learning partner (5)

Experimentation in Veracruz - by Carol Carrier

Written by Carol Carrier, University of Minnesota Learning Partner

I spent a very interesting week at the University of Veracruz during the week of Oct 10. This was my third site visit to that very dynamic university and its flourishing YEPI program. Several impressions were particularly pronounced for me this time.

First, I felt very grateful to have participated in the convening in Talloires, France this past September. Being together that week, with so much opportunity for conversation, spread across a number of informal settings, encouraged all of us to reveal more of ourselves, to be more natural with our colleagues. I felt that as we got to know one another better, it allowed us to be more comfortable honestly discussing a range of topics. Getting opportunities to play together—swimming, sleeping under the same roof in our respective houses, eating great food, drinking wine and dancing (even if badly!)—strengthened our own sense of being on the YEPI team. Throughout the week, our ideas grew more expansive; our laughter became more frequent and spontaneous. Most of us came away from the convening feeling energized as we looked in the future, with new ideas germinating and optimism abounding. This experience set me up well for the third site visit to Mexico.

Second, I observed how the Veracruz YEPI team has experimented with their program components over the three years, sculpting these new approaches that better address deficiencies staff has observed in their program. One example (200) is a new program they implemented that provides work readiness training and resources for students who enter local businesses and agencies to work for 4 months in practical professional experiences. So, for example, the student who is majoring in finance at the University works as a financial person for a luxury car dealer. The UV nursing student spends her four months in a professional role at a gerontology center, gaining practical experience attractive to employers within this industry. What employers told me is that UV has been responsive to their need to have a pool of new graduates better prepared to enter the workforce, to have more skills that make the start-up employment flow more easily.

Third, I observed that teams of entrepreneurs consisting of both men and women, demonstrate that leadership is not limited to one gender but can flourish when either men or women leaders, valuing collaboration, engage one another. I interviewed a number of these teams and was struck with their intensity, practicality and commitment to their ideas. Reaching out to take advantage of all available resources available, these teams are producing products and services that are innovative but also practical. Many of these teams pitch their innovations in local, regional or national competitions and often are among the winners.

I left Mexico this third time filled with admiration for how our colleagues at the University of Veracruz are slowly integrating the YEPI program components and spirit into the fabric of this university and the communities it serves.

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Now in the second year of funding, several youth enterprises are up and running in almost every learning partner site we visit.  I recently returned from a visit to SEE in Rwanda and Uganda.  While in Rwanda I had an opportunity to meet with an entrepreneur working to build and sustain a community bakery and a cooperative of students building a soap making enterprise.  My conversations with both the baker and the students working in the soap enterprise raise questions about the overall programmatic focus and curriculum to support youth entrepreneurs.

The soap cooperative is located on a side street in the town of Nyagatare.  They were provided with a space for their enterprise by the mayor of the town and have begun a small-scale production of soap, which they are selling locally.  During the visit, I met with five of the cooperative members; there are 12 total.  They began by describing what they do and how they mix the raw materials into soap to sell.  One of the members has attended three trainings to support the enterprise, including two trainings on entrepreneurship (one supported by YEPI), and training on how to make soap, sponsored by Workforce Development Agency and funded by the World Bank.  Their story follows a narrative I have heard often in the last two years when talking with young entrepreneurs across several of the YEPI partner sites.  They made soap because they were taught to make soap.  Was it meaningful for them?  Not really.  Indeed, most described it as something they will do until they can do what they really want to do, maybe after they graduate from university.

About 2 kilometers away and nestled into a neighborhood outside of the main streets of Nyagatare I met the baker.  Walking into the open-air bakery the difference in energy was unmistakable.  The place was electric.  A couple of delivery people on bicycles were in the process of arriving to pick up bread to deliver or leaving with their baskets of bread.  The baker told a different narrative than the first.  His story was filled with plans to strengthen and build his bakery.  He was investigating new products to make, currently baking and selling a new cake that was doing much better in sales than he expected.  In his excitement he ran over to where a pan of cake was cooling and brought it over to show us.  He talked about taking an accounting course on campus because he had begun to see that he didn’t have the knowledge of the skills in accounting to support his expanding business.  He wanted to know accounting so that he could strengthen internal operations and have a clear sense of how much product was costing and how much profit he was making from sales.  He was a baker.

It is hard to capture the different levels of energy between the members of these two enterprises on paper.  The baker’s enthusiasm for his enterprise was undeniable and his plans for the future were both optimistic and realistic.  He wanted to succeed because the work gave his life meaning and purpose.  He talked about baking bread as a way to feed his community.  In existential philosophy, we might describe the baker has having a vocation, while the soap makers had jobs.  What separated these two enterprises?  Was it that the baker had more knowledge?  Not really.  Did he have more business skill?  Nope, it was clear that the soap makers knew about and how to manage business planning and implementation.  What really set the two enterprises apart was the baker saw his enterprise as an extension of himself—it was who he was and what he had to do to be himself.  The soap makers simply made soap—none of the members really wanted to make soap, but given the other limited options (making chalk or wood preservative), soap making seemed more fitting.

While much of the conversation within youth entrepreneurship is to build capacity within young people around business skill and process, these two stories raise questions about whether this is all that is needed to support youth entrepreneurship.  Students involved in all the learning partner institutions certainly walk away with a deep understanding of business skills and business planning.  What is less common among participants is a deep commitment to an enterprise that has personal meaning and produces a commercially viable product.  What experience might support these outcomes among participants?  What training could awaken their imaginations and deepen their own understanding of self so they can connect their enterprise with whom they want to be and what contribution they want to make in the world?  What training and ideas have others done to raise the imagination? 

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Download link: Blog%20for%20TN%20Mentorship%20final.docx

J. DeJaeghere (UMN), Elli Yiannakaris and Wajdi Abrahams (RAA, UCT) 

November, 2015

Getting the most from mentor relationships with new entrepreneurs

Mentoring is an important component of most entrepreneurship programs because they serve as a critical “friend” and a bridge to other resources and networks.  For the Raymond Ackerman Academy’s GESS program in Cape Town, South Africa, mentors are key support pillars for young and new entrepreneurs who have ventured into their enterprise with limited support and many challenges.  Most of the young people who participate in GESS have not had tertiary education, have limited   business management experience, and they have often ventured into entrepreneurship out of necessity to earn a livelihood and to address needs in their community. They don’t have much margin for the risks that entrepreneurs have to take, nor do they have extensive networks outside their communities who can provide resources and relationships that are necessary to grow their entrepreneurship idea into a viable business.  Having a mentor is critical to their business development.

In addition to the critical role mentors play in the new entrepreneur’s life and business journey, they also have an important role in expanding the reach of the program to more young entrepreneurs.  Many graduates of the RAA entrepreneurship training program (that lasts 6 months) have started small business and they need additional assistance beyond this short-term program to make the business flourish.  Mentoring, however, is time-intensive, especially in the phase of growing the business idea into one of selling, reassessing the market, realigning the products and seeking alternative revenue streams.  With limited staff who work hand-in-hand with this small group of entrepreneurs, the RAA saw the opportunity to work with more nascent  entrepreneurs through an intensive mentoring program.  But how can a mentoring program be best designed to have consistent and solid impact on this diverse group of entrepreneurs? 

The RAA GESS program established several processes that aim to ensure a positive experience in the mentor program.  They include:  setting criteria for selection of mentors to find the best fit; establishing expectations and processes for mentoring; building the relationship with mentors and the program and between mentors and mentees; reflecting on the mentorship process to ensure consistency, coherency and impact, and assessing the impact.

Criteria for selection and determining best “fit”

Criteria were established to select mentors so that they would have the best “fit” with the SME as well as the social needs of the young entrepreneur. The criteria for mentors included:

  • Experience in mentoring 
  • Experience in working with youth and in particular youth owned business, was preferable
  • An understanding of entrepreneurship with experience in running and operating a business preferable
  • The ability  to open networks that will result in business opportunities  for the GESS SMEs

Expectations and Processes

The mentor and mentee is expected to have at least two formal monthly meetings of 1.5 to two hours. The initial agenda is based on the growth plans developed by the entrepreneur for her or his SME.  The subsequent meetings are informed by progress and challenges the  SME encounters in implementing his or her plans. Each mentee provides feedback on the progress of mentorship sessions to the GESS coordinator and the mentor completes a mentor session report. All mentors meet with GESS management once a month  as part of the mentorship  Advisory committee.

 Relationship building

Developing a solid and effective mentorship program requires building relationships both with the mentors and the program, and between the mentor and the mentee. One of the strategic goals of the RAA GESS program was to institutionalize the program to greater degree within the University of Cape Town. The scaling of the mentorship program was subsequently used to achieve this goal. 

The mentorship program allowed these university resources to be tapped, as well as for graduates to get to know and contribute to the RAA programs.  Mentors were targeted from the current MBA classes, the different  alumni groups at the Graduate School as well as from the UCT GSB entrepreneurial society.

In addition, the mentor and mentee relationship needs to be fostered.   One mentor described his role as a lot of listening and getting to know the mentee’s dreams, goals and concerns.  The mentors spend time at the mentees’ business and then they help them to think through their plans for its development. 

Developing a good mentor/mentee relationship can take many forms, depending on the interests and needs of the new entrepreneur.  One mentor said that his mentee told him he wanted honest and critical answers.  Having years of experience running an enterprise can offer some words of wisdom as a critical friend.

Another mentor describe their relationship in this way:  It’s not about me telling them what I know and what they should do. I have to offer guidance, but it is about asking them the questions so they can reflect on their business and learn, so they can develop a rationale for why they are making the decisions they are and they can learn from them.

Reflecting on the process

RAA designed the mentor program with a Mentorship Advisory Committee that plays the role of sharing “lessons” across the mentors and with the program. The functions of the committee include:

  • Creating a platform to share experiences and insights garnered from the actual mentorship sessions
  • Feedback to GESS management on areas of concerns at a operational and contractual level
  • To identify common areas of need among SMEs  that can be addressed in a group format

The format of the advisory committee is an informal round table discussion where each mentor is allowed to share and ask questions, based on their sessions with the mentee. The platform also creates an opportunity for the group to discuss matters at an institutional and contractual level

 Assessing the impact

 Finally, improving the mentor program involves understanding the impacts it has on the entrepreneurs. The University of Minnesota -- the learning partner – conducted a preliminary assessment of the program by meeting with mentors and mentees to begin to understand how it was working and its impact. While still in a nascent phase, the GESS participants unanimously commented on the value of the mentor, in part because they work “individually with my business”.  They valued the critical feedback and supportive approach the mentors offered, including helping them with business plans, connecting them with markets, and being a resource for what often feels like “a lonely path”.

Mentors also saw the value in the mentorship. One mentor said how after only 3 meetings “its amazing to see the progress . . . She’s so proud that she’s come from not knowing anything [about starting the business] and within the space of month she has grown and has confidence.”

Mentorship is so frequently discussed as critical for professional development and growth, but it is not something that can be haphazardly implemented.  It requires processes and reflective practice to make it a valuable experience for the emerging entrepreneur, for the mentor, and for the organization.


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Over the course of the last two years visiting learning partner institutions in eight countries, we have seen the value of building networks for young entrepreneurs.  We call networking a promising practice to support youth entrepreneurs.  Every learning partner university in the Youth Economic Participation Initiative (YEPI), funded by Mastercard Foundation and administered by the Talloires Network has a way of supporting networking activities within its youth entrepreneurship efforts.  I want to describe one form networking that I have seen in a recent visit with the learning partners in Rwanda and Uganda.

The SEE project is a consortium of Universities in four East African countries: Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania.  Faculties from Agricultural Sciences, Veterinarian Science and Health Sciences are working together across these four universities to develop a curriculum and an incubator to support business skill development and youth entrepreneurship.  Each University has created an ice cream and yogurt business at the University to teach students to become young entrepreneurs through a “learning by doing” method.  This year, project coordinators have facilitated the formation of student entrepreneurship clubs.  I had the pleasure of meeting students in both the University of Rwanda and Makerere University clubs during my visit in October 2015.

Students found these organizations by connecting with others interested in entrepreneurship and then formally applying to be a student organization within the university.  This includes drafting a constitution, electing officers, and developing a plan of activities.  While both clubs at the University of Rwanda and Makerere Universities have only just formed, they already have a large membership and have begun to organize a variety of activities to support young entrepreneurs at their university.  In meeting with both groups a primary focus of conversation is on how to network with local businesspeople and how to attract highly successful entrepreneurs in the country to come and share with the students “words of wisdom” about entrepreneurship.

When talking with members in both Rwanda and Uganda, their enthusiasm and hope is quickly apparent.  I quickly discovered that for many (most?) entrepreneurship was not an idea they had heard about or studied, but instead a practice they had experienced.  Many students designed and ran small enterprises.  These ranged from honeybee keeping to money lending.  All had some relative success.  A couple students had been involved in several enterprises.  They would create one business, run it for a while until another business became more successful.  In forming a club, students quickly realized that they were not alone, but had numerous colleagues who also had experience running successful enterprises, at least for a short time.

They have capitalized on these experiences and have begun to organize exchanges and trainings amongst themselves.  Rather than wait for a successful entrepreneur to confirm that they will come and speak to the students, they are inviting successful entrepreneurs among current students to talk with club members about what they have learned in designing and managing small enterprises.  These clubs have provided a forum where emerging and successful youth entrepreneurs can meet, share experiences of what works in designing and managing enterprises, and begin to implement what they have learned rather quickly into new enterprises they want to create.  They are demonstrating that entrepreneur experience and wisdom does not only come with age, but also with experience.  I look forward to see how these clubs and the activities they support will evolve over the next several months.  I hope these students will find some resources to support their work.  As one executive council member indicated: “If we had $1000, we could make miracles happen.”  I would love to witness the miracles they create for themselves and their countries.

These student entrepreneur clubs illustrate a powerful structure to support networking, not only with external organizations and individuals, but also among students.  What other ways do university entrepreneur programs support networking in your country?  How might we envision other innovative and effective ways to support networking among young entrepreneurs that support enterprise development, launch and sustentation?

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LP Reflections on Recent Site Visit 

[Note: hover over the words in bold to learn more about the important Context Factors and Critical Practices identified by the Learning Partners in their Year 1 report.]

Earlier this summer, I had the good fortune to travel with Jennifer Catalano to two YEPI sites—UKM and 2iE.  This was my second site visit at each place.  Here are five of my general observations from these recent visits.

  • Both sites possess a strong internal structure (CESMED in UKM; Technopol in 2iE) that many in their respective organizations look to for being a catalyst for innovation and the place where entrepreneurial preparation and activity is fostered and supported.  Because staff in these two units performs many functions they must demonstrate flexibility and an enormous tolerance for ambiguity. Emerging entrepreneurs clearly become dependent on the staff of these offices for support in many forms—becoming an entrepreneur is an emotional roller coaster, at least in the early stages.  I noted that the staff in these two offices clearly anticipates these emotional ups-and-downs.  They tend to these would-be entrepreneurs’ mental health as well as to their practical needs for technical, legal and financial assistance.   For example, the listen to the entrepreneur’s sad expressions about missing his family at home and worries about this child’s experiences at school.
  • An element of healthy competition and incentives characterizes aspects of the programming.  At 2iE, we attended several sessions where students who had been through entrepreneurial training at some level and were competing to win admission to other activities, funding, possible travel to other sites.  In one event, the students were selling their credentials to a panel of outside evaluators.  Contestants had each created a power point presentation that was dynamic, innovative and colorful.  They presented to this panel of judges and also in front of lecture hall crowded with several hundred attentive and often exuberant students and visitors.  “Pitching sessions” are commonplace events within YEPI programs and there are substantial rewards for doing well.  These may include funding, which sends promising entrepreneurs  to competitions in different parts of the world; admittance to an Incubator, which offers many forms of support for an emerging entrepreneur; or catching the attention of owners of local businesses or leaders of agencies that seek strong employees.
  • Gender plays a complex role in the participation of men and women in entrepreneurial endeavors, involving cultural norms and historical influences.  At 2iE the majority of entrepreneurs who make it into the sought-after Incubator process are male.  At the moment, the 10 projects in the Incubator, are all led by men but many women do enroll in Technopol’s Entrepreneurial Track offering.  At UKM, the number of Muslim women interested in pursuing online businesses that allow them to work out of their homes is growing rapidly.
  • Both sites have paid attention to the value of champions—individuals both internal and external to the organization.  These are individuals in positions of influence who can amplify messages and advance the mission of the entrepreneurial and employability programs.  We met with or had the opportunity to observe a number of these champions as they attended Enterprise Days at 2iE or met with us while at UKM.   Involving these champions in the programs’ special events is a win-win as it gives these champions added visibility and heightens the cache of these events.
  • This visit reinforced my perception that each YEPI site has unique strengths that, if carefully explored and shared, could enrich programs at other sites.  UKM is learning how to transfer knowledge from their curricula to sites in other countries.  Staff from CESMED and CITRA have made trips to several universities in Indonesia and Taiwan to run train-the-trainer sessions so their curricula can be implemented, with appropriate cultural modifications, in these sites.  Technopol at 2iE has a sophisticated incubator to help their most promising emerging businesses to gain the funding, skills and expertise needed to grow and become sustainable.
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