Why Give a Damn:

We’ve been at this mentor-fellow thing long enough to have learned a thing or two. It’s time to talk about our relationship.

The author of this post, Cheryl Heller, designs change and growth for business leaders and social entrepreneurs. She is Founding Chair of MFA Design for Social Innovation at SVA. She also serves as a mentor at the Unreasonable Institute.

For anyone who has not tried teaching, there’s a reason why otherwise ambitious capitalist-type people are willing to overlook its burdensome work-load and obscenely low pay: It is enormously satisfying. To discover wisdom within yourself, accumulated over a lifetime, to synthesize it, share it, and watch it not only land in someone else’s head, but see it make a difference in their work or lives is transformative. The maxim that “we forget 90% of what we learn and none of what we teach” is true, and not only do we remember it, it helps us learn important things about ourselves.

There is an added and addictive bonus when mentoring social entrepreneurs; in addition to the normal gratification of teaching, it happens to be the best non-chemical antidote to fear and hopelessness around. Social entrepreneurs live in a world of possibilities and hope, so if you long for some reason to believe that the gloomy predictions from scientists, economists and the media might not be as inevitable as they seem, there is no better place to look for it than with a group of social innovation fellows.

My experience began the first year of our PopTech Social Innovation Fellows Program in 2008, when I was honored to work with extraordinary pioneers like Erik Hersman, Ken Banks, Abby Falik and Heather Fleming – people who have repeatedly proven their ability to impact the world (and for whom I take absolutely no credit). That was a new experience for all of us, and where my love of mentoring social innovators began. Now, fellows programs have multiplied in proportion to the burgeoning interest in social impact, and so has the need for and expectation of people willing to coach the next stars toward their full potential.

Most emerging entrepreneurs today build (when they’re good) on things that have worked somewhere else, or technologies that have been successfully applied in other contexts. That means we’re all making progress, developing principles and best practices, becoming more efficient, understanding scale and metrics. It also means that the days when it was easy for a responsible social entrepreneur to be truly unique, or to titillate an audience of mentors and investors with nothing but the right jargon and unleashed desire are long gone. Along with this forward motion, expectations are rising for what we see can be accomplished and how learning can be connected and disseminated.

So. It’s time to raise the bar for this growing practice of mentoring social innovators and the relationships required to make it great instead of good. With that in mind, some observations, gleaned over many hours of mentoring many hundreds of entrepreneurs.

How to get the most from a mentor.

To complicate things a bit more, there are typically three sides to this relationship: The accelerator organizations that sponsor fellows, the fellows themselves and the mentors.

Attract us with your track record, not your name or cause dropping.
If you run a fellows program: Some programs revere mentors, while others take a more entitled approach, with an expectation that simply by fulfilling our need to give back, to meet interesting people, collect more business cards or earn good karma points, we should be willing to fly across the world and disrupt our lives for a week. The best mentors don’t need more good karma (wait, is that EVER true?). Like the entrepreneurs themselves, what we want most is to ensure that the time and energy we expend has real and measurable impact.

A little chaos is invigorating, but so is careful planning.
Seeing a dozen entrepreneurs in a day in random order is enormously efficient, but often not the best use of time. The frenzy in some programs to squeeze in conversations with as many people as possible creates a blur of issues and advice, much of it contradictory. It’s confusing for fellows and exhausting for mentors. And let’s face it, nobody needs or can assimilate that much advice in a day. Spending more time in advance understanding what’s needed and offered, and scheduling sessions with that in mind will pay off handsomely. Organizing group sessions to introduce a mentor and cover basics would help enormously as well – saving us from repeating basics repeatedly and helping fellows prioritize what they need from whom. And, by the way, fellows, you get a mentor’s best thinking if you’re not the 17th session at the end of a long day.

Drive-by mentoring has limitations.
Flying in (especially to another country) and trying to have a lasting, positive impact on someone’s trajectory is either an extremely optimistic or extremely arrogant approach. Every once in a while, the “bitch slap” approach can work – when an insight, a different way of seeing an issue or an introduction that will open new paths, can wake someone up and get them over a wall that’s been in their way. Once on a long drive somewhere, I heard a psychic on the radio who specialized in instantaneous answers. She took about ten seconds to give firmly prescriptive advice to a needy caller, often not even allowing them to finish their sentence. “My husband works as an engineer and the company….” “Tell him not to take the new job offer, he’s better off where he is.” Or, “My boyfriend and I…..” “He’s cheating on you, dump him”. It was weirdly fascinating and also sad, in an I’m-American-and-I-deserve-instant-gratification kind of way. Just like with drive-by mentoring, there’s no way to know what became of the callers or if the advice helped. Most often, it’s only superficial advice that can be given quickly, real mentoring happens over time.

Take advantage of our perspective.
What you know is your dream, and your idea. What we see, that you can’t, is how you’re different from the scores of other people working on the same problem, and how you are the same. Be willing to hear that you’re not the only one, be willing to ask. It’s essential to understand your position in the landscape when talking to sophisticated investors, and equally important in leading you to the places and people with whom you can learn or collaborate. Many entrepreneurs come with a predetermined, narrow problem they want help solving, and aren’t willing to ask the bigger question of where they fit within the work that’s already being done.

Do your homework.
Our time together is precious; we don’t have a big window of it left to turn the world around. Be prepared, do some research. Every hour you spend with a mentor is an investment of everyone’s resources. If we thought of each other as investors, how would that change the way we come to the table to talk?

Let us know what came of the time we spent.
After a while it becomes largely unfulfilling to spend an hour trying to help someone and then never hearing from them again. Let us know if what we said mattered after a week or a month or a year.

Thank you.
For reading, for listening. For being brave enough to do what you do, and for giving us the honor of helping you.

An Unreasonable Challenge:

Let’s talk about it. We all want to get better. Why not begin each mentoring session by answering the question, “How can we make this the most productive time for both of us?” I would like to propose a gathering of mentors, to discuss what it is we do and how well.

Cheryl Heller

Author Cheryl Heller

Cheryl Heller is the Founding Chair of the first MFA program in Design for Social Innovation at SVA, founder of design lab CommonWise, and a pioneer in social impact design. Cheryl received the AIGA medal for her contribution to the field of design in 2014. She is the former Board Chair and founding faculty for the PopTech Social Innovation Fellows, a Senior Fellow at Babson Social Innovation Lab, and the Innovation Advisory Board for the Lumina Foundation. She created the Ideas that Matter program for Sappi, which has given over $12 million to designers working for the public good.

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