Small-business owner is quick to give back

| Tuesday, May 22, 2012, 7:24 p.m.

Stephen Cohen doesn't remember which vehicle he was driving or what month it was, only that it was a warm, blue-sky day when he fell asleep behind the wheel on the turnpike while driving between Monroeville and Allison Park.

A rumble strip jolted him awake that afternoon in 1998, and a few things were immediately clear: He was alive, that would be his last day as an insurance salesman, and it was time to be better to himself and others.

"At that moment, I decided to take care of myself and my business at the same time," said Cohen, 62, of Squirrel Hill, who will be honored next week by the U.S. Small Business Association as the Western Pennsylvania SCORE Volunteer of the Year. "I called my boss and said, 'I quit.' "

And that's when Cohen's life as a small-business owner and generous volunteer started.

He began Keystone By Design, his one-man marketing and advertising firm. One of the first places he turned in starting his business was SCORE, a Herndon, Va.-based nonprofit organization created in 1964 that provides free expert counseling to small businesses. The organization has 364 chapters nationwide, including Pittsburgh.

Groups such as SCORE and others, including the no-cost Small Business Development Centers across the country, are tremendous assets, said Marilyn Landis, president of Basic Business Concepts Inc. on the North Shore.

"It's an opportunity for entrepreneurs to figure out what they need, don't need, know and don't know." Landis said. "It's a great starting point for folks."

SCORE mentors, often retired professionals, helped Cohen get his business started, from picking a name to wading through permit and regulation requirements. The organization formerly was known as the Service Corps of Retired Executives.

Though Cohen learned about designing marketing materials and web design to help him and his sales crews at a string of insurance companies over the years, the Queens native always had worked for someone else and had no experience being his own boss.

He helped his first client set up business marketing seminars around the region. Cohen now has a couple dozen clients — mostly all small businesses.

"My object in life was not to be a huge corporation," Cohen said. "My object in life was to feel helpful to people."

One of his longest-running clients — for more than a decade — is Squirrel Hill elder law attorney Michael Marks.

"He knows small business because he's in small business," Marks said of Cohen. "He listens and has good ideas. He gives me advice and recommendations, but he lets me make the decisions."

An early client was SCORE. Cohen handled the local chapter's graphic design needs from 2001 to 2005, the year he joined as a member.

After spending 2006 in Australia, where his wife, Janet, served as chief operation officer of Carnegie Mellon University's campus, Cohen returned and became more active with SCORE. In the five years since, he has served as vice chairman and chairman.

Volunteers with the Pittsburgh chapter conduct between 500 and 600 face-to-face meetings each year with small business owners or those looking to open small businesses, Cohen said.

"We are mentors," he said. "Think of us as a free board of directors."

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