During our “Shared Resources” Collective Impact Project, a dynamic conversation took off surrounding the idea of a collective space for sharing mentors — a mentor pool.

Arising from the Accelerating the Accelerators Co-hosted Session at SOCAP15, a group of accelerator and incubator* program managers from a variety of organizations participated in a Collective Impact Project (CIP) exploring pooling resources – human and material –  to reduce costs. While there was not a lot of interest in sharing software subscriptions or procurement, a dynamic conversation took off among us around the sharing of mentors.

As social enterprise accelerator leaders we believe in empowering entrepreneurs to create meaningful change and impact lives. What if we could, with a little collective effort, dig canals connecting our mentor networks in a pool so as to increase positive entrepreneurial outcomes across the impact sector?

Our CIP group found this question worthwhile to explore. As accelerator leaders, we work to provide mentorship to entrepreneurs and management teams within our programs. Most – if not all – accelerators do this. However, in practical terms and on the ground, the term mentorship can mean a variety of different things.

Mentorship is our backbone. Among most – if not all – accelerators, mentors constitute a core competitive advantage.

Accelerators invest heavily in recruiting the best mentors and maintaining our networks. We center our recruitment efforts around finding the right fit for the entrepreneurs in our programs. We dive into details of each potential mentor’s background, their industries and topics of interest,  their alignment with the organization’s mission, and the time they have available. Oftentimes, we will reach out directly to founders of successful companies or c-suite level individuals to find the right mentor. In other cases, we draw from past accelerator program alumni. Interestingly enough, research from the Mentor Capital Network indicates that entrepreneurs prefer peer-to-peer mentors who can speak to their shared experience in the program.

After recruiting mentors, it takes a lot of work to maintain a healthy mentor network. We utilize various methods to make sure that their mentor network is healthy and engaged such as:

  • Asking each mentor to opt-in to each mentoring opportunity,
  • Timing the programs to prevent overlap in mentorship engagement opportunities,
  • Hosting events specifically for mentors to network with each other, and
  • Providing ongoing training for the mentors.

There are a host of other engagement methods that add value to the mentorship experience, yet our overarching strategy is to be cognizant of the mentor’s time and expectations.

Mentor networks are crucial for programs to attract ventures.

Featured in marketing materials and held up as a value proposition to attract applicants, our networks of mentors serve as crucial points of intersection between our programs and the external world. For example, Unreasonable Institute features on its homepage the faces and bios of mentors. Most of us in the CIP consider our organization’s mentor pool to be our secret sauce of success, both in attracting entrepreneurs and in giving entrepreneurs the support and advice they need to for venture growth. For this reason, the mere suggestion of sharing the mentors might be met with resistance.  

Mentors are…  Technical Experts / Leadership Coaches / Business Teachers / Priority Setters / Shoulders to Lean On

During our CIP calls, our conversation quickly spiraled into esoteric territory around defining a common lexicon between programs. Amid the intense discussion, there was a moment of clarity – an “aha! Moment.” Suddenly it dawned on us that perhaps this idea of pooling mentors would be more popular if we shared only a certain type of mentor. We identified four main types to structure our conversation, recognizing that there are other mentor classifications that have not been included and that the categories below are not mutually exclusive.

  • Mentor Advisors engage with entrepreneurs through a 1:1 relationship and provide support long past the duration of the program.  Mentor advisors solidify their role with the entrepreneur by becoming an official “advisor” to the organization.  Their support can include everything from introductions to their networks, support in raising capital, strategic planning, and even personal support.  Sometimes relationships that start with mentor advisors formally become members of the board of directors for the organization.  All of the forms of mentorship below can evolve into mentor advisor roles.
  • Leadership Coaches engage with entrepreneurs to increase their capability to lead early-stage ventures and provide a sounding board, strategic support, and personal mentoring.  A leadership coach might be a certified executive coach or an entrepreneur who has “been there and done that.” Tending to build longer-term relationships with entrepreneurs, a leadership coach will normally be assigned to  an entrepreneur for continuous support throughout the duration of a program.
  • Taskmasters/Priority Setters help to keep the entrepreneur on track and focus on daily/weekly/monthly deliverables to support entrepreneurs in achieving specific milestones. More program manager than guide, taskmasters like leadership coaches will stick by the side of an entrepreneur throughout the duration of an accelerator program.
  • Technical Experts possess deep domain expertise and assist entrepreneurs with a specific challenge. A technical expert might be an individual specializing in intellectual property law or a senior cancer researcher at a leading university. While it may not be immediately obvious what they have in common, the shared identity is “mile-deep” expertise and strong networks in a specific area. Typically working with entrepreneurs for a short period of time, technical experts are engaged on an “as needed” basis and are generally not active throughout the full duration of a program.

In some programs, mentors are asked to serve as guides and supporters in one-on-one relationships over time or serve as leadership coaches, while others lean more heavily on their mentors’ deep domain or technical expertise. Beyond an occasion to clarify nomenclature, diversity in mentorship in all of its forms presents an opportunity to examine how accelerators can learn from one another or share mentor resources to meet the needs of entrepreneurs in cohorts to a greater extent.

Programs seek to engage mentors in meaningful ways and with the best fit.

During an active program or cohort, we engage our mentors at a high level, especially for the leadership coach and taskmaster roles.  We are sensitive to balancing two dynamics: we want to protect mentors from burnout AND at the same time we strive to generate engagement opportunities that are deep and meaningful.

With deep engagement over a long period of time, leadership coaches and taskmasters are more prone to more burnout and fatigue.  In contrast, with slack in the demand-side for highly specific technical advice, technical experts are more susceptible to experiencing a void of meaning.

Broadly generalizing, technical experts prioritize engagement with content and target areas over a focus on development on the human dimension. This is a key distinction from leadership coaches and taskmasters who offer consistent guidance in high touch mentor-mentee relationships. At times, cohorts might not be able to offer a match with meaningful ventures due to technical experts’ highly specific focus. Technical experts may experience this as intermittent and irregular demand on the part of the program and its entrepreneurs/ventures. In this way, technical experts may find themselves at times out in the cold and without a mentee.  This creates a relationship management challenge for the accelerator program, as they struggle to keep the technical expert engaged. Offering up a solution, a few of us in the CIP group suggested that engaging technical experts in a mentor pool offers promise of taking up some of the slack and supporting long term relationship development.

In the CIP we debated whether certain types of mentorship are bound to be most effective based on format and context. Place-based mentorship brings more occasions for meaningful in-person connections. On the other hand, choosing to offer both in-person and remote mentorship can bring added convenience and opportunities to scale resources. We largely agreed that technical expert mentorship is naturally most compatible with an online virtual format, while effectiveness in leadership coaching and taskmaster mentorship is most likely to have high correlation with place-based opportunities to connect.

When looking at pooling mentor resources, the matching process would have to be clear and engage program leaders, mentors, and entrepreneurs in a meaningful way.

We program leaders – or the organization as a whole in a longer-standing, mature accelerator – invest a lot of time in cultivating deep connections with the mentors to assess prospective mentor-mentee personality compatibility. A key ingredient for building a successful mentorship program is the mentor matching process that aims to make sure that there is mutual benefit to entrepreneurs and mentors in the match.

Relying greatly on our people skills, emotional IQ, and instinct, we aspire to match personalities between mentors and entrepreneur mentees. This is especially true for the leadership coach and taskmaster/priority setter roles. In contrast, finding a good match for technical experts is a more linear process based upon the technical needs of the mentee and the experience of the mentor. While still a consideration, personality fit was perceived as a less crucial ingredient for a successful relationship.

How can we leverage our community of accelerators to support ventures with better targeted and more meaningful mentor matches?

We see great potential for social enterprise accelerators globally to pool mentor resources, specifically for technical experts. Given the right protocols and tools, this could create a network of stronger mentors for entrepreneurs’ access. For example, if an entrepreneur based in Tulsa, Oklahoma is working on a project to be deployed in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, the accelerator program could reach out to a program with connections to mentors in Mongolia and find the right mentors that understand the local ecosystem.

A key consideration about the pooling of technical experts is understanding their motivations to support entrepreneurs and multiple programs. As the technical experts have deep domain expertise, their knowledge is very valuable to the entrepreneur, but ultimately what is in it for the technical expert?

Many technical expert mentors feel isolated when they only engage with programs virtually.  Ian Fisk of Mentor Capital Network recalled a number of times where mentors in geographies that are not the “hot spots” of entrepreneurship would appreciate the opportunity to build deeper relationships with mentees by connecting in person. In many rural parts of the world, the line between technical expert, leadership coach, and mentor/advisor may blur as in-person connections provide technical expert mentors the opportunity to build longer lasting relationships with their mentees.  

Another risk for technical experts is to isolate them and reduce their interaction with the program and entrepreneur to a “transactional” relationship, where the entrepreneur is extracting information they need to start their business.   Some programs combat this by training their entrepreneurs in the art of asking “potent questions.”  These questions move beyond gaining technical expertise from their mentor to asking, “How can I help you?” and other questions that will support a multi-dimensional relationship between mentor and mentee.

AtA at SOCAP16 – Can we pool our mentor resources?

In anticipation of the AtA Co-hosted Session at SOCAP16, we invite you to contemplate some questions as you continue to engage with your mentors and cohorts. We will have the opportunity at the session for those who are interested to explore the concept of a Shared Mentor Pool and would appreciate your thoughtful perspective.  This will help us to leverage our time together and advance discussions that will impact us all. Now the questions!:

  • How often do you find yourself with the need for content expertise? Would a platform linking you to contact experts be useful? Would you use it?
  • Can we as a community of entrepreneurial support organizations tap into our broad base of technical mentors experts and pool our resources? What safeguards would we be well advised to put in place?
  • How do we create a system to match technical experts with the appropriate entrepreneurs?
  • How do we prevent mentor burnout? Promote mentor satisfaction?
  • How can technical experts best be leveraged across multiple different programs? How will they best support entrepreneurs? What will be their motivations?

*For the sake of brevity, henceforth we will use the term accelerators as inclusive of incubators.

We wish to thank the participants in the Shared Resources Collective Impact Project for their contributions to the dialogue that inspired and influenced this post including: Andrew Grenfell (Global Social Entrepreneurship Network- GSEN), Emmanuele Musa (Babele), Ian T. Fisk (Mentor Capital Network– MCN), Janine Elliott (VentureWell/NCIIA), Rob Gradoville (IDEO.org), and Ryan Ross (Halcyon Incubator).

C’pher Gresham – CIP Host
IMG_8166C’pher Gresham is passionate about helping others globally and breaking down barriers to increase diversity in entrepreneurship. Currently, C’pher is the acting National Director of Expansion at SEED SPOT and is charged with the task of bringing the impact of SEED SPOT and SEED SPOT Ventures to more communities. C’pher previously served as the Phoenix Director of Entrepreneur initiatives where he designed and ran all accelerator programming and aided companies in raising capital. C’pher focuses on entrepreneurs developing sustainable solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.

In addition to his work at SEED SPOT, C’pher is a co-founder of Swillings Coffee, an impact-driven Colombian coffee company. Swillings Coffee works directly with small family owned farms in rural Colombia to improve the quality of their harvest using sustainable growing techniques, roasts at origin to employ women in the local growing community, and distributes to high-end restaurants, coffee houses, and direct-to-consumers in the USA.

Prior to SEED SPOT, C’pher has consulted with non-governmental organizations and institutional investors. He has worked with the alternative investment arm of the Arizona State Retirement System, the African Development Bank and Non-Governmental Organizations in Tunisia, and a Biotech Hedge Fund in San Francisco. C’pher was an early employee at Razoo.com, a crowdfunding platform for nonprofits and socially minded causes.

C’pher has lived on a 135′ tall ship in the Caribbean studying oceanography, and worked internationally in Thailand, Tunisia, and Nepal. He graduated with a B.A. from The George Washington University in Psychology with a Pre-Medicine concentration and an MBA Summa Cum Laude from the Thunderbird School of Global Management with a concentration in early-stage financing for growth companies.