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Mentorship, Starting A Business, Students in Business

How (and Why) to Find a Business Mentor in College

College Finding Business Mentor

This is Part 6 of our Back to College series, which aims to help college students thrive as small business owners. In Part 5, we covered the top colleges for entrepreneurship. To view all the posts in the series, click here.

 

How (and Why) to Find a Business Mentor in College

If you’re starting a business in college, one of the most important things that you can do is find a mentor. A good business mentor can help evaluate your business idea, help you learn more about specific business operational and tactical areas (marketing, finance, etc.), can offer advice on how to spot opportunities and avoid risks facing your business, and potentially even help you network to find new customers, partners, and investors. By learning from the experience of business people who have gone before, you can often help your business grow faster than you would on your own, while also avoiding costly mistakes along the way.
But what exactly does it mean to find a mentor for your new business? How can college student entrepreneurs or other young entrepreneurs get worthwhile advice and support to help them build a company?

We talked to several successful entrepreneurs about the topic of mentorship and asked them for advice on how young entrepreneurs can find a business mentor.

 

Terence Channon, SaltMines Group

If you’re looking to find a mentor, asking a college professor for a referral is a great place to start. Your professor may even be a great mentor. The university’s alumni relations department is likely also in touch with successful alumni that would welcome the opportunity to share their story. If you have a friend that comes from a successful entrepreneurial family, ask if they would make an introduction to their father or mother. There are also many websites that aim to pair students with mentors.

At the end of the day, you do not often know if someone is going to be a good mentor or not. Just because someone is mega-successful does not necessarily translate into advice and guidance that will be helpful for you at this time. The student needs to be able to make this determination. Do you feel you are experiencing growth? Have you learned some new things? Does your mentor provide constructive criticism?

Ideally, if you want to get the most out of the mentorship arrangement, you want your mentor to tell you things you do not know or do not want to hear about yourself. If your mentor is always agreeing with you, this is not a great place to spend your time. You should focus on taking the mentor’s feedback and guidance and incorporating it into your own practices. There is no set way to have an effective mentoring relationship, it all depends on what works for both of you. Maybe there is a set meeting each month; maybe it is a golf outing at your expense; maybe it is just some impromptu emails or phone calls.

As a young entrepreneur, if you’re working with a business mentor, it’s important for you to keep in mind that mentors are very busy people who are taking time out of their day to help you, so be respectful of their time. Avoid being selfish. Some students seek out a mentor to try to gain access to the mentor’s connections or wallet or in hopes of getting preferential treatment and getting hired at the mentor’s firm. Mentors will gladly make business introductions to colleagues if you have something worth saying and are offering up something valuable to the other side. If you are truly intrigued by the mentor’s success, try to understand what made them successful and then use those tactics in your business efforts. Be willing to be honest with yourself about flaws and things that you need to improve. Remember that a business mentorship is primarily about trying to better yourself and become a generally more successful, purposeful person – it’s not a repository for networking.

Also, a college student entrepreneur needs to be patient. Advice you get from your mentor today might not really make sense or be truly practical for a few years. Work toward your goal each day. Use your mentor as a sounding board for general guidance – not as someone to validate your choices. Asking your mentor “What would you do?” is not a good question to ask – rather it’s more useful to ask, “How would you approach this situation?”

 

Carlota Zimmerman, “Carlota the Creativity Yenta®”

College students who are actively engaged in small business can look to their employers, business professors and, crucially, alumni, to find mentors. Presuming the student is focused, prepared, and has great manners, any entrepreneurial alumni is immediately going to be flattered when a young person comes to ask for advice. Many grad schools, and even some undergraduate business programs, nowadays also have on-campus small business incubators, so that’s also a good place for a student to start the process of collecting names. I personally didn’t start my business in college, but I did have an internship at NFTE that got me thinking that yes, one day I could have a small business, and over the years that idea took root.

First of all, students should realize that there’s no limit on how many mentors they might have, or need. Different mentors will provide different types of help in your young life. As a coach, and as a successful small business owner, I myself mentor a number of young (and not-so-young) people, and I have different relationships with each of them. Some of them want very specific hands-on help with their business plans or elevator pitches, and I have other young people with whom I’ll get cocktails, and listen to them when they’ve had a bad day, and for them, knowing that there is someone older who still believes in their potential, especially when they don’t, has been life-changing. Your mentor does NOT have to work in exactly your area of interest, or even share your background: they just have to get you. There has to be chemistry, and empathy, since then the mentor, being older and more experienced than you, will be able to suggest resources and other people in your field. Starting a small business is so frightening, exhausting, and yes, eventually, exhilarating that a smart, sympathetic person, a person who will believe in your potential, who will fight for you even when you want to curl up under the covers and cry, that person can and will change your life. In my own case, having a famous business law professor from my law school give me pep talks and actively work on my behalf when I was doubtful and burned out…honestly, it made me cry. And then, it made me get to work even harder to achieve my business goals.

I personally used SCORE to find mentors here in NYC, and it was very helpful. Again, I was at the beginning of starting my own business, and I had no idea how to market. (I had graduated from Wellesley College with a history major, and then attended law school. To quote Homer Simpson, “I was told there’d be no math.”) Having the chance to sit down with someone who had made a life in marketing, and be treated with respect, to be able to talk about my business goals with an adult and have him take it, and me, seriously…again, I was stunned. And he really started my marketing mind. That was in 2008, and since then I was named a social media marketing expert by US News & World Report, and now I give paid workshops, and am frequently hired by clients around the world.

Crucially, understand that asking for a mentor is NOT a sign of weakness, but proof that you’re an adult, and that you are determined to succeed. Trust me: adults get all warm inside when someone wants their advice, since it’s automatically proof that they didn’t waste their life. Being an entrepreneur, in fact being human, is a lonely business: so GET A MENTOR. Get as many mentors as possible, and when your own business takes off, pay the kindness forward.

 

Xin Xie, co-founder of Lifestone, PhD candidate at Northeastern University in Boston

Many Universities have their own college incubator or accelerator. I think that should be the first option for college students if they want to find a mentor. Here at Northeastern University, there is IDEA, a university wide student ran venture accelerator and Health Science Entrepreneurs (HSE) an entrepreneurship club especially for health related ventures. My business gets our mentors from Northeastern’s HSE program. Outside the school, meetups or any conferences related to your startup field is also a good place to find a mentor.

A good mentor should not only be a successful person in business, but also be eager to advise people, in a positive way. You are looking for a person that is interested in your business and your team, is willing to teach you what you should do or not in your path to establish your own business. A good mentor is more like a friend to you, not a coach or commander.

Nobody is good at every aspect of running a business, especially when you first get started. There’s so much you do not know when you start a business for the first time. The value of a mentor is to guide you quicker on the right path to success, or help you avoid mistakes that you would not know by yourself. More importantly, the mentor can connect you to their own networks, and this can sometimes give you surprising opportunities.

 

Andrew Schrage, founder and CEO, Money Crashers

College students can look to their current professors who may know of a small business owner or entrepreneur who can help with their business idea. Parents may also be a good resource. You might also want to try your boss or supervisor if working a part-time job in a related area, or possibly other members of a professional organization that you are part of.

Ideally, you’ll want to look for a mentor with specific experience in the industry you’re looking to get into. An added plus is if they’ve mentored before and can give you a list of folks who they’ve helped for reference purposes. Generally speaking, a good business mentor is successful, organized, has attention to detail, and can explain things in easy to understand terms.

SCORE is also a great resource for finding business mentors. You can usually search the website to find mentors who have skills and experiences which would be suitable for your idea. Best of all, the advice you receive there is normally free of charge.

Starting a small business is no easy task, and even with a mentor it’s likely you will make a mistake or two. But partnering up with a mentor means you’ll be receiving advice and guidance from someone who has “been there/done that” and can help reduce the amount of errors, which typically shortens the path to success.

 

Clint Evans, StandOut Authority

Start on LinkedIn by searching for people in your industry. Look at their projects and nonprofits sections. See if they serve on any boards of directors or advisory boards. Many executives and industry thought leaders even post that they’re looking to serve on advisory boards. People with this mindset love helping college students and young people. Reach out to them. If they’re responsive, that’s your first indicator they’re the type of person with a mindset and willingness to help you as a mentor.

Ask if you can buy them a cup of coffee or lunch. You may think they have more money or success than you so they should buy, but successful people get asked all the time. Stand out by offering to buy. During your conversation you’ll get a feel for how they communicate. Learn about their core values and if they are someone you feel aligns with what you’re looking to do.

When you start a business there are things you don’t even know are important and lots of questions you don’t even know you should be asking. Mentors can help you with sales, operations, and financials/taxes. But I’ve found they were more helpful dealing with the emotional roller coasters and mindsets necessary for success. They helped me set the proper expectations about the risk and uncertainty of a startup.

I met one of my first mentors while I was still in college. They hosted a training workshop. I got to meet Roy H. Williams, The Wizard of Ads and 3-time New York Times bestselling author. We had no formal contract in writing. I just got to know him better. I helped spread the word, becoming an evangelist for his book trilogy, which is excellent. I asked him questions periodically to help me along my business and life path.

If you ask for a formal mentor/mentee relationship they’ll probably decline. Most business owners see themselves as too busy to take on an apprentice. They see this as an extra 10 hours or 20 hours a week or more. Keep it informal and casual because most business owners are happy to help. They usually had help early in their careers – or wish they did.

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Kabbage Team

Kabbage is here not only to provide access to the small business funding you need, but to also help you grow your business through free marketing tips, webinars, tools and more. Is there something you'd like us to cover or want to get your small business featured on our blog? Send us a note at content@kabbage.com.