Paying it Forward

Barnett Helzberg, Jr. improves Kansas City businesses through his mentoring organization, HEMP.

Story by Kalsey McCall  |  Photos by Rivas Media Photography

Barnett Helzberg, Jr. believes in paying it forward. As the founder of The Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program (HEMP), Helzberg Jr. has been helping area businesses grow and gain wisdom for decades through mentoring and networking relationships engineered by HEMP.

Founded in 1995, HEMP matches seasoned, successful entrepreneur mentors with less experienced entrepreneur mentees. HEMP’s goal is to foster organic one-on-one business relationships between business owners, new and old, offering multiple opportunities for networking with experienced entrepreneurs and the development of solid business decision-making skills thanks to advice and guidance from top CEOs in the community.

Barnett Helzberg, Jr. receiving a standing ovation at HEMP’s 20th anniversary celebration.

Helzberg Jr. has a plethora of business expertise in the Kansas City community—some might say he was born into it. Though now he is retired from the company, Helzberg Jr. spent many years as the owner and president of Helzberg Diamonds.

The family business flourished from the time Helzberg Jr.’s grandfather opened the first Helzberg Diamonds storefront on Minnesota Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1915, and the store was passed down through the generations. Helzberg Jr. began learning the trade as the young age of 15, tagging merchandise and eventually working as a salesman.

“In a lot of ways, it’s the perfect business,” he says. “You are looking at beauty all the time and helping people celebrate someone they love each and every day. It’s a very personal business. ”

It has been the Helzberg family’s personal touch and dedication to customer service, no doubt, which has allowed the company to remain stable throughout the decades. In fact, this year marks the 100th anniversary of Helzberg Diamonds—a feat that is worth celebrating—and 20 years since the company was sold to Warren Buffett.

But despite Helzberg Jr.’s success, he always felt compelled to pay it forward. Helzberg Jr. was inspired to start a business-mentoring program thanks to his own 23-year mentoring relationship with Ewing Kauffman.

“One day, I took a moment to sincerely thank him for all he helped me with throughout the years,” reflects Helzberg Jr. “He replied and said, ‘That’s okay—I know you will help someone someday.’”

And so, he did.

Helzberg set out to create an organization to suit the needs of smaller, mid-size companies in the form of a one-to-one mentoring program. Through the years, HEMP has developed into a three-year mentee program available by application only.

Up to 20 mentees per year are accepted to HEMP, and each mentee is matched with a mentor through a process that ensures good “chemistry” to foster a learning environment, as Helzberg firmly believes that the key to a successful mentoring program is one that facilitates an environment of trust and sharing.

“I always encourage business owners in our organization to put their worst foot forward,” Helzberg Jr. says. “Whether a mentee has just had a loan rejected by the bank or can’t make payroll, it’s important to be honest with their mentors in order to learn and gain wisdom. There’s no shame in it. Everyone’s been there—even me.”

Participants in the program have the guarantee of complete confidentiality and unprecedented loyalty that has remained intact throughout HEMP’s 20-year tenure.

All mentors and mentees are put through a rigorous application process before being accepted into the organization.

“We ask these business owners for income tax returns, extensive references and even a brief psychological test—really everything but a blood sample,” jokes Helzberg Jr. “I probably couldn’t even get in today!”

Counselors, on the other hand, are individuals who have been through the mentor screening process and are not currently matched with a mentee, but who are still willing to share with HEMP members, while the Society of Fellows is open to anyone who is willing to support HEMP with a financial commitment. Membership in the Society of Fellows allows an ongoing connection with others in the organization through invitations to the many HEMP events.

Helzberg Jr. posing with Steve Wozniak, a special guest at HEMP’s 20th anniversary celebration.

Currently there are more than 175 CEOs participating in the program as either a mentor, a mentee, a counselor or a Society of Fellows participant.

Once mentors and mentees are initially matched, the formal mentoring relationship component becomes self-paced. However, HEMP mentors are required to commit to meeting with their mentee at least twice per month.

In addition, HEMP offers members up to 20 events and meetings each year, including an annual retreat, a participant appreciation event, field trips to locations of interest and educational programs.

“What really floors me is how much time and work these people put in to keep this organization healthy,” Helzberg Jr. reflects. “These are people who care a great deal about others and are interested not only in bettering themselves, but bettering the lives of others. That’s remarkable.”

For more information or to apply online, visit