More than perhaps anywhere else, the need for a strong mentor network is amplified in rural America.
Mentors are crucial to the growth and survival of tech startups — their combination of experience and insight can be the difference between a great idea struggling to gain traction or maximizing its full potential. But the reality of many rural places means that specific tech, startup or industry expertise and connections can be difficult — or even impossible — to come by locally.
This is why the Center on Rural Innovation has launched the Rural Innovation Mentor Network for its affiliated communities, to bridge that gap between geography and possibility by connecting rural founders with mentors from across the country.
That’s also why we chatted with Maia Patrick Donohue, a mentorship expert, author, and director of the IDEA Hub Accelerator in Platteville, Wisconsin, which hosts action-oriented workshops and forges valuable connections in the region through programming and support for local entrepreneurs.
Donohue has spent years working with early-stage startup founders around the world, experience he used to inform his first book, “The Startup Mentor,” which serves as a guide to the ways that first-time founders can make the most of quality mentorship to launch a company.
In our conversation, Donohue laid out five things to know about mentorship that show how it can be so important for rural tech entrepreneurs:
1. Mentors are at the heart of a startup’s community.
Whether it’s as a friendly sounding board, as a guide, as an advocate — or even all three at the same time — mentors are central pieces to the community supporting an entrepreneur or startup.
Sure, some innovations are good enough to achieve a level of success on their own merits. But history is littered with the stories of founders whose great ideas failed to achieve lift-off, and it’s easy to imagine how they might have benefited from the intangible boost provided by a strong support system of well-connected mentors.
“There’s this kind of old idea that you just build a cool product and, oh my God — everybody comes to your website, uses it or downloads it, and you didn’t even have to do anything because it’s so awesome. And it just doesn’t work like that,” Donohue said. “So much of it is about having a community of people, whether it’s evangelists to talk up your product, people to write about it, spread the word.
“Your mentors should be the centerpoint of that community you’re building. They should be the most influential people, the people who totally go to bat for you. They are there in your corner, they’re telling other people about you, all that kind of stuff.”
2. Mentorship is a relationship, not a transaction.
A founder can only achieve the trust needed to turn a mentor into a true ally by understanding that he or she is cultivating a relationship — because that’s what it is.
Listen. Follow through afterward to show appreciation. Be generous in return.
“It’s all based on social capital, which is built on trust,” Donohue said. “With mentorships, you’re teaching the community that you can be trusted that you’re a person that is worthy of putting trust into.”
Treating a mentor like tech support for your computer, grabbing a half hour of time and thinking all problems will be fixed, won’t accomplish that. If an entrepreneur approaches mentorship as a transactional relationship that’s exactly what he or she will get. Over time, that initial deposit of kindness will be spent.
“The simple trick that I would say to always do whenever you meet with a mentor is just end by saying, ‘You know, what can I do for you? Is there anything I can do for you?’” Donohue said. “And, you know, nine times out of 10, they’ll be like, ‘Oh, that’s really nice, but (no) …’ But they might come back to you later and say, ‘Hey, you think you could help me with such and such?’”
When mentorship is approached as a two-way street, that reciprocation can build an even stronger bond and sense of trust.
3. There’s no one type of mentor. There’s a spectrum.
Chances are one person won’t be able to provide all the wisdom a founder needs to navigate from an idea to a thriving, fully realized company.
But engaging different mentors, each with his or her own unique backgrounds and areas of expertise, can accomplish that, as well as provide connections to new networks and communities that could benefit a startup in unexpected ways.
“There are some mentors that are really great for industry experts — they know what you’re going through really well,” Donohue said.
“One area of industry expertise might be specifically like your company and what your market is. Another one might be if you want to raise money,” Donohue said. “That might be a completely different type of industry expertise, where now you have a mentor who’s actually raised money, and knows what it’s like to go through that fundraising trail, and can kind of tell you what, what to focus on, what not to focus on.”
After all, nobody said an entrepreneur is limited to just one mentor!
“What your goal should be is making your mentor into a peer ... if you pursue that, you know that you're doing something right. It just takes time, but you get there eventually.”
Maia Patrick Donohue
4. Mentorship can be as valuable as you make it.
Trying to calculate or predict the benefits of a mentor-mentee relationship is a fool’s errand.
An awkward introduction can lead to a deep and lasting relationship just as easily as a promising first meeting could soon fizzle out.
“You might have a first meeting with a mentor and just be like, ‘Oh, that was fine, I don’t know that anything world-changing came out of that.’ But just keep working with that person and finding ways to communicate, and sooner or later, you’re going to be surprised when something really beneficial comes out of that.”
In time, a mentor could turn into an official advisor or even an investor. But even if neither of those outcomes happen, if a founder has approached seeking mentorship in the best way possible, he or she will emerge from the process as an equal. And at some point, the tables could turn — the advised could become the advisor in the relationship.
“What your goal should be is making your mentor into a peer,” Donohue said. “I just think if you pursue that, you know that you’re doing something right … it just takes time, but you get there eventually.”
5. Mentors stand to gain, too.
Finally, what can get lost in the mentor-mentee dynamic is how the relationship can benefit the more established, experienced party.
“As a mentor, you’re planting seeds, and sooner or later, some of those seeds are going to grow into something really big and beautiful that you’re really excited about at some point,” Donohue said.
By sharing their wisdom and knowledge, mentors expand their own networks and prospects. That generosity could lead to new exposure, new ideas, or avenues for investment, or come full circle when a former mentee has achieved a level of success and can pay it forward.
“Eventually that network will come back and be useful to somebody else, which can be really cool,” Donohue said. “Your own network can sort of evolve to the point where, if you’re young, you might not know a lot of influential people, but you might get to know them eventually, and then your mentor might be able to use that network too.”
It doesn’t stop here.
Those are just a handful of the ways mentorship can make a difference for entrepreneurs and companies. Each relationship is as unique and full of possibility as the people involved.
And the Rural Innovation Mentor Network is just one facet of what CORI is doing to accelerate tech entrepreneurship and scalable growth in small towns throughout rural America, each of which is as unique and full of possibility as the people who live there. Our comprehensive approach to this work includes strategizing for infrastructure and investment, building capacity, and connecting local leaders from coast to coast through our Rural Innovation Network.
If you or someone you know might be interested in supporting founders in rural America, we would encourage you to sign up to join our Mentor Network and become that potentially game-changing resource for an entrepreneur who would benefit from your experience. Those interested can commit as much or as little time as they want, and we will always check in with them before making any introductions.
At the Center on Rural Innovation, we are working with rural communities across the country to help position them to thrive in the 21st-century digital economy. To learn more about our work in this space, be sure to check out our blog and sign up for our newsletter.