Debra Swersky
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Here’s my rant on mentoring. A mentor is a wise and trusted counselor, an adviser, and/or someone who cares enough to provide assistance. talks about mentors, in business, as being assigned… which is false. You can’t “assign a mentor.” A mentor is someone with whom you develop a relationship. The mentor, has to make the commitment to caring and then show that they care by dedicating time, effort, and energy to the person. The mentee, on the flipside, has to see the value of maintaining the mentor relationship and continue to engage the mentor. 

This rant started to marinate when I moved to Dallas. “Mentoring” is a big buzzword in the community and everyone is looking for a mentor. While at Babson I learned the distinction, and subtle difference, between mentoring, coaching, and advising. I then mentored undergrads, coached students in the Coaching for Leadership and Teamwork Program, and advised entrepreneurs. There is a subtle difference that even the dictionary has trouble conveying. I developed relationships with undergrads in the capacity of “older and wiser” been-there-done-that person. I prepared students during the Coaching for Leadership and Teamwork Program to be more effective leaders and team members. And, I provided an informed opinion to startup entrepreneurs.   

Now, in Dallas, I mentor, coach, and advise entrepreneurs, but it is all called “mentoring.” And people who are considered to be “mentors” are oftentimes disguised as salespeople. This is where my rant starts. In my opinion, you can’t mentor and sell. It doesn’t work. The addition of a transaction to a relationship implies work and removes the heart. As the person being paid you may still have a heart (and need to be paid for your time, effort, and energy), but then I would struggle to call you a mentor. That’s a coach.

I decided to surface this rant because I was thinking about an opportunity within Boston’s investment community that I was faced with just prior to my departure. It was a Venture Capital Apprenticeship for women MBA students. The opportunity was billed as a “hands-on experience in the [investment] field and [an opportunity to] develop mentoring relationships with existing venture capitalists and prominent business leaders so you are well prepared to take the leap [into venture capital].” I was invited to submit my cover letter and resume detailing why I was interested in pursuing a career in venture capital.

In preparing my application I realized that my opinions on venture capital aligned with Mikkel Svane, Founder and CEO of Zendesk and Author of Startupland.

“Good investors understand that the founding team often is what carries the spirit of a company and makes it what it is… The investment made in a founder and in helping him or her develop leadership skills is the difference between the really good investors and the mediocre ones.”

Mentoring startup entrepreneurs, or mentoring in general, is something that I feel strongly about. It’s important for a startup community to have people who are dedicated to the growth and development of companies… without feeling like they have to pitch themselves. For investors it’s easy to justify the time spent with entrepreneurs because of the potential return, but for service-providers it’s more difficult. 

Bring it back to the human connection. Care enough about the entrepreneur’s growth and development to provide assistance… but don’t pitch them. It’s more hurtful than helpful.

Debra Swersky