How do you find the right mentor and coach?

"What advice do you have for someone just starting out in the field?  Do you think it's worthwhile to enroll in a formal academic program in social entrepreneurship?"

 
There are a growing number of academic programs specializing in social entrepreneurship. To name just a few examples from my own backyard, Stanford Business School Center for Social Innovation and UC Berkeley Haas School of Business's Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership provide excellent offerings at the graduate level. At the undergraduate level, University of Pacific Global Center for Social Entrepreneurs is a new and highly innovative program.
 
I think that these academic programs can serve as fine routes for the aspiring social entrepreneur. But they also have their costs. The graduate programs I listed above aren’t cheap. And undergraduate programs assume that you will already know you want to pursue this career before you are twenty years old.
 
So to answer the reader’s question, I think it is more helpful to highlight one critical element that drives all successful academic programs of any sort: mentorship.
Most graduates who report a satisfying experience in their academic experience – at any level and on any topic – point to a relationship with a mentor.   To become successful, everyone needs a coach who’s been there before, can point the way, will provide correction and encouragement, and will serve as a role model. That’s just how humans learn to do anything. 
 
And more than any other benefit, what academic programs provide are concrete opportunities for this mentor relationship. The best programs structure them so that they are readily available for all students. The best students are the ones who avidly seek them out.
 
But you can find mentors without being a formal student. In fact, the advantages of seeking mentorship outside the walls of academia are that you will have a wider range of options.
 
Look around. Ask yourself the following questions:
  • Who has created or significantly grown an enterprise? 
  • Who has a proven track record?
  • Who is respected in their field?
  • Who has passion for their endeavor?
  • Who seems to enjoy helping others?
 
Note that I did not include, “Who has an established career in social entrepreneurship?”  I don’t think that most people, especially in the early stages, need someone with specific social sector expertise. The skills you need early on are more generally applicable. 
 
In fact, a nonprofit background in a mentor can be a handicap. My most important mentor is a friend who had been a very successful Silicon Valley executive, but without any significant nonprofit expertise. This absence, in my opinion, was an advantage. He hadn’t been conditioned with the usual assumptions. He could entertain freely my budding thoughts without any “Well, that’s not the way things are done.” And he injected best practices from the corporate world that further stimulated my creativity.
 
There is any number of opening ways to find a mentor. It’s always easiest to start with your existing network. But don’t be afraid to cast your net wide: ask friends to recommend someone or to even cold call. You’re not getting married to a mentor: it isn’t a life long or monogamous relationship, so you can afford to try lots of people out. 
 
Start by asking for a 30 minute informational interview and see if things click. And just like with a first date and marriage, don’t propose mentorship right away. At the end, if it goes well, ask if the person would be willing to meet with you again in the future – perhaps in a couple of months – if and when you have more questions.
 
And one of the best ways to make sure that the second date goes well and might lead to more is if you actually do something with the input you’ve just received. Mentors don’t have time or energy to mentor everyone. The best ones have the least time. So they are only interested in investing in people who will actually apply the lessons they’ve just delivered. Don’t ask for another time just so you can shoot the breeze. Come ready with something like “I tried what you suggested, and it led to some more questions…. .”
 
If this process leads to a more regular mentorship, there is one final point I’d like to emphasize: just because tuition isn’t involved doesn’t mean that it should be free. You’re absorbing valuable time and expertise. You need to signal that you recognize and value what’s being provided.   This doesn’t have to happen right away, but at some point you should pay, or at least offer to pay.
 
There is something about our sector that too often expects people should just give us stuff for free.  Perhaps the constant necessity of fundraising reinforces this posture.  But it is a bad habit to get into if you're starting out in this field.  Unless you are off the charts charismatic or are living an off the charts morally compelling life like Mother Teresa, you won't get very far unless you are ready to pay for value.
 
This is why framing academic programs as a form of structured mentorship is helpful.  We fully expect that we will pay tuititon for the mentoring time regularly spent with professors.  The same expectation should apply to the mentoring time regularly spent with those outside academia.
 
Keep in mind that the form of payment doesn’t have to be financial, although it is probably cleanest when it is. The mentor I mentioned above started out doing it as a favor to me as a friend. We met maybe once a month when I was just conceiving of my firm. I always made it an explicit point to schedule our times over lunch and would pick up the tab. But as my business grew, I needed to talk to him more regularly. I had started to pay him for some of the actual project work he was doing for my clients, but it didn’t cover our mentoring sessions. In other words, I was demonstrating I valued him for what he did for others, but not necessarily for what he did for me. Eventually, we agreed that an hourly paid coaching arrangement made the most sense. 
 
This has been the best for both of us. He doesn’t have to struggle with resenting my requests, and I don’t have to feel shy about asking for help when I really need it. Some people might feel strange about paying their friends, but I think the financial arrangement protects our friendship.
 
Do I think every mentor needs to be paid?  No, but every mentor should be given the option. It's not that your mentors in most cases will need the money. It's that human beings need their efforts to be valued and appreciated.  Offering money is simply the cleanest way to signal that value and appreciation.  They may decline and continue to offer themselves freely, but they should get to choose.  You proactively making that offer will demonstrate a maturity and wisdom that is worthy of mentorship.
 
If you don’t have money, think of what else you can offer. If you’re a student approaching a faculty member, offer to provide volunteer research assistance. That is an excellent way to learn the subject matter and have an excuse to spend a lot of time with the faculty member. 
 
If you're not a student, think of the skills you have that could serve your mentor.  Barter babysitting services or computer technical support, or some other skills.  One of my friends who wanted regular coaching from me is a high end professional hair stylist, and she offered to pay me in the form of regular hair cuts.  As a former patron of Super Cuts, I gladly accepted.
 
Show the mentor that you are… well, entrepreneurial.

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