Mentorship works

By Michelle Matthews, Director: Product at Viridian

Viridian is an impact agency working across African entrepreneurial ecosystems: we support and train early-stage investors and finance-ready entrepreneurs to grow, connect and create shared prosperity. Working in the entrepreneurial space for nearly a decade, and as entrepreneurs ourselves, we know that most entrepreneurs experience common challenges:

  • Feeling lonely in their journey: misunderstood by family and friends, and with no one in the business to confide in;
  • Overwhelmed by multiple tasks and responsibilities, and the need to constantly make quick, good decisions;
  • Feeling pressure to grow, remain competitive, attract and nurture staff, design and embed systems, display leadership… without outside support or a sounding board;
  • Prone to neglecting their own health in order to keep the business running;

Sounds like someone who could use a mentor! 

A good entrepreneur mentor will:

  • Be credible: They should be able to share experiences that the entrepreneur can relate to or learn from.
  • Actively listen: Entrepreneurs by their nature do not want to be told what to do, but respond well to sounding boards that engage with their problems and challenge them to come up with solutions.
  • Motivate: Entrepreneurs rarely receive outside validation, and can often be re-energised by someone reminding them of their strengths, accomplishments and goals.
  • In some cases, a mentor may share specific technical expertise or make introductions to their network.

These are some basic principles, and chemistry and luck also play their part, especially when an entrepreneur develops an informal and ongoing relationship with one mentor. Is it possible to deliberately design this kind of support for an entrepreneur? At Viridian we think yes. An example is the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, an annual competition that shortlists 16 innovators from across the continent. This eight-month intensive programme, run by Viridian, has a strong mentoring thread running through it, comprising four parts:

One-on-one mentor: Each shortlisted engineer has a mentor who they check in with at regular points along the programme. The mentor creates space to discuss their wellbeing, and also keeps them accountable to the plan they have set for themselves.

Peer group mentorship: The same mentor also facilitates a monthly peer group session. In groups of four similar businesses, the entrepreneurs are encouraged to share their work challenges and experiences, and to offer each other support, growing their own leadership skills.

Business expert panel: Every entrepreneur in the programme is at a different stage with their business and their entrepreneurial journey, so a one-size-fits-all approach on specific technical issues won’t work. The one-on-one mentors are generalists, concerned with the overall wellbeing of the entrepreneur and their business. Viridian’s expert panel, however, comprises more than 20 people with specialised expertise in sales, intellectual property, marketing, financing and other business functions. Entrepreneurs can go to them with specific issues in these areas and receive advice in structured one-hour sessions.

Product mentor: The Royal Academy is a network of working engineers. The Africa Prize programme taps into this network for volunteers: each shortlisted candidate is matched with a seasoned engineer who can guide them on the physical product they are building.

In addition, alumni of the 10-year old Africa Prize programme are included as speakers in the training of the new cohort, with many forming informal mentorship or knowledge-sharing relationships with each other.

These mentorship and connecting opportunities are some of the most valued aspects of the Africa Prize programme. By the end of this programme, every entrepreneur reports increased confidence in their ability to run their business and it shows in the quantitative results too: over 80% have increased revenues.  

For the wellbeing and growth of entrepreneurs – and of their businesses! – mentoring works.

For more insights on mentoring entrepreneurs, visit the website of our friends in the United Kingdom, Mowgli Mentoring: