Mentorship: Building a Strong Foundation

Posted Apr 26th, 2017

By Chris Sell, Director of Alumni & Entrepreneur Engagement

This summer, the Conquer Accelerator program welcomes back to East Lansing more than forty entrepreneurs and accomplished professionals—many of whom are Michigan State University alumni—to serve as mentors for the program’s startup teams.

With such a cadre of experts committed to lending their insights, expertise, and stories about their successes (and failures), one might wonder how to get the most out of the mentor/mentee relationship within the program. Here are three tips for mentors and accelerator startup companies looking to maximize their engagement.  

Transparency Matters: Share Your Anxieties

In recent years, the faces of famous entrepreneurs have been splashed across glossy magazine covers. More and more, popular culture devours slick, fast-paced movies, viral memes, and pithy (though simplistic) statements about entrepreneurs—all of which paint a pristine picture that can be boiled down to the throwaway line: “The dream is free, but the hustle is sold separately.”

Though the spotlight on entrepreneurs is appreciated—and no one will deny the inspirational nature of these cutesy notions—the reality is far grittier than the glitter and glitz of Hollywood portrayals. The hard truth is, to quote Elon Musk: “Being an entrepreneur is like eating glass and staring into the abyss of death.”

Before founders start their companies, there are few who will tell them what to expect—and how to manage the requisite stresses, anxieties, and fears that accompany the entrepreneurial journey, especially in the early days of building one's venture.

In general, founders are hesitant to share their anxieties with their newly hired teams, because they value their people. They want the new teams to feel confident about their decision to come on board. Moreover, founders are leery of telling their investors about their anxieties, because, well, they don't want to worry them, either. Subsequently, founders often experience feelings of isolation and loneliness, and without the appropriate support network as a sounding board for sharing startup trials and tribulations, those feelings are compounded.

This is where mentors can help, and precisely why the Conquer Accelerator team welcomes experienced entrepreneurial professionals: they can relate.

Do you have a story to share about your own anxieties and stresses when you were starting your venture? Please feel free to reach out and share! Being open about the hard times you experienced will reaffirm the startups you mentor. It’s empowering when we know we aren’t alone.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Make Me a Match . . . Finding the Chemistry

No two companies are the same. Although their advice is often sound, many mentors haven’t built a company exactly like those represented by the participating startups in an accelerator. Likewise, startups are often building a product or company that may differ from the industries in which mentors are experts. Conquer Accelerator's leadership team has worked hard to match our selected startups with mentors from related industries or with complementary expertise. Additionally, startup teams are encouraged to coordinate weekly sessions with various mentors, so that they can focus conversations on challenges they anticipate, such as fundraising, making smart hiring choices, scaling a company, etc.

So, What You're Saying Is . . . Be Specific

A mentoring session can yield less-than-stellar results if the startup team starts leading the mentor down a funnel of technical difficulties and minor details instead of focusing on the bigger picture. Startup teams shouldn’t hammer a mentor with minutia. Instead, mentee teams should be laser focused, helping their assigned mentors understand what their startup does on their own terms. Similarly, mentors need to remember the stage in which their startups are currently operating, and try to keep the conversation focused on relatable lessons and insights.


Want to share your experiences? Do you have advice or helpful tips for our startup teams? Want to connect, act as a mentor to MSU entrepreneurs, or support entrepreneurship at MSU? Then please take a moment to connect with us on social media (links in the page footer). You can also reach out directly to Chris Sell.

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