How can mentoring benefit businesses?

From start-ups to mega-corporations, mentoring is becoming an invaluable way of passing skills on from generation to generation. Danielle Green explores mentorship schemes as a way of building and maintaining a successful business

From New York to Nairobi to Dubai, mentorships are fast becoming the sine qua non of the successful business.

Many organisations credit mentorships with improving staff performance and retention. Indeed, more than 70 per cent of Fortune 500 companies now offer mentoring schemes.

For startups, too, there is compelling evidence linking mentorships with success. Analysis of some of New York’s top-performing tech startups – carried out last year by Endeavour Insight – found that many of those companies’ founders were mentored by the entrepreneurs behind successful businesses such as Flickr and AppNexus.

Indeed, 33 per cent of founders mentored by established entrepreneurs went on to become top performers themselves – three times as many as in other New York-based tech companies.

Of course, there can be no mentorship without business leaders willing to donate time from already demanding schedules. Mara Foundation is a non-profit with offices in Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya that works to promote African entrepreneurship, notably among women and young people. Mentorship is pivotal to its approach and, according to Director and Head of Global Partnerships Rona Kotecha the group is blessed with myriad candidates willing to offer their expertise.

“We work with a lot of organisations, and people are very open to putting themselves forward,” she says.

The reasons individuals with already busy and stressful professional lives offer their time in this way seem to encompass both altruism and self-interest.

On the one hand, Kotecha suggests, business leaders can feel compelled – proud even – to pass on their hard-earned wisdom to the next generation. “A lot of people who part with their speciality are honoured to do that because they’ve been through the whole process themselves,” she says.

There can be no mentorship without business leaders willing to donate time from already demanding schedules

“But I also think the mentors gain a lot in terms of being inspired by some of the ideas the entrepreneurs come up with. The experience can be equally insightful for the mentor.”

Dawn Metcalfe is MD of Performance Development Services at Dubai-based non-profit mentoring programme Reach, which aims to develop the skills of female professionals in financial services and related sectors. She agrees that the mentor-mentee relationship can be a two-way street.

“The value of mentoring is that it’s an opportunity for the mentee to have another human being focus on them and them entirely. For the mentor, there’s research to show that it’s a great opportunity for them to focus on those leadership skills that they want to develop to improve their own careers.”

Jimi Agbaje, Managing Director of Jaykay Pharmacy, and one of the Mara Foundation’s Lagos-based mentors, sums it up thus: “They [the mentees] have the benefit of my experience. And I also have the benefit of their dreams, so to say… we walk the road together.”

The willingness of established business leaders to offer their services as mentors to young entrepreneurs is especially important for the developing world, with more impoverished economies increasingly acknowledging the link between a thriving SME scene and socio-economic gains.

It was for this reason that Mara Foundation Founder Ashish Thakkar established the group in 2009. Seven years later, and having reached close to 9,000 budding entrepreneurs, it finds that those very same mentees are now the mentors.

“The entrepreneurs going through our platform have become volunteers themselves,” Rona Kotecha points out. “We find that people who have developed skills will replicate that in their communities... There’s a ripple effect.”

Kotecha suggests that women in particular can benefit from mentor input. Echoing the sentiments expressed by Sheryl Sandberg in her bestseller Lean In, Kotecha alludes to a female tendency towards reticence in their professional lives. “Mentorships are crucial for women who frequently underestimate themselves and can be reluctant to move forward or reach out for advice,” she says.

e7 Daughters of the Emirates is another Dubai initiative that has professional women firmly in its sights. By 2022, it aims to have established a 3,000-strong “sisterhood” capable of mentoring and supporting each other, and helping to lift the number of women in senior leadership roles.

Mozah Al Samahi, who launched her business Yala Sarayma while taking part in the scheme, says it helped participants embrace their skills. “It taught us to understand our inner selves and strengths,” she says. “I am good at public speaking – so in our group of five, I would do that. Another member may say 'I’m shy, but I can design the logo.’ We all worked to our strengths.”