mentor offers is a different perspective on life and business.

While Sills-Levy pays for help, Fafard's first life-changing mentor belonged to the Big Sisters of Pasadena. She said her volunteer Big Sister showed her the possibility of a better life she never knew existed. "I was on the wrong track, and the Big Sisters pulled me back," Fafard recalled. "They kind of slapped me in the face and said, 'Make changes or you are going to wind up dead.' "

At 16, she enrolled in the Job Corps, a federal program in Phoenix modeled on military boot camp. There, Fafard earned her GED in 11 months and received basic clerical and business training.

Fafard's family did not allow her to move back home, so after Job Corps, the teen-ager used her new skills to support herself. A chance meeting led to a job as a salesperson and personal assistant to Nancy Lee, owner of Mother Goose Distributors, whose family owned Lee Press-On Nails.

"Her mentoring and teaching were the pivotal influence in business in my life," said Fafard, who managed Lee's personal and business finances. When Fafard's marriage didn't work out, Lee also provided Fafard with a place to live.

Fafard used her training by Lee to enter the executive recruiting and personnel field, where she flourished. In 1991, after a year with a new firm, Fafard resigned to create her own company, but her boss convinced her to become a partner and create a new division.

Her division, which placed information technology professionals, became the most successful one in the company. Fafard continues to head her division for the company.

"People need to know that mentoring does work," said Fafard, who now tells her story to junior high school students and encourages her friends and colleagues to do the same.

Mentoring was a key issue discussed at the recent Women's Economic Summit held at the University of Maryland in mid-October. "This is the first time in history that women are entering the workforce as entrepreneurs," said Jolene Godfrey, CEO of Independent Means Inc., a Santa Barbara-based firm that provides economic empowerment and educational programs for young women. "It is the first time in history we are preparing a generation of girls to start businesses."

A highlight of the conference was when Independent Means Inc. announced the winners of its National Business Plan Competition. Winners included Meghan Ann Ellwanger, 15, of Somerset, Wis., who started her own goat milk dairy to produce lactose-free milk products in her parents' backyard. Alicia Malik, 16, presented a plan for the Riveting Renovation Society, a company that would convert vandalized and abandoned inner-city property into low-income housing in her hometown of Detroit. Both young women attributed much of their success to being mentored.

"Mentoring is happening all over," said Judy Framan, president of Framan & Smith Communications, an Albuquerque consulting firm that works with Independent Means. "It's the only way we're going to get things turned around with the young kids in this country."

Although not billed as a mentoring program, the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) provides small-business owners with free expert consulting, while the SBA also provides a mentoring program for women entrepreneurs. Contact SCORE through your local SBA office or visit its Web site at www.score.org.

Women Inc., a national association for women, sponsors the Women Presidents' Organization, an executive mentoring program in which successful business owners meet monthly to share ideas and solve problems. For more information, call Women Inc. at (212) 818-9424.

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Jane Applegate is a syndicated columnist and author of "201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business." For more resources, visit jane@janeapplegate.com.

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