List the top 25 entrepreneurs of today's startup age and there will be one thing they all share in common as a key element to their success: mentorship. More important than finding a co-founder or even funding, the right mentors can be the difference between an entrepreneur launching their idea and failing due to lack of preparation, guidance, or a few critical missteps along the way.
At the University of California, Davis, the Mike and Renee Child Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship has established a unique ecosystem to support and develop the next generation of entrepreneurs, innovators, and business owners. In partnership with InstaViser, they created UC Mentors, an online network dedicated to building direct and personal mentoring relationships between students and industry experts in entrepreneurship, finance, tech, and more.
The power of mentorship isn’t a novel idea. But how do you effectively harness it in today's world of instant gratification and then amplify it across a dispersed or fragmented community, especially one as diverse and complex as a university system? Today’s global and turbulent economy demands more than proximity to turn an idea into a product.
In the outskirts of the Bay Area and over one hundred miles from Silicon Valley, the Child Institute opened its doors 12 years ago and serves as the nexus for entrepreneurship education and research—and as a springboard for entrepreneurial initiatives—on the UC Davis campus.
“Throughout the last decade, we’ve cultivated a network of mentors, all manually,” said Senior Program Manager, Niki Peterson. “It was all done via email invites, list serve invites, and bringing together people in our community around our entrepreneurship and innovation programs and events.”
As the Institute’s enrollment increased and programs expanded, Peterson says they quickly identified the need to automate the interactions between their growing community of mentors and students, which led to to creation of UC Mentors earlier this year. The fully integrated platform not only provides a place for students and mentors to connect, but allows for UC Davis to scale its efforts and to tap into expertise outside of the university.
“We’re really excited about the prospect of being able to connect to not only our local region but areas around the state and country and possibly, the world,” said Peterson. “We’re on the UC Davis campus but the people we connect with are at universities around the country and the community. This is a pilot program and if we’re able to complete it well, we’ll be able to help our learners have a broader base of people to work with.”
UC Mentors officially launched in September at the beginning of the 2018-19 academic term. As with any new initiative there are early successes, accompanied by challenges.
“Once we got up and running, it’s been really easy to to invite new mentors and learners onto UC Mentors,” says Project Manager, Carolyn Nordstrom. “The online platform is great. One challenge we’ve faced is educating the learners about the power of the tool and helping them make the most of the opportunity for mentorship. We want to make sure that we’re educating them about how powerful this tool is so they can get the most out of it, and the mentors feel their time is well spent.”
As program leaders, Nordstrom and Peterson are often sought out to help students find mentors for everything from helping with their business case competitions to commercializing their research.
“It’s all about the network,” says Peterson. “So when we were connecting, say our business competition teams with faculty and alumni industry experts, it was overwhelming to try manually matching them all with appropriate mentors. With the online platform, students can now search for the mentor that has the background and expertise they need. It’s great that they can do it all on their own, faster and with more success, without us having to connect them ourselves.”
Nordstrom adds, “UC Mentors puts the power of connection in the hands of the student, so they can go onto the site and see who they want to interact with, instead of always having to come to us and ask who we think is the best fit.”
The online platform has also improved the impact and success of existing events and programs at the Institute, providing a space for continued conversation and relationship cultivation.
“We hold in-person networking events and encourage people to share contact information with the people they’ve met,” shares Carolyn. “We haven’t seen many people follow-up with each other, but on the UC Mentors network, the students feel like they have permission to reach out to those mentors. They have credits to use for booking sessions with the mentors on the network and know that the mentors have also signed up for it. With an online system like UC Mentors, it feels much less like a cold call to a stranger. It’s much more easily accessible.”
Four months into the launch of UC Mentors, Peterson and Nordstrom are receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback from the faculty and alumni mentors who have been involved with the Institute and mentoring students for several years.
“It’s especially rewarding to hear that our mentors like using the new tool,” says Peterson. “On the student side, especially for those participants who have been around and know what it was like before we launched UC Mentors, they love it because they can feel how much this tool enhances their development experience. The newer students have also found that it’s an extremely helpful tool.”
While UC Mentors is still in its early stages, Nordstrom and Peterson see the possibilities and potential it could have beyond the Child Institute.
“We’d love to expand our network to be the program for entrepreneurship across the UC system,” says Nordstrom. “We might need to make some technical adjustments to make the program bigger, but we’re excited to expand the program in the future.”