The Modern Face of Mentoring

How Young Entrepreneurs are inspiring their predecessors and peers
September 6, 2011

The meaning of mentorship has changed. No longer does the concept of master and apprentice rule the mentorship road. Unless you want to be a cobbler or a carpenter, it’s likely that the traditional roles will be a lot fuzzier than they used to be. “We tend to think of a traditional mentor as someone who is older and therefore more experienced than we are,” says Tory Johnson, best-selling author and founder and CEO of Women for Hire. But today, mentorship reaches beyond age or education, embodying the simple idea of one person with experience passing on what he or she has learned to someone with less experience.

Of course, if each person has valuable experience, knowledge can be exchanged, not just funneled down in a one-way flow. Think of it this way: Who has more experience with managing personal finance—you or your teenager? Obviously it’s the one who can actually remember how to balance a checkbook. (What’s a checkbook?)

But who has more experience with social media, streaming content and link sharing? Yep, the younger “digital natives” of this techno-savvy world, who have many in older generations beat because they grew up speaking the language of fast bits of information, multiple platforms and webs of digital socializing. This technological fluency means they read differently, see ads differently and make purchasing decisions differently.

Mentoring in Reverse

So what difference does any of this make to you and your business? Lots.

“Reverse mentoring is focused on getting help from someone younger who has more knowledge and experience in a particular area than we do,” Johnson says. “This is especially prevalent with technology. Asking our kids to help us with Facebook, for example.”

These days, entrepreneurs are learning a lot more from young mentors than how to post on their kids’ Facebook walls. Kevin Langley, global chairman of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization and host of its Global Student Entrepreneurship Awards (GSEA), sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation, says, “The students inspire the [EO] members by reminding them of the power of the entrepreneurial spirit. Many of our members have been in business for 20-plus years, and watching these students go through the early stages of their entrepreneurial careers is a reminder of how exciting entrepreneurship can be.”

At the 2010 GSEA finals in Kansas City, Linda Vydra, finalist and the owner of accessories e-commerce company Lydra in Australia, says she spoke repeatedly with established entrepreneurs who were inspired by the youthful energy of the students. “It is very inspirational to hear of people’s ambitions and dreams. Each generation will bring with them certain strengths shaped by their circumstances. Young entrepreneurs are quite savvy with technology and the latest trends. We all have something to offer each other.”

Johnson says young mentors can also offer established entrepreneurs insights into their target markets and advice on customer relations through social media.

“We learn from the students what the newest trends are and what opportunities are available,” says Robert Kulhawy, EO member and president and CEO of Commerx Corporation. “I personally learn every year the importance of having enthusiasm, focus and a great business plan.”

Inversion of Expertise

In a recent talk for TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), retired four-star general Stanley McChrystal shared stories about working with U.S. troops in Afghanistan. He explained to the live audience that leading during a time of great crisis forced him to adopt a new perspective.

“It produced something which I call an inversion of expertise,” McChrystal said, “because we had so many changes at the lower levels in technology and tactics and whatnot that suddenly the things that we grew up doing weren’t what the force was doing anymore. So how does a leader stay credible and legitimate when you haven’t done what the people you’re leading are doing? It’s a brand-new leadership challenge, and it forced me to become a lot more transparent, a lot more willing to listen, a lot more willing to be reverse-mentored.”

The general’s recognition of the younger generation’s experience and knowledge allowed him not only to continue learning personally, but also to expand his strategic influence in battle.

“We’re conditioned to believe that older means wiser or that older is always right, and it’s simply not the case,” Johnson says. “Being open to learning from someone who is younger—and has a depth of experience and a fresh perspective that may be very different from your own—can enable you to learn quite a bit to grow your business. The key is to seek this help and to be open to hearing it.”

Keep in mind that while you may have years of experience as an entrepreneur or in a particular industry, there are many facets to your business that you can’t possibly master. In other words, you don’t know as much as you think you do.

Vincent Cheung, GSEA graduate student of the year and founder of ShapeCollage.com, says he sought ideas from entrepreneur judges at the 2010 event for high-level business strategy, but he found that many of them knew nothing about his industry. He’s used to this kind of generational knowledge gap. “I regularly teach my advisors about Internet companies, and the tech sector,” he says with a chuckle.

But this knowledge gap isn’t insurmountable. “Most entrepreneurs are really similar in how they think,” says Daniel Gómez Iñiguez, GSEA finalist and founder of Mexican company Solben. “There are lots of obstacles in the way, but I have a philosophy: Every obstacle has at least one advantage. I am sure I am not the best one [at everything], but I know the best people in every area. And if not, I look for them, so that’s how I solve my problems.”

This philosophy of resilience and positivity, common among adventure-seeking entrepreneurs, helps knit them together. “We learn from each other by sharing experiences,” Langley says. “I view the young entrepreneurs as my entrepreneurial peers. While we are all at different stages in life and in business, I learn as much from them as they learn from me. I’m inspired by the resilience of the young entrepreneurs. Many are juggling school and have overcome significant personal and financial problems while simultaneously starting and running a business.”

Getting Answers

So how do you work with a younger mentor to get the answers you need? “Don’t be dismissive,” Johnson cautions. “Allow for a candid flow of conversation and an open exchange of information and advice. There’s so much to learn and gain from both sides about how businesses are run, about generational differences in marketing and selling and operations, and perspectives on social media. This is absolutely beneficial to both sides, if both are open and receptive.”

Catherine Cook, co-founder of MyYearbook.com and 2010 GSEA finalist, says she was frustrated at first by a few EO members’ lack of knowledge or experience in her industry. “I did feel at times when I was talking with older entrepreneurs there they didn’t exactly get it. Some of them didn’t even have Facebook accounts, so it was hard to explain the difference.”

But once she started answering their questions and asking some of her own, she realized the value in working with the older business owners. “It really does help the brainstorming process because the people that you work with are going to know exactly what you are thinking and how you want it to work. But when you are trying to explain it to someone else, it’s completely different. And I was able to see it through the members’ eyes more. And I could get ideas that way, specifically for usability.”

Cook answered several questions from established entrepreneurs on how to communicate through social media platforms. “I did get questions like, How do you do that? And they are funny because I really don’t think about that much… it’s just what I have grown up with, and it’s interesting to see.”

Brent Skoda, founder of CollegeFitness.com and winner of the 2010 GSEA competition, says, “If you look at GSEA, a lot of the students have businesses that are built around technology in some way, shape or form. And the majority of the more seasoned and established entrepreneurship organization members… I mean, they have businesses and technology is important to them, but they are not utilizing the technology in the same context that we are.

“We all grew up with video games, computers—we’ve grown up at a different time. The students are helping provide the more seasoned entrepreneurs with new creative ideas, and we are coming up with ways to utilize technology, changing a lot of the businesses that we are in and completely taking them to the next level.”

Peer Mentoring

“Late at night, sitting in the hotel bar having some drinks,” Cheung recalls. “Four guys sitting on a couch representing four different continents, four different ethnic backgrounds and four different religious beliefs. The whole time, we’re laughing, joking, having a great time and making true friendships. We definitely disagreed on issues, but we understood each other’s perspectives and it didn’t hinder us from enjoying each other’s company. Despite all our differences, we found a lot of common ground in entrepreneurship, values, personal goals and aspirations.”

This type of peer mentorship takes place in entrepreneurship and industry organizations all over the world. The GSEA finalists carried this lesson home with them as well. Cook and Vydra participate in the 2010 GSEA Facebook group. “One of the other students was seeking out venture capital,” Cook says, “and he wanted to know who had experience raising capital and how to go about getting funded. And so we’re actually asking for advice 
back and forth and asking, ‘How do you do this?’ ”

Skoda says his involvement with EO and GSEA has been game-changing. “You may have a few contacts or have a few friends in your industry, but you are not going to have anywhere near the opportunity that we have [in GSEA] where you have that support community behind you. It’s almost hard to explain the value that comes from that. It’s massive.”

“Running your own business can be very scary and challenging,” Vydra says, “but the rewards are worth it. A friend asked me at dinner one time, ‘If you could be doing anything tomorrow, what would you do?’ I was really puzzled by her question and then said, ‘Well, I’m already doing what I want to do. I’m working on building a career doing something that makes me happy. If I wanted to do something else, wouldn’t I just do it?’

“I guess I’m lucky in that I have realized that life’s too short to waste your time doing something that you don’t enjoy.” 

2011 Student Entrepreneurs

Want to be inspired? Check out the 2011 Global Student Entrepreneur Awards in New York City November 17-19 as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week. Students who are juggling small-business responsibilities with college semesters will present before their peers and Entrepreneurs’ Organization member judges, competing for media exposure and shared prizes totaling more than $150,000.

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