For the last three summers, I’ve participated as a mentor in the Startup Reykjavik accelerator programme. Today, I was honoured to be voted by the 2014 alumni as “mentor of the year” for last summer’s programme.
I was asked to give a short speech for the occasion, for the mentors who are participating in the Startup Iceland accelerator this summer. I gave the speech in Icelandic, and it is available in its original form here. What follows is an English translation:
I’d like to say a few words about what it is like to be a mentor, and in particular about being a mentor in the Startup Reykjavik accelerator, which I’ve participated in from the start.
I know many of you are experienced mentors, from Startup Reykjavik or elsewhere. For those of you who are getting started, it might make sense to talk a bit about what it is like in practice to be a mentor for Startup Reykjavik.
Usually, the way it has worked, is that at the beginning of summer, you let the organizers, Klak Innovit, know what dates you are available, and they will book mentor meetings with most or all of the ten teams participating in Startup Reykjavik.
You then meet each team individually, get a short presentation, and try your best to give them some useful feedback based on this first encounter. You follow this up by deciding which teams you think you could and would like to help, and this often ends up not being more than one or two teams per mentor. Of course, it can take several meetings before the mentor-mentee relationship clicks with one or more teams.
After this initial process, your communication is more directly with the teams you are taking under your wing, to organize meetings or use other communication tools. But at the start, it’s great if you can meet as many teams as possible, to be able to make the best selection.
Often, you can help a team in a quick way, for example by making connections for them within your network, even if you don’t intend to take the team on as a mentor. This is another reason to try to meet all the teams, or as many as possible, at the start, even if you don’t expect to be able to be an effective mentor for particular teams.
In addition to the organized meetings, Startup Reykjavik has several open events such as barbecues where you can meet and chat in an informal setting. These events are tremendously useful as a venue for helping a few teams outside the ones you are mentoring in an informal way, and to get to know the teams well enough to pick one or two to mentor. I strongly recommend that mentors show up for these events. Apart from being very useful, they are a lot of fun.
In fact, I think more opportunities for informal meet-ups between the teams and the mentors would be great. Some of these could be more low-key than the barbecues, for instance just an afternoon to grab coffee at the Startup Iceland offices. The informal events are one of the best ways to create personal relationships that can last much, much longer than the 10 weeks the accelerator is ongoing.
Once you have established a mentor-mentee relationship, I’m pretty sure that it’s largely a question of personal style which modes of communication are suitable. All of the classical modes are available, such as meeting in person, using the phone, email etc. I’m willing to bet $10 that some team this year will use Slack to communicate with their mentor. Any takers on that bet?
For my part, I’ve found it most useful to engage in real-time communications with my mentees, either in person or over the phone or via Skype. While email and instant messaging can be great for follow-up or for classical management, being a mentor is not being a manager. It is much more about reading between the lines, seeing how your mentee is feeling, and hearing from the tone of their voice what it is that really worries them or that they’re unsure about.
This brings us perhaps to what it is fundamentally to be a mentor to a mentee. Is it like the relationship between a teacher and a student? I don’t think so, because a teacher usually has significant control over the path the student must take.
In my opinion, a fundamental tenet is that as a mentor, you must let your mentee take their own decisions, choose their own path, and shoulder all of the responsibility for their choices. When mentoring an entrepreneur, you must let the entrepreneur be the entrepreneur and remain firmly in the driver’s seat; the mentor should never assume that role.
I think a mentor should also expand the mentee’s horizons both outwards and inwards. Outwards, by pointing out other paths that could be taken, and possibly recommending one path above others, even though your mentee should always make the final call. Inwards, by helping the mentee recognize their own weaknesses or unscrutinized basic assumptions that might be hurting their decision making or prioritization.
First and foremost though, a mentor is someone who shares their experience in a meaningful way. Experience that could have come about from making their own mistakes, or possibly from being challenged by a mentor in their past. Any kind of experience counts, as long as it has bearing on what your mentee is doing or going through.
This is why it’s best to find an individual or a team that is working on something that you truly have insight into, something where you have meaningful experience you can bring to bear. Relevant experience and a strong desire to help the person or team in question is what makes us great mentors.
Let me end with a thought for all the mentors here. It’s a well known fact that investors, unfortunately, have a strong bias to invest in teams composed of entrepreneurs that remind them of themselves. This has meant that for example in the US, teams composed of white males from privileged families who studied at Ivy League schools, have had a much easier time getting funded than other teams.
Can we all join together to not let the same thing happen when we choose teams to mentor? Everybody, or at least most people, has unconscious biases that they’re often not even aware of. To reduce the impact of these unconscious biases, we can be mindful of how and why we are making our decisions, and try to consciously nudge them in a direction that hopefully reduces the impact of our biases.
I therefore encourage all mentors to pay special attention to teams composed of individuals who are different from themselves. That way, I think we will all learn more.
 The organizers of Startup Reykjavik have since informed me that there will in fact be quite many informal events, almost one per week. Yay!