I was lucky to be recently given the opportunity to act as a mentor to a remarkable 13-year-old inventor, Vishweswar Eswaran, a grade 8 student from GEMS Modern Academy. I met him while judging projects at GEMS Education Maker Day, where over 20 projects by children between the ages of 9 to 15 were presented. I was tasked with assessing the projects by these junior inventors, and selecting five to progress to the next stage. My mentee, the inventor of ODI, a wearable device for the visually impaired, was among the top 10 finalists who joined the GEMS Arab Innovation Centre for Education's (AICE) Accelerator Program. AICE consisted of a series of workshops and a pitching competition, with ODI winning the same and getting awarded a substantial AED10,000 cash prize! Through my brief mentorship interactions with Eswaran, I learned a few things:
1. Move past the non-reaction. The creator of ODI is a much better listener than I am. Listening is a talent people develop over time and experience. But working with teenagers can sometimes be frustrating, as they barely demonstrate reactions. (For some reason, I was expecting a few reactions, but was left perplexed.) Were they even listening? Are they understanding what I’m trying to get across? Am I sounding absurd? It turned out -and this is based on personal observations only, no scientific evidence whatsoever is referenced to here- that the smart ones are often the quiet ones. If they don’t react, simply repeat your core message (what you want them to retain) two or three times, and move on.
2. The Internet is not life. Parents and teachers worry about how much children and teens are becoming dependent on the Internet, while not necessarily acknowledging that the Internet is actually allowing children to learn faster. There’s a common consensus and belief that teens and children today know much more than generations past- but no Google, VR experience or YouTube video can replace real life, yet! Children should be leveraging the limitless offline resources they have access to: people and interactions. I want to believe that design thinking was invented for children. They need to be told that the Internet will help them find data, but interacting with people will allow them to truly understand it. I insisted that my mentee spends his weekend visiting care centers to observe and talk to visually impaired individuals- before deciding what his end product should look like. He did, and indeed, his prototype changed. It was enhanced, and iterated enough to win him AED10,000 and the title of “Innovator of the Year”!
3. Either you mentor- or you don’t. Mentoring and coaching is a responsibility regardless of the mentee’s age. This is especially true when you’re mentoring a teenager, as they listen and have very little in the way of benchmarks. Thus, they can’t really validate or counter-argue your directives; they take what you tell them literally, and proceed to implement it. It’s hard to get them to come to conclusions or setup frameworks on their own, especially when you don’t have much time to mentor them. Therefore, sometimes you do have to tell them what to do and how to do it. And you need to be very careful- ensure that your advice is based on research and data as opposed to personal opinions and/or hunches. If you decide to mentor, you must commit and put the effort and time. Remember, your brief interaction with this young person can have a major impact on his or her future.
4. Be coachable. When coaching, stay coachable. Being older and more experienced doesn’t mean you should have the last word. Your mentee’s passion for what they’re creating has much more value than a beautifully designed PowerPoint presentation. Allow them to convey their passion, vision and goals in their own way. Nurture drive and teach your mentee how to channel it loud and clear. Inspire them by showing them examples or sharing best practices. The inventor of ODI was eager to learn, and I had so much advice to give him. He wanted to contribute and help others, and I wanted him to win. I learned to manage my enthusiasm and adjust my mentorship style to stay true to his passion and mission.
5. Have fun and keep going. Working with smart and talented young inventors is so much fun. It makes you re-evaluate your own capabilities and wonder what the heck you’ve been doing all these years. It’s such an enjoyable experience, watching your mentee achieve both mini wins and big wins. Imagine how you’d feel if they become the next big inventor! So enjoy the experience, become your mentee’s big brother or sister, and make the relationship fun for them, too. If you have time and if you’re good at it, mentor more. It’s a rewarding activity and it will bring you joy, in addition to immensely improving a young person’s chances at success.