David Lehr

Online Mentoring: Can It Go International?

MicroMentor RecipientAs the search for developing market-based solutions for poverty alleviation continues, adequate entrepreneur training and support has been an ongoing issue. In fact, the Aspen Institute estimates that in the United States, half of the 21.5 million micro-enterprises (capitalized with US $35,000 or less and employing 5 or fewer people) across the US are underserved and could benefit from better access to micro-enterprise development services.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal discussed some of the virtues of finding this help on line, and mentioned some of the leading offerings in the US from organizations such as Mercy Corps, Score Association, and iMantri, that helps founders of small enterprises find business mentors online. MicroMentor.org, a nonprofit run by Mercy Corps, is one of an increasing number of Web sites that allow prospective mentors and prot?g’s to easily find each other and develop a mentoring relationship, and one of the few looking to go international. Online mentoring does hold tremendous promise, with participating entrepreneurs reporting:

– An increase in median annual business sales of $15,500, or 63%;
– An increase in median annual household income of $20,000, or 50%;
– A 74% business survival rate, compared to a 66% national average.

Though the indicators are good, is this an approach that can scale internationally or across cultures? Most of us build relationships from face to face interactions and referrals from trusted colleagues. How will we get beyond differences of language, culture, background, urban / rural experience and the myriad communication clues that an in-person interaction offers? Equally importantly, is a model based on web-access and telephone follow up feasible from both a cost and connectivity standpoint?

Given the isolation and lack of business skills that many BoP entrepreneurs face, even letting them know that others are out there with similar issues – and hopes for mentoring – may be a great first step. Engaging diaspora members that have the same cultural and language skills would also be valuable. A hybrid approach that relies on the power of the internet (or a SMS based system) to raise awareness and match mentors so that a ’meet in person’ can follow may be the right place to start. Too bad that match.com is already taken!