Why You Have the Wrong Idea About Who Is a Great Mentor
In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.
When you’re first launching a company, so much of the challenge is about arming yourself with the right resources and aligning yourself with people who have your best interests at heart. But finding the right mentor isn’t as easy as sending a cold email or going to a few networking events.
Nicola Corzine, the executive director of the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center, says that advice that tells you to simply get a mentor is, while well-meaning, actually somewhat unhelpful. Prior to joining the non-profit, Corzine spent 11 years as an investment partner with The Band of Angels, Silicon Valley's oldest seed funding organization. It was in this environment that she understood the pitfalls in offering that kind of guidance.
“I realized later in my own career that there is somewhat of an intrinsic bias to that [advice]. It assumes that people know not only what a great mentor is, but how to go ask for help,” Corzine says. “We often say in Silicon Valley, it's easy -- you just need to know the right question to ask and you'll get all the help you want. But [how do you] help people articulate the need that they have? And then how do you find the right people to ask to help advise and guide you?”
With those questions in mind, the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center is on a mission to provide entrepreneurs of all backgrounds with pro-bono access to the resources and mentors they need to make their ideas a reality. Since its launch in 2014, the organization has supported 6,500 founders, a growing group that is 49 percent female and 61 percent minority entrepreneurs.
Corzine says that the center has been able to help a diverse cross section of people because the entrepreneurs utilizing the resources have in turn taken what they have learned back to their communities. “We found that for every founder, they were referring three friends into the center that were like-minded founders, she said. "In turn, [they] were actually supporting about four-and-a-half founders in their own community with the information they were getting at the center.”
Read on for more insights from Corzine, including about the questions you need to ask to make sure that a mentoring relationship is beneficial for everyone involved, and why sometimes the most valuable insights come from someone outside your industry.
What are your responsibilities as executive director of the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center and why is the work important to you?
I was brought on as founding executive director here to really lead this strategy and the design of what Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center could become, as a sort of startup for startups and a non-profit in the space of entrepreneurial education.
I spent 11 years prior [to this role] in investment. So I [understand] the gaps. Entrepreneurs [are expected to] have much of it all figured but many struggle with things that are just not being taught. Add then you add into that the importance of minority and underrepresented entrepreneurs having access to education that could really help them build sustainable businesses.
Sustainable is an important word that we use all the time here because success in so many ways is often looked upon as sort of being a one-size-fits-all approach. That founders get started and they're going to grow and they all want to be a billion-dollar company. But the fact of the matter is, there's not that many out there.
The impact and the opportunities to build meaningful, great companies of all sizes is something [we’re trying to achieve], a global movement around the power of innovation.
What do you think sets Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center apart from other accelerators and incubators?
The first thing is that we don't actually accept people into the program based on their business. We accept people into the program based on who they are as an entrepreneur or as a founder, as we call them. So applications explicitly ask, can you define why you think you really should have access to these resources? What makes you special as an entrepreneur? Rather than, why is your business likely to succeed?
The second thing is that we're really part time. We don't have any full-time drop-everything programs at the center. Largely because we know all of our founders are out there hustling trying to build great businesses. It's very difficult to give up more than a handful of hours to come in and learn each month. For many other programs out there, it is required that you set aside other things -- whether you're working part time or you have family obligations. [We offer] a lot more flexible engagement.
The third thing is that we really don't transition and expect you to ever have it all figured out. We take a very longitudinal approach to support, mentorship and entrepreneurial development. You're welcome to stay with us all the while that you need support and help.
Over the last few years what have you learned about what makes mentorship effective?
It's part art and science and it is always a work in progress. Many places will say you're a high-tech startup so you need to be around other high-tech startup founders because you all see things [from a similar perspective]. [But we think] there is so much value to be had from high-tech and non-tech founders working together around similar business challenges that they are all facing.
There are stats that learning that can actually happen by bringing a community of individuals together that don't necessarily all stem from a single domain or a single industry, but do have a common denominator of the business challenge as the unifier.
[With mentors] sometimes it's harder to find that perfect fit. I think where that disconnect often happens is, can the entrepreneur really articulate what they need from their mentors to be successful and do they have expectations that are really managed on both sides? Where we're really working on in this field is helping entrepreneurs better define their needs to mentors and better give mentors the ability to have a framework for knowing how to handle and address the entrepreneur’s expectations in that process.
This interview edited for brevity and clarity.