Seven Keys to Successful Business Mentorship Programs: How Entrepreneur Support Organizations Can Maximize Their Impact
Talk to an entrepreneur and they may tell you that while building a business can be exciting and rewarding, it can also be isolating and nerve-racking. Entrepreneurship requires long hours and personal sacrifices, risk taking, and navigating new territory. Many entrepreneurs find themselves struggling to manage these pressures, putting both their personal well-being and their enterprise’s success in jeopardy.
Mentors can play a key role in helping entrepreneurs deal with these unique difficulties. Having a mentor who has “been there” and traveled a similar path equips entrepreneurs to face the many challenges they will encounter on their journey to growth. But though mentorship has benefits for both the mentor and the mentee, a host of factors can make or break the relationship — ranging from simply not being available at the same time to meet, to something more complex, like being unable to build trust or having differing expectations. And while entrepreneurs may be aware of mentorship and its benefits, they often do not know where to find a mentor or how to manage the relationship.
Entrepreneur support organizations (ESOs) — e.g., accelerators, incubators and investment companies — can help address these issues by linking entrepreneurs with mentors through structured mentorship programs. ESOs can play a valuable role in cultivating productive mentoring relationships, including by: identifying motivated entrepreneurs seeking to be mentees or mentors; matching mentees and mentors; offering support with scheduling mentoring sessions; assisting with troubleshooting; and offering extra benefits like networking sessions and pitch events.
As part of our efforts to equip economic decision-makers in emerging countries with the tools of commercial success, the William Davidson Institute (WDI)’s Entrepreneurship Development Center has developed our 6M Model of Entrepreneurship Development. The 6M Model highlights mentorship as one of the essential elements of a comprehensive entrepreneurship development program. It features prominently in our efforts to provide entrepreneurs with the knowledge, skills and attitudes they need to start or scale their businesses. Currently, we are working with the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) and Tenmou (a Bahrain-based angel investment company) to build the mentorship component of the Economic Diversification and Access to Finance project in Bahrain. Supported by the U.S. State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the project offers cohorts of Bahrain-based entrepreneurs four months of mentorship from locally based mentors.
Based on insights gleaned from this mentorship program in Bahrain — and drawing from our 20-year track record designing entrepreneurship development programs — we have distilled seven key learnings which can help ESOs to implement successful mentorship programs, while providing them with an opportunity to continuously learn and adapt their mentorship approaches and offerings.
1. Develop a thorough process to identify and vet mentees for your program
When designing a mentorship program, the emphasis is often on finding great mentors. But while it may seem logical that great mentees will self-select into your program, we have found that this is not always the case. For example, prospective mentees might overestimate their availability, have an inaccurate understanding of the program, be interested only in potential investment opportunities, and even — gasp! — misrepresent their business on their application. To avoid such issues, create a rigorous screening process for selecting mentees, including a comprehensive application and in-person interviews. Ask potential mentees questions that will give you confidence that they have the necessary time available, understand the program objectives, genuinely desire a mentor, are the key decision-maker for their business, and have provided accurate information on their application. This process should be thorough, but it doesn’t have to be time-consuming: In the case of the Bahrain project, Tenmou has found success with a 20-minute interview consisting of six questions.
2. Have a touchpoint early on with mentors
If you are running the mentorship program, check in with both mentors and mentees early on to identify any problems with a mentor-mentee pair as soon as possible. Sometimes a mentee might have a poor grasp of what a mentor can or should offer, perhaps expecting them to fill out their business plan as if they were a secretary. In other cases, personalities may clash or working styles may differ so much that the relationship quickly becomes strained for the mentor, the mentee – or both. To avoid this, for the program in Bahrain, Tenmou scheduled a check-in call with the mentees after each of their mentorship sessions. During these calls, they asked the mentees how well they were working with their mentors and, more generally, how their day-to-day business was going.
3. Help mentors and mentees set expectations at the start of their relationship
Mentors and mentees can enter a relationship with different expectations about what kind of assistance and support the mentor can offer. For example, Ammar Awachi, a Bahraini mentor and CEO of Taha International, shared with us that when he first met with one of his mentees, the mentee asked if Awachi could guide him through local business requirements. While the mentee’s expectation was that his mentor would walk him through these requirements step-by-step, Awachi’s understanding of his role was that he would provide higher-level support, such as help on the mentee’s business models or marketing plans, or advice on how to position the business within Bahrain’s manufacturing ecosystem. To address this misunderstanding, Awachi asked the mentee to identify the issues that he most wanted to tackle. From there, the two aligned their expectations – something we’ve found can help establish a strong foundation from the outset of the relationship.
4. Train your mentors to use ‘scaffolding’ in working with mentees
Sometimes mentees ask their mentors for help in tackling large challenges. In these cases, Professor Eric Fretz, WDI’s mentorship expert for the Bahrain project and a lecturer of entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan, recommends “scaffolding.” Scaffolding is a teaching method that involves breaking up a large project into smaller segments and providing tools and support for each, with the goal of advancing a student’s understanding of a specific concept or skill. Scaffolding can be applied in the context of mentorship, with the mentor as teacher and mentee as student. If, for example, a mentee asks a mentor to help them write their business plan, Fretz suggests that they review a blank business plan (templates are available online, such as here) and a completed business plan together.
We suggest that ESOs have on hand a few completed model business plans from previous participants that they have permission to share for instructional purposes. Then, as the mentee develops their own business plan, the mentor can focus on just one section at a time, providing some tips and suggestions while the mentee completes the section as “homework.” The two can proceed section-by-section until the document is complete. If the mentee seems to understand the process, the mentor can assign ever larger sections. If the mentee struggles, the mentor can provide more direct feedback and “worked examples” — i.e., similar scenarios taken from other business plans to show how to complete the section step-by-step. With scaffolding, the idea is to dial the support up as needed, but over time dial it back down until the mentee is performing the complex task on their own. This might require several repetitions.
5. Encourage mentors and mentees to hold their initial session at one of their places of work
Holding the initial meeting in the place of work of either the mentor or the mentee offers different advantages. Awachi held his mentor meetings at his office. As he put it, “This set the tone. The mentees saw my professional office and got a sense that this is someone they can trust.” On the other hand, Abdulla Al Hamed, another mentor in the Bahraini program, sees advantages to holding the first meeting at the mentee’s place of work. From a practical standpoint, he says this will guarantee they will not miss the first meeting. But he also likes to observe the mentee in their environment. “This way you can see the person in their comfort zone and get a real understanding of their business.”
After the initial meeting, it can be useful to hold a meeting in a coffee shop for a more informal, relaxed exchange. Awachi found that some of his mentor meetings scheduled for an hour extended beyond that, as he and his mentees casually continued their conversation through a second cup of coffee. The mentors in our Bahrain program found Zoom to be a good alternative in cases where mentees had difficulties scheduling in-person meetings.
6. Encourage the mentors in your program to practice active listening, just as a coach does
Mentors should be encouraged to listen to mentees’ challenges and look for opportunities to help them see things in a new light. This can provide mentees with an outside perspective, which can be invaluable. For example, Fajer Al Mansoori, one of the Bahraini mentees, was struggling with low demand for her line of frozen Arabic home-cooked meals. After reviewing her business model, her mentor suggested to her that her current path was not viable given that the Bahraini public does not buy ready-made meals as they do in the West. Changing that behavior would take a large marketing budget and a lot of time. He pointed out to her that she had a burgeoning following on social media and suggested she focus on that. Following that advice, she has grown her social media following fivefold — including on Instagram — and now earns revenue through sponsored posts and a television show on cooking. Her revenue has grown threefold since her business pivot.
This example highlights what Fretz calls an effective mentor’s ability to “pick up on a vibe” and structure an opportunity that can prompt a mentee to think in new ways. Mentors also generally bring to the table a new set of experiences and expertise, which allows fortuitous connections to be made. This could include a partnership with another business entity, a fresh way of marketing the product, or identifying a particular need on the management team so that a new person with those skills can be hired on.
7. Create a virtuous cycle to power your programs into the future
Stay in touch with mentees and invite them to serve as mentors for future programs. Khaled Ahmed, another Bahraini mentor, refers to this as “the circle of life of entrepreneurship.” His positive experience working with his mentors in his own startup journey motivates his desire to serve as a mentor now and give back. This virtuous cycle can not only help a new generation of entrepreneurs find business success, it can prove both personally and professionally rewarding to the mentors who’ve supported them.
Leadership expert and author John C. Maxwell has said, “One of the greatest values of mentors is the ability to see ahead what others cannot see and to help them navigate a course to their destination.” We believe that one of the greatest values of ESOs is to create the structured path and the favorable conditions for the mentor and mentee to travel together. We hope these seven tips will serve as your guideposts.
Amy Gillett is the vice president of Education and Kristin Babbie Kelterborn is a senior project manager at the William Davidson Institute (WDI) at the University of Michigan. They lead the Institute’s Entrepreneurship Development Center, part of WDI’s efforts to “solve for business” in order to drive economic growth and social freedom in low- and middle-income countries.
Note: The William Davidson Institute is NextBillion’s parent organization.
Photo courtesy of Fatma Cankara /ILO.