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The Power of Mentoring and Entrepreneurship Learning to think like an entrepreneur put author Rodney Walker on an unlikely path from at-risk youth in Chicago to the Ivy League.

By Shawn Osborne Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Jamie Kingham | Getty Images

Rodney Walker is an amazing young man with an amazing entrepreneurial story summed up by the title of his upcoming book: A New Day One: Trauma, Grace, and a Young Man's Journey from Foster Care to Yale.

Like many successful people, Rodney attributes some of achievements to education. But in his case, it's the education in entrepreneurship that he received in high school, and the mentors who helped him, that made the biggest difference. Learning how to think like an entrepreneur, overcome adversity, be collaborative and open to change really molded Rodney.

Since I run the organization that introduced Rodney to entrepreneurship, it's been my pleasure to watch his growth and success. And because he's an alumni of our program, and benefited so much from it, I also had the pleasure to sit down with him and talk about entrepreneurship and his new book.

Image credit: Rodney Walker

Here's what Rodney had to say:

You speak a great deal about the mindset of an entrepreneur. Of the parts of that mindset -- things like opportunity recognition, persistence, collaboration, communication, iteration -- what do you see as most important? Why?

This principle can be labeled in many ways, but I think the "thirst for knowledge" is one of the most important attributes of the entrepreneurial mindset. It's having a passion for learning, strengthening the mind, and always wanting to understand how you can be better at what you do.

Entrepreneurs always want to understand how a situation or how the circumstances are changing, and being ready to adapt to that change. When you get a thrill out of learning the history of your craft, learning the science and technique of it, learning about the trailblazers who opened the doors for others, and figuring out how you can do it better, you will inevitably become successful. This value for learning is at the core of entrepreneurial thinking, because from that value comes passion, initiative, opportunity recognition, communication, calculated risk-taking, and even persistence.

Related: How Learning-as-You-Go Is Part of the Entrepreneur's Journey

Radical mentorship.

I know how important mentors have been in your life and it's a major theme of your speaking and writing -- what can be done to get more people involved on the mentor side, to find and deploy more mentors?

Mentorship is very important to me. It is the single greatest factor that transformed my life dramatically. But the mentorship I received made me realize that we first have to understand what it means to be a mentor for at-risk youth. It's a deep sacrifice that has to be made. On that subject, this much I know for sure:

  • The parents are the most crucial mentors for children; especially at-risk youth. The most formidable years for a child are from birth to 12 years old, in which 60 to 70 percent of that time is spent outside of a classroom, in the household with parents.
  • A child's immediate environment -- their community -- is the second most crucial mentor. When they walk out of the house, the health, stability, and spirit of their neighborhood, or lack thereof, has a critical impact on the psyche and direction of that child. Usually with at-risk youth, when things aren't going well at home, they go out in the streets to find comfort and support.
  • The most constant narrative that children read about themselves -- the media -- is the third most crucial mentor. Many inner city children see the most vivid examples of themselves through mass media entertainment, which is usually negative and violent, but is also a depiction of success. Given their circumstances, success is more important to them than the pathway to it, and so they inevitably follow those examples.

We have to provide youth with mentors who will help alleviate these three factors early on. Some people call this "radical mentorship", but we must be willing to do what's necessary. Most importantly, we need mentors who will help reorient us to a different way of thinking and being. Relevant education and exposure to experiences such as college tours, trips to different cities, or international travel will open up our minds to great possibilities. Organizations like NFTE do this very well, by combining relevant education with exposure to possibility and opportunity.

Related: 15 Tips for Instilling Leadership Skills in Children

Every contribution matters.

What do you hope this book accomplishes? What's your goal for it?

I want the world to know the ingredients that were put in place, the sacrifices that were made, the time, energy and money that was spent, that transformed a struggling, hopeless kid that was bound for poverty and social failure, into a scholar, entrepreneur, and success story.

Also, I want this book to help people understand and appreciate the meaning of adversity. That without struggle, without that friction or pressure or heartbreak and tragedy, there can be no grace, or victory. Our struggles are literally setting us up for the comeback story, if you allow it to serve that purpose.

Every at-risk young person is a potential success story waiting to happen. I want this book to make you think about the power of giving, whether that be through time, energy, or money. Every contribution matters. Had I not met my mentor or joined the NFTE program in my last year of high school, I most likely would have never made it to Morehouse College or Yale University, and the world may have witnessed another Chicago tragedy.

Related: Mentors: A Young Entrepreneur's Secret Weapon

Make the investment.

Every time I see Rodney or hear him speak, I'm reminded how often those of us in the entrepreneurship community overlook the power of mentoring -- not just in business but in life. We tend to talk a great deal, for example, about investing in people and opportunities. Mentorship is one of the best ways to do both.

Shawn Osborne

President and CEO, Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship

Shawn Osborne is the president and CEO of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), an international education nonprofit based in New York City.

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