Why mechanized mentorship won’t work


My Google alert for “mentorship” provided an interesting result the other day: Thirty2give.com. So what is Thirty2give.com? According to their home page:

thirty2give is a smartphone app that facilitates formal and informal pairing of mentors and mentees anywhere in the world. thirty2give’s new smartphone mentoring tool is now available for iPhones at the Apple App store and Android phones through Google Play.  It solves the growing math problem of matching mentors and mentees around the world.  We believe that great mentors are great because of their degrees, they are great because of their experiences.

Thirty2Give joins LiinkedIn and Facebook, both of whom announced their own peer mentoring services recently. From where I sit this is not a good trend. Why? Because not everyone is suited to be a mentor. The best way to find a mentor is to work with a mature organization that is experienced in vetting and onboarding mentors. The MIT Venture Mentoring Service has been perfecting its mentoring model for about 18 years. Mentors must be recommended by fellow mentors and then are interviewed extensively by the VMS staff. From my own experience I can tell you that not all nominees are invited to mentor, I’ve had two rejected to go with the two who were accepted.

VMS trains other organizations in its mentor model and to date there are about 75 sister programs around the world. Local accelerators and incubators also offer their ventures access to a mentor pool. I’ve written several posts about finding a mentor and mentor-founder fit. I won’t reiterate them here, but the key point is that mentors need to be qualified by an organization with bona fides in the entrepreneurial ecosphere. Simply mechanistically or algorithmically connecting wannabee mentors with wannabee mentees is a recipe for failure. It takes a thoughtful, careful, experienced, and in-person process that can’t be reduced it to an app. While many matches, like drivers and ride hailers, can be matched by a machine, these tend to be transactional, not consultative relationships like mentorship.

Thirty2Give’s customer base seems to be just about everyone: Anyone with a smartphone can find a mentor anywhere based on their specific need. This is a serious mistakeOrganizations providing mentors need not only expertise in recruiting, training, and retaining mentors, they need domain-specific experience. The two most common domains for mentorship are entrepreneurial and career-driven.

But that’s not the worst of this model: the press release that Google Alerts found is headlined: Thirty2give Announces B2B Version of Mobile Virtual Mentoring App. While I have a deep interest in virtual mentoring, it is actually just a mentoring mode. Face-to-face is the highest bandwidth mode of communications between mentors and mentees and for that reason MIT VMS relies on it exclusively. However, MIT Sandbox, where I also mentor serves students, many of whom work from home during the summer and breaks. But MIT, being a highly international institute, many of those homes are outside the U.S. For that reason I’ve been using Skype to mentor several Sandbox ventures. But like VMS, Sandbox is a non-profit, academic service organization serving students and headed by an executive director with a lifetime of experience at MIT as an undergrad, PhD., and Housemaster. I can’t imagine a better executive director than Jinane Abounadi.

My advice to anyone seeking a mentor is to perform careful due diligence on the sponsoring organization. Are they for profit or non-profit? What is their experience in providing mentors? How do they qualify mentors? What is the background – experience and expertise – they require of their mentors? What is their reputation is in the entrepreneurial community? And what do they expect of you, the mentee?

I’ve found that virtual mentoring can work given a strong parent organization and a very tight agenda and set of objectives for a virtual mentoring session. In fact virtual sessions tend to be more time efficient as the small talk and socializing that often takes place in face-to-face mentoring sessions is not so easy over a video connection. And not all video communication tools are best suited for mentoring. More about virtual mentoring in future posts, but for now a word of warning to would-be mentees: be highly selective about where you get your mentoring from. Act as if you were applying to an educational institution, because in fact mentoring is an educational function. The MIT Venture Mentoring Service reports directly to MIT’s Provost. Just because an organization like Facebook, LinkedIn or Thirty2Give can connect you with a would-be mentor does not mean that they should! Nor do you have any assurance that would-be mentor is a good fit for you and your venture.



Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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