In the call to action of my TED talk on the Entrepreneur’s Journey, I exhorted seasoned entrepreneurs to answer the call to service by mentoring less experienced entrepreneurs.
Because entrepreneurship requires such different skills, heuristics, and calculi than other, much more common business arenas, having an experienced guide is invaluable to first-time entrepreneurs and can be the difference between success and failure. Furthermore, most successful entrepreneurs have themselves been the beneficiaries of mentorship so I would go even further to argue that it is a moral obligation to pay it forward to those in need.
In my own life, I have endeavored to provide mentorship to aspiring entrepreneurs in several arenas:
- Employees – In my career I have had the honor to serve hundreds of employees as their leader. While it can be tempting in a fast-moving startup to focus just on what those employees can produce, I see my role first and foremost as helping them develop and grow. I am enormously proud that dozens of my former employees have gone on to found ventures of their own, creating billions of USD of value.
- Academia – Wherever I have lived (and in some places I haven’t!) I have forged connections with universities to mentor entrepreneurial students, teach entrepreneurship courses, and advise startup efforts from students, faculty, and staff. There are few things more rewarding than hearing from former students whose class projects have taken off!
My deepest relationship is with Rice, where I served as Entrepreneur In Residence for the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership and am now on the Board of the Liu Idea Lab for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. I mentor at my other alma maters, TJHSST and IMD, as well. During my years in Chapel Hill, I mentored at UNC – especially within the Adams Apprenticeship – Duke, and Elon. For years I have mentored remotely at the University of Wyoming’s burgeoning entrepreneurship program but, now that I have moved to Colorado, I may be close enough to start participating in person after COVID!
- Accelerators – I have spent a lot of time participating in accelerator programs to help participants get off the ground. The Surge Accelerator, Groundwork Labs, 1789 Venture Lab, Launch Chapel Hill, The Ion Smart & Resilient Cities Accelerator and – of course – OwlSpark are several accelerators where I have hung my hat and where I have built lifelong relationships with hundreds of entrepreneurs.
- Events – Startup Weekend, 3 Day Startup, and the Cleanweb Hackathon are short sprints to help entrepreneurs find each other and work on meaningful startup projects together – usually over the course of a weekend. I’m not aware of any startups launched during the events where I participated as a mentor that have taken off but I have made some great relationships and hopefully helped prepare some entrepreneurship neophytes gain the confidence to take the plunge later.
Mentorship has been incredibly rewarding for me and indeed my mentees have gone on to create orders of magnitude more impact than I have alone. However, there are only so many hours in the day so how can an entrepreneurial mentor optimize their time and impact? A few practices I follow:
- Take all meetings: this is counter to the methodology of many sought after people, who prefer to gatekeep their time and connections, which I totally get. I have benefitted so greatly, though, from people taking my meeting requests, that I can’t help but pay that good will and karma forward.
Rather than optimizing for # of meetings, instead I optimize for time and quality of those meetings. If I can’t help them, I’m clear about it early on. However, I have often found that I may actually be able to help after learning more when it wouldn’t have seemed so from the initial meeting request.
Furthermore, I have found that sometimes years later I am in a position to help. For example, there was a student startup I mentored years ago. They were direct to consumer and in an industry I didn’t know well. I gave them some generic advice that didn’t seem very helpful to me. Apparently they thought it was very helpful, though, because the reached back out to me years later, having achieved so much success that they were being courted for acquisition. They then needed advice on negotiating acquisition terms, which is an area where I could provide very pointed value.
Serendipity is so important to entrepreneurs and it is impossible for us to know a priori what will be helpful to them or how – sometimes a meeting with a more experienced entrepreneur provides less tangible benefit, like confidence-building. I also wonder if, when we act as gatekeepers, we introduce biases in advice and connection-making that result in unequal access.
- Focus on mission-aligned entrepreneurs: Time is at a premium and life is short so I do focus my time on entrepreneurs working to transition the world to a sustainable, prosperous, and equitable energy economy. If you are working on a smoothie bar, I will still take the meeting but will work to connect you quickly with someone who is a more appropriate fit.
- Focus on entrepreneurs with the greatest need: I try to focus my time on entrepreneurs who need the most help. The venture ecosystem is deeply inequitable and, if I can help level the playing field even just a little, that is time well spent.
I was mentoring a team of Black founders who were having a hard time fundraising. They asked me to codeswitch their intro email/deck to “my” language and suddenly that had several VC suitors. To be clear, forcing historically underrepresented entrepreneurs to adhere to norms set by the mostly white, mostly male holders of power in venture is not the solution – but this instance was a stark reminder of the systemic barriers faced by entrepreneurs who don’t look and sound like me.
If you are a rich white cis male from a top university, I will still take the meeting but I will focus much more of my time working with entrepreneurs who have systemic winds in their faces rather than at their backs.
- Get out of the way: because my time is limited and because I am swamped with a million other things, often the most productive action I can take on behalf of entrepreneurs is to get out of the critical path by making an introduction or pointing them to a targeted resource. If they’re waiting on me for a detailed contribution, they will often be waiting a long time, and waiting is counterproductive for entrepreneurs.
- Interrogate, don’t prescribe: I try never to tell entrepreneurs what to do. Firstly entrepreneurship research is full of evidence that so-called “experts” don’t know the right answer any better than neophytes. Secondly, new entrepreneurs gain more in the long run from forging neural pathways to develop answers themselves rather than being told what to do. As such, I try to ask probing questions and share relevant experiences. No one can walk the entrepreneur’s journey for them; all we can do is share context to help inform their path.
What do you think? This is – and will always be – a work in progress. How do you think about mentoring entrepreneurs? What key learnings from your own experience can you share?