Making the Most of Mentors

By Martha Rush; Chief Educator-in-Residence

Tales and Tips From the Front

There is a whole lot that educators don’t know about the business world, like:

  • How to navigate Alibaba to find resource providers

  • How to negotiate with resource providers to get products made to your specifications

  • How to use search engine optimization (SEO)

  • How to do A/B market testing on social media

I could go on, it’s a long list. That’s why it’s incredibly helpful for you and your entrepreneurial students to be paired with a knowledgeable business mentor.

Unfortunately, simply assigning a teacher and a business mentor to work together—or assigning a business mentor to directly coach a group of teenagers—doesn’t magically work. I’ve had both bad and good experiences with mentors, and it’s clear that my bad assumptions helped doom those failed relationships.

Here’s what I mean: I thought I could invite a business mentor into the classroom, introduce them, and let them lead the class. I thought they would have an easy time working with teenagers, and I thought the students would be comfortable asking them for help. I was wrong on all counts.

Working with a mentor can dramatically enhance your students’ experience, but, like any relationship, it takes work. Here’s how to make it work:

First, don’t agree to work with just any mentor.


Likewise, mentors should not agree to work with just any teacher. You need to find someone you can communicate with, collaborate with, and count on.

Bringing in a business mentor does not mean “time to sit in the back of the room and let them run things.” They are not trained educators, and, too often, inexperienced presenters resort to talking at students—exactly what we don’t want in a creative, student-focused classroom.

Interview several potential mentors, and explain the goals of your program and what you hope your students will gain from working with them. The best mentors will ask you questions in return—because they will know their strengths and weaknesses and want your help in designing the best classroom experience.

Also, be sure to check with your school about requirements for outside advisors working with kids. You’ll probably need a background check done, at the very least.

Second, figure out those goals—and what you hope to achieve by bringing in a mentor.

For my students, the biggest win has been having an actual young entrepreneur—someone who knows how the business world works, who knows how to cut deals, how to talk to resource providers, how to manage social media, etc.—listen to their ideas and ask questions.

Our mentor, Will, comes to class meetings whenever he is in town (and not doing business in China, Europe and wherever else he goes) and does just that. He never shows them PowerPoint slides and he doesn’t tell them what to do. He listens to their team updates (reports on what they have accomplished with their venture in the prior week), answers their questions, and asks them questions.

Frequently, Will’s comments are things like:

“Have you considered offering that as a subscription service rather than as a one-time purchase?”

“What is the packaging like? Is it also biodegradable?”

“You can tell the company that you need a sample, and if it meets your specifications, then you’ll place an order. You should not have to pay for samples.”

“What is the per-unit savings if you order 500 rather than 100?”

Will is absolutely meeting my goals; he is sharing his knowledge, helping expand the way students think and approach their ventures, and building their confidence.

Third, be clear about expectations and communication.

How frequently do you need or want your business mentor to meet directly with students? How frequently do you want to check in with the mentor by phone?

Do you need your mentor to help explain business concepts, like “supply chain” or “A/B marketing” to your students? Or to you? Do you want the mentor to listen to your students’ pitch or read their business plan?

Can you arrange for mentor “visits” by Skype, Zoom or Google hangouts, if they are not close by or are frequently traveling for business?

Nothing will sour a relationship more quickly than poor communication. If your mentor doesn’t know you expect them there weekly, or you don’t know that your mentor has limited experience with marketing (for example), you can both end up very frustrated.

Fourth, talk to your students about how the mentor relationship works.

Don’t assume your students are comfortable asking for advice! They may expect the mentor to come in and act like a teacher, telling them what to do. They may also be intimidated by having a successful entrepreneur listening to their fledgling ideas. They may be tempted to take every bit of mentor advice as gospel, rather than continuing to test their own ideas and hypotheses.

Just as you need to coach the mentor on how to advise students, you need to coach your students on what to expect from a mentor and how to best tap into their knowledge.

Finally, say no to parents as mentors.

Frequently, parents are enthusiastic about their students’ entrepreneurial dreams, and they may have great business experience. That’s wonderful—invite them in as guest speakers—but don’t designate a parent as the official mentor to any team of students.

It’s very difficult for any parent to be unbiased and treat all of the kids the same way they treat their own. (We see this problem all the time in youth sports.) It’s critical that in your entrepreneurship class or club, all students have the ability to voice their ideas and opinions, and all students have equal access to mentors and other resources. That can’t happen when one student is part of the “kitchen cabinet”—and everyone else is not.

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