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Building an Effective Mentoring Program: Fishing in the ocean vs. a stream

Next only to funding, intellectual capital input into an incubation program through mentors is the most valuable resource for impact incubators. In an earlier blog, I shared my ideas about this in the context of challenges faced by social enterprises. For impact incubators too, attracting, engaging and retaining the right mentors is a significant challenge. I had the opportunity to discuss this subject with Lynne Anderson, Mentor Network Director at Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. Lynne coordinates mentor engagement at Miller Center while developing mentor retention and recognition programs, and also drives the mentor selection and review process at the organization. Located in silicon valley, an ecosystem flush with hundreds of mentors, her challenge is finding the most appropriate mentors - like fishing in the ocean. Here is an excerpt from the interview:

Q. Describe your approach to building such an extensive mentor-base at Miller Center.

Our mentor network grows organically, through referral from other mentors, social entrepreneurs, and partners. News of our network and the way we deploy volunteer mentors lands most successfully when a prospective mentor is contemplating or is in the midst of a career transition. A self-proclaimed conviction of “wanting to make a difference” is universal for our mentor pool. Our mentors frequently claim that they learn and get back more than they give, so we look for mentors who are lifelong learners.

Q. What are 3 principles that guided you in outreach, sourcing, identifying, engaging and retaining mentors?

Because we ask top-level executives to volunteer their time to help social entrepreneurs, we consider our processes to be a concierge service, and our goal is to make that a 5-star rating service. We also recognize that human connection is paramount, and work very hard to treat each mentor as a trusted colleague. Clear communication, and personalized follow through is key. We staff the leadership position for the network from the network itself. We also work to create demonstration and documentation that showcase that our mentors MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

Q. I am taking the viewpoint of incubators who are starving for mentors and are 'fishing in a stream' i.e. snatching them as they pass by opportunistically. While - from what I heard from you - you have the opposite problem of living in an ocean of mentors and still making sure that appropriate ones are engaged. What are some proactive measures that incubators can take to ensure that the right mentors 'swim' to them?

Each incubator may have their own unique set of challenges and approaches to this. I can speak about how Miller Center designed and evolved its mentoring program. Because our mentors volunteer, it is a self-selecting process for finding mentors most likely to engage and thrive at Miller Center. First, our lead mentors are volunteers with at least 10-15 years work experience though most have 25+ years of experience when they start mentoring with us. Miller Center founders created and clearly stated their intentions for the type and style of mentoring. It is summarized in the figure below:

Q. What are some community/collaborative initiatives we can take as a network of incubators - to help others institute an effective mentoring program?

At a high level, having a shared curriculum, partnerships with organizations with different focus (e.g., global vs local; stage of enterprise, etc.) will be important. The key is enabling mentors to engage with organizations of interest beyond the purview of a single incubator/accelerator.

To learn some of the best practices in running a successful mentoring program, watch this month's Wednesday Wisdom Session - Mentors: A super asset for impact organizations.


Arun Venkatesan

Co-founder and CEO at Villgro USA

Arun is passionate about scaling impact by helping impact incubators succeed. He led Villgro India's health sector before his current role at Villgro USA


Mentor Network Director, Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship

Lynne drives the mentor selection and review process enlisting executive mentorship to social entrepreneurs through Miller Center accelerator and alumni programs. She also provides mentoring and executive coaching to social enterprises through the Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI) University of Santa Clara.

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