Download link: Blog%20for%20TN%20Mentorship%20final.docx
J. DeJaeghere (UMN), Elli Yiannakaris and Wajdi Abrahams (RAA, UCT)
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.
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.