Shape Up and Scale Up: The Value of Mentors for Guiding Impact Entrepreneurs (Part 2)
Editor’s Note: Led by contributors from NextBillion’s Managing Partner, New Ventures, this is the latest in a series of articles showcasing the achievements of environmental entrepreneurs with insights from impact investing leaders on how to further scale sustainable enterprises. Other articles can be found here. Part 1 of this specific article can be found here.
In part one of this article we talked about the important role that business accelerators play in linking “mentors” – experienced entrepreneurs, business leaders, potential investors and experts – with environmental and social entrepreneurs. These mentors play a critical role in getting companies the advice and preparation they need to excel in the market – anything from connections with their broader networks to specific finance skills. As part of this process we interviewed several business accelerators – Unreasonable Institute, TechnoServe, New Ventures Mexico and New Ventures India to learn more about the structure of their programs and key lessons learned in providing mentor services.
For part two, we spoke directly with mentors and entrepreneurs who have been involved in these programs to learn why they do it and what makes mentor programs successful. If engineered appropriately, mentor programs can have great benefits for both parties. To this end, we interviewed the following individuals:
· Francisco J Alvarez, Founder and Managing Director of Green Technologies (a New Ventures Mexico company).
· Mayank Sekhsaria, Co-Founder of Greenlight Planet (a New Ventures India company).
· Sarah Arora (a former Technoserve volunteer consultant in Peru)
· Ashok K. Das, Ph.D, Founder & CEO of SunMoksha (a New Ventures India mentor).
· Hunter Lovins, President and Founder of the Natural Capitalism Solutions (NCS) (an Unreasonable Institute mentor).
· Montse Mora, Partner of Spectron Desarrollo (a New Ventures Mexico mentor).
Why do mentors participate?
The four mentors we interviewed had glowing things to say about their experiences participating in these programs. Traditionally, many people think of a mentor relationship as hierarchical, where the mentors are providing all the expertise. However, we learned through our interviews that this is not the case – some mentors were even uncomfortable with the term “mentor” exactly because of its hierarchical implications. The interviews clearly demonstrated that these individuals gain just as much as they give in the way of personal growth and fulfillment. Here are just a few of the things these mentors had to say about why they volunteer their time:
· Build specific skills and explore new career possibilities. Some mentors who are in their earlier career stages felt that they were able to build out their own skills through the process of mentoring. Working in the field with entrepreneurs can provide opportunities to explore new sectors and even potential new career opportunities.
· Catch a glimpse of the latest innovative ideas and technologies. For all of the mentors, keeping up with the latest trends was a huge motivation in participating in the mentor programs. It allowed them to stay linked in with the latest and greatest product and service developments in their areas of interest.
· Help the entrepreneurial community succeed and make a difference. Mora, of Spectron Desarrollo, put it best, “this sector is about cooperation and collaboration. I really wanted to provide my knowledge to the acceleration of these companies.” A common theme among mentors was how they actually feel like they get more than they give.
· Build professional relationships. Many of the mentors expressed their gratitude for being able to interact with other mentors, “the mentors are people you’d pay large sums of money to see present on stage. It’s an amazing gift to the mentors to be able to hang out with other mentors” said Lovins.
Why do companies participate?
Interviewees talked a lot about the specific skills they gleaned from the mentoring process (i.e. more direction on how to build a more robust financial model), but from a big picture perspective there were a few reasons they participated:
· Opening doors. One of the biggest benefits entrepreneurs gained from engaging with mentors is access to their networks. Most often, mentors are leading figures in the investment, business and impact investment space, and can provide introductions to a wide network of key stakeholders.
· Being challenged. “One of the greatest value adds [from the New Ventures Mexico mentors] was being asked very challenging questions,” Alvarez said, “once I completed the entire boot camp not only was my business strategy clear in my mind, but also on paper.”
· Expanding horizons. Alvarez also alluded to the fact that mentoring is important for entrepreneurs of any age, in any sector, “as an individual, we can only see so much and might think we have everything in line, but whenever we run it by a mentor who’s an engineer, executive, or marketing expert, we open our minds and have to be open to those critiques. If an entrepreneur wants to make his company successful and grow, mentoring is essential.”
· Getting confirmation. Growing a business is complicated and entrepreneurs can often doubt whether they’ve made the right decision or not. Advice from experienced mentors can help entrepreneurs re-confirm their decisions and alleviate doubts. Sekhsaria of Greenlight Planet mentioned that mentors from New Ventures India provided them with additional confirmation and helped put things in perspective.
What makes mentoring programs successful?
· Structuring the program around what entrepreneurs actually need and want, not what the mentors think they need. Arora believes this should be the first question that is asked when beginning a mentor relationship, “otherwise you can waste a lot of time preparing materials and doing research that entrepreneurs aren’t actually going to use.”
Lovins spoke to this point as well: “It’s very easy to let your ego get out of control. It’s more effective to listen to the fellows and then try to craft whatever is a unique contribution to them and rarely is it telling my story… I’ve done this for three years now and I notice a trend. I go into a meeting thinking I know what will be of use to them but what ends up helping them is something I never think about.”
· Telling concrete stories based on personal experience. Mentors pointed out that in many cases, it’s not the hard skills and details that entrepreneurs need, but broader advice, such as how to manage personal expectations and the expectations of staff. Many mentors make a point of telling personal stories, which are incredibly valuable to entrepreneurs.
· Making sure companies are committed throughout the program. As Alvarez points out, “entrepreneurs need to be committed to the entire program; the fact that these entrepreneurs are fortunate enough to go through the program means they shouldn’t take it for granted.”
· Providing extensive networking opportunities. Entrepreneurs consistently request opportunities to network with peers and mentors, both through in-person and virtual platforms.
· Having a range of mentors with specific skills available both in-country and internationally. Local mentors are essential to entrepreneurs so they can more closely engaged and provide local contacts as well as context. Some mentors who are located abroad can also be helpful if they have specific skills. It is important to strike a balance for the profile of mentors to make a program successful.
Mentoring shouldn’t just be a one-time experience, it’s a lifelong process, and entrepreneurs need mentors at different times of their company’s growth for different reasons. The same holds true for mentors – there is a role for them to play at many different stages of a company’s development. Understanding the motivation behind mentors and entrepreneurs, and getting the right incentive structure when crafting a mentoring program can make a big difference.
This dynamic relationship between mentors and entrepreneurs is a critical infrastructure component of the impact investing sector that empowers entrepreneurs with the business skills they need to grow and scale enterprises with strong social, environmental, and economic outcomes.