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American football meets the American dream: Packers Protege celebrates 13th graduation tonight

Sara Parthasarathy. Photo supplied.

This story first appeared in the Blueprint365 Magazine. Click here to request a copy.

Indian cooking isn’t just about adding curry.

“It’s actually about layering of spices and doing a flavor building process,” says Sara Parthasarathy, co-founder of Madison-based Flavor Temptations.

Launched in 2013, Flavor Temptations offers premeasured spices and recipes to cook authentic, restaurant-quality Indian cuisine at home. Home cooks can order spice kits online, or find them at a number of grocery stores in the Madison area. Additionally, Flavor Temptations contracts with about 30 school districts across the country as school nutrition is trending toward fresh ingredients and higher quality food.

“A lot of school districts are very, very interested in exploring new flavors, getting kids to try things out, and preparing them for the world outside once they graduate,” Parthasarathy says.

Even with a decade of success under their belt, the Flavor Temptations team – which consists of Parthasarathy and her husband – are always looking for new ways to grow the business. With that in mind, they connected with a unique mentorship program through one of the most recognized brands in the state – the Green Bay Packers.

The Packers Protege program will celebrate its 13th graduation this afternoon at Lambeau Field.

Packers Protege started in 2012 when the team – one of the major economic drivers in Northeast Wisconsin – identified supply chain diversification as a priority. They retained AFF Research to help with that process – and it was a good fit.

“My husband is from Wisconsin and a huge Packer fan. We moved here for the Packers,” says Anna Steinfest, President and CEO of AFF and administrator of the Packers Protege program. 

Steinfest said the Packers have always been committed to supporting diverse businesses, but it’s challenging, considering the location.

“The commitment has always been there,” she says. “The problem is here the demographics do not support too much (diversity). Like 80% of our population here is not diverse.”

Steinfest and the Packers alike recognized they had the ability to make an impact, and actually create a more diverse business community across the state.

“A good supplier diversity program has to have a capacity building component to make sure that the large companies who want to hire diverse companies have a large pool of diverse companies they can select from,” Steinfest says. “If you don’t have this pool of diverse businesses, you will not be able to provide the opportunity. So we are literally bringing these diverse businesses to the same table as the rest.”

Steinfest said 80 percent of the businesses that go through Packer Protege are owned by people of color, women, veterans, or members of the LGBTQ+ community. The program works with businesses across Wisconsin.

The Packers Protege is unusual in that it follows a cohort model – meaning a group of businesses enter the program together, meeting several times over the course of a year for what they called “scrimmages” (yes, at Lambeau Field), but the bulk of the program focuses on one-on-one mentoring.

For Flavor Temptations, that meant getting mentorship from executives at the Milwaukee-based life insurance and financial services company Northwestern Mutual.

The fact that they didn’t get paired with a mentor in the food service industry is intentional, Steinfest says.

“We don’t like matching the same industries,” she says. “When you combine different industries, innovation happens. That is a very important premise and foundation of this program.”

At the beginning of each cohort is a “draft day,” when mentors are matched with protege businesses, based on the needs of the protege and the expertise of the mentor.

“Other mentor-protege programs on the market, they’re more like an automated match. And it’s not going in, diving into what really are their needs,” Steinfest says. As a result, she adds, “We have very few divorces.”

The mentors from Northwestern Mutual encouraged Parthasarathy to look to institutional customers beyond the K-12 education market, and even introduced her to some wholesalers in the food service and hospitality space, which could become Flavor Temptations’ next growth opportunity.

Bryan Shwebke, owner of Paramount Physical Therapy, had a similar outcome. His physical therapy practice in the Green Bay area was doing well, but customer churn is more or less built into the business model.

“My job as a physical therapist is to get people out my door,” he says. “They come in, I want to empower them and then get them to leave.”

Bryan Shwebke. Photo supplied.

Which is great for the patient, but not so good for business.

He had already started taking on some corporate clients, providing “luxury” physical therapy and ergonomics to keep workforces healthy and happy. His mentor in the Packers program picked up on the opportunity there.

“When the Packer Protege program started, they basically said, ‘This is where you need to be,’” he recalls. Now, he’s looking to expand that corporate business, because it’s a much steadier source of revenue.

“For me it was… getting that outside feedback, and helping me course-correct and find some better focus,” he says. “I’m always trying to surround myself with people that are better than me to elevate me, challenge me, push me.”

The Packer Protege program has Paramount Physical Therapy poised to expand, Schwebke says.

“As I look at expanding into Madison, and then the goal of getting into Milwaukee and Appleton and even outside of the state, (Packers Protege) will provide the foundation for me to go into these areas and have something that I can start before I’m even in there and grow off of.”

What Katie Oilschlager learned in Packers Protege was more internal.

Katie Oilschlager. Photo supplied.

“I needed some additional mentoring on growing the business and being able to grow a team,” says Oilschlager, owner of Think Pawsitive Dog Training in Waukesha. People come to the 34,000-square-foot from the Waukesha County area for regular dog training classes, and others come from far and wide for higher level athletic training.

Operating a facility that large and managing a team of 27 people – 12 full time and 15 part time – is what she needed help with. Her mentor helped her rethink how she structures and manages that team.

“We worked a lot through those individual meetings about team building structure, my team accountability,” she says. “Having 34,000 square feet, being able to put those down to departments, and then having my team be accountable for them. And then, rather than me going to every staff member – which is what I was doing prior to being in the program – really just having meetings and accountability pieces with my managers has helped me.”

Oilschlager has been through mentoring programs with the Small Business Administration and the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Corporation, and says the Packers Protege has some unique qualities.

“Both the individual mentor piece and the scrimmage really pushed you out of your comfort zone to help you solve or be on the right track to solve a problem,” she says. “It’s almost more coaching than it was mentoring … not that they were giving you answers, but they really just helped you along the way … Everybody is so willing to just help you. And if you have an issue that if one can’t answer it, the other is, you know, someone will say, well, let’s get you in touch with so and so.”

All of the participants say the Packers brand adds something special to the experience.

“Everything’s a little bit stepped up when you have your meetings at Lambeau,” Schwebke says. “There’s just some weight behind it.”

“The brand was also important to us because my son, and now my daughter too, are tremendous Packer fans,” Parthasarathy says. “”I think the Packers are really committed to supporting small businesses, and that’s really exciting to see.”

Steinfest, who’s been working with the Packers for more than 10 years now, sees that commitment, too.

“The Packers always have been very focused on creating a better business environment,” she says. “They completely understand that more than American football is the American dream, and a lot of the business owners we do have the American dream to succeed. They fully support that dream.”