The road less traveled may make all the difference to Robert Frost, but to seasoned business people, it might be crappy advice to blaze your own trail. On Tuesday, April 16th at Iron Clad Brewery, a crowd of entrepreneurs and business owners gathered around brews to hear 3 panelists discuss the mentor mentality. The event was run by the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington and hosted as always by its founder Jim Roberts. Roberts presented speakers with experience in mentoring and in mentoring programs to share much-needed insights with the audience.
The speakers on Tuesday night came from different successful backgrounds in engaging in mentorship in their industries. Dominic Taverniti was a mentoring founder, then a member, of CharGrow in Asheville. Hailing from Chicago Kevin Carson comes with several exits under his belt and runs AI BRIDGE. Finally, the Director of the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), Diane Durance, introduced a new university mentor partner program. Each of the three provided a short presentation before a facilitated Q&A.
Wilmington’s entrepreneur ecosystem might struggle with being taken seriously in neighboring regions. In the last couple of years initiatives have been proposed to increase the number of startups generating revenue, startups with successful capital raises, and those with substantial exits. There
Diane Durance and Jim Roberts described an “ask-hole,” someone who asks for advice, doesn’t listen and wastes everyone’s time. Ask-holes in the ecosystem cause trouble, as they put a bad taste in mentors’ mouths and dissuade them from participating. This is a problem. As a precaution, the April 16th gathering was as much about training entrepreneurs what to expect from mentorship as much as it was about presenting new mentorship opportunities in the city.
What Is a Mentor?
In the context of the event, a mentor is an individual experienced in a specific aspect of business or entrepreneurship who volunteers their time to assist a less experienced entrepreneur through a confidential agreement. Generally speaking, a mentor will be an older individual that has seen a lot more of the ups and downs of scaling a business. He or she will have advice and direction that can be headlights on a dark road for a young startup.
Mentors are a sounding board for green entrepreneurs. The panel agreed that a good mentor listens more than speaks. As a mentor, Kevin Carlson wants to get into the entrepreneur’s head and understand their passion. This type of attention helps to align mentors with mentee goals. Dominic Taverniti recalled a situation in which he spotted a scaling opportunity for a mentee only to learn that it wasn’t the entrepreneur’s vision. These can be red-flags for poor fit or miscommunicated expectations.
What a mentor isn’t is a board member, an executive, or an employee. Further, a mentor isn’t there to tell the mentee entrepreneur what to do. They are there to provide insight and give options that the entrepreneur may consider and take. A mentor also is not a “Yes man” who simply agrees with everything they hear. A good mentor ought to provide a bit of “tough-love” since the market certainly won’t be any kinder.
How to Be a Good Mentee
To avoid earning the title of ask-hole, the mentee needs to be coachable. That is, they need to be willing to listen to advice and execute on it. If they disagree with a mentor’s suggestion, then they may respectfully prove them wrong by demonstrating it through data or execution. An entrepreneur should remember that their mentors are volunteers offering valuable time and pay respect to that by not giving too much pushback or being a pushover. Discourse and respect are key in the relationship. What this boils down to is that an entrepreneur mentee must be coachable. This involves being attentive and respectful, understanding the value of advice, and implementing the advice.
Coaching in Wilmington
Under Diane Durance, the UNCW CIE began mobilizing a coalition to bolster local entrepreneurs. This organization includes several businesses in the Wilmington area. At the event Durance announced a new program to connect mentors to entrepreneurs through the university. She designed a methodology for getting talent together with entrepreneurs in which a team of mentors work with a venture. It is a peer learning group that helps the mentee move forward.
Why group mentoring? One-on-one mentor matching is hard to facilitate, especially when you’re new in town like Michigan transplant Durance. Further, skilled mentors are had to find. Teamwork helps to culture both mentors and entrepreneurs alike. The program, which involves a once a month mentor meeting, allows entrepreneurs to come to mentors and present their business. After being vetted and approved, a mentoring team is assigned to the startup, which doesn’t need to be CIE tenant but needs an active membership if matched.
To learn more about mentoring opportunities in Wilmington, contact the UNCW CIE for group mentoring, or for step-by-step startup mentorship contact Bill Warner at Entredot.