Trep Talks: Mentors play key role in business success

A mentor -- or multiple mentors -- are key to a business’ success, but they are not always easy to come by. 

“You can’t just go to a couple events,” explains Linda Olson, President of Tampa Bay WaVE, a grassroots nonprofit supporting tech startups. “You really need to take it seriously. You really need to invest in finding a mentor. You’re going to have to kiss a lot of frogs.”

“It is a lot like dating,” agrees Valerie Landrio McDevitt, Associate VP of Technology Transfer and Business Partnerships at the Tampa-based University of South Florida. “For us it really is finding that right match.”

Olson and McDevitt were part of a six-member panel that addressed Tampa Bay entrepreneurs August 15 at the Mark Sharpe Entrepreneur Collaborative Center in Ybor City. The occasion was a quarterly Trep Talks meeting.

Trep Talks, organized by Hillsborough County’s Economic Development Department, features panel discussions on topics of interest to entreprerneurs and small businesses. It is free and open to the public, with no registration required.

Citing a 2015 TechCrunch article, Olson underscored the importance of finding a mentor. “If you have that billion dollar idea, why would you take a chance and not get that mentorship?” she asks.

The article, “Mentors Are The Secret Weapons Of Successful Startups,” is about the nonprofit Endeavor’s study of New York City startups between 2003 and 2013. “33 percent of founders who are mentored by successful entrepreneurs went on to become top performers. This is over three times better than the performance of other New York-based tech companies,” the article says.

Be ready for a hard discussion

While it’s good to have a comfortable relationship with your mentor, some panel members made it clear that doesn’t mean mentors do your work or sidestep tough issues. 

“Be ready for the hard discussion,” advises Jeannette Bradley, CEO and Executive Director of THAP and 5508 Coworking and Collaboration Exchange in East Tampa. “It may not be a frog, you’re just not willing to accept what you are told.”

She knows what that’s like, having a “tough love mentor” of her own. “That’s really hard, that’s really tough to have to listen to that,” she admits.

In the end, it’s worth it. “It’s a great relationship because I know he will tell me the truth,” she explains. “I have to stop dead in my tracks sometimes, and make changes that I don’t necessarily want to make. We need truth tellers.”

Lynn Kroesen, Manager of Hillsborough County ECC, shared similar advice with entrepreneurs. “Find a mentor that is going to show you the tough love and be honest,” she says. “Be out and available. Network, network, network, because you’re surrounded by mentors.”

Sitting around waiting for a magic moment isn’t required. “It’s OK to ask somebody to be your mentor, especially after you do that self-assessment,” Olson advises. “It’s okay to ask and make it a priority in your life and your business.”

Some relationship styles work better than others. The mentor who is answering your question with a question might cause frustration. 

“Somehow I always came out of those sessions with some sort of clarity,” she told entrepreneurs. “That’s how I knew it was right.”

After meeting with your mentor, it’s a good idea to follow up and tell them whether you followed their advice. “Especially if they did help you, they’re going to want to know that,” Olson says.

Rakefet Bachur, Executive Director of Marketing and the American-Israeli Liaison for the Florida-Israel Business Accelerator in West Tampa, says FIBA has been mentoring remotely with its Israeli businesses.

“We only required them to come to Tampa twice. We knew that they’re running a business; they’re a critical part of their business,” she explains. “We really didn’t think it would be conducive to tear them apart from their environment and bring them here to Tampa.”

So that meant remote mentoring most of the time. “I strongly recommend you do it with a video call [with Skype, WhatsApp, or Zoom],” she says. “When we have them on camera, then they can’t be on the train. They can’t be making dinner. They can’t be taking the dog for a walk.”

Want to find a mentor? Start volunteering

Ramesh Sambasivan, President of TiE Tampa Bay and an active mentor, points out he has multiple mentors, including a stock market guru in India. 

“He doesn’t mince words,” Sambasivan says. “The idea is to be very efficient and very respectful of his time. Have someone who holds you accountable.”

TiE Tampa Bay is the only Florida chapter of the volunteer-led group focused on economic development through entrepreneurship.

Sambasivan suggests an organization he’s founded, WorkInTheFLOW, as a way of connecting with a mentor. Launched in the Hillsborough County Public Library in 2016, WorkInTheFlow is a free self-help, online network that stresses meeting face to face to co-work and learn.

“I wanted WorkInTheFlow to be a community with purpose. That’s why it is all about work ... but being in a state of flow,” he explained later.

He describes it as a “passion project” aimed at changing the social norm of not looking at one in other when in a public place like the New York subway or public library.

“Changing culture, with how people act with each other, is what we are attempting to do with WorkInTheFlow,” he adds.

The organization holds “conference quality” information meetings at the libraries. “They have been able to attract a very different kind of audience to public libraries,” he says.

Another way to meet mentors is giving back to the community. Sambasivan actually prefers volunteering to networking. 

“If you really want to find a mentor, start volunteering,” he suggests. “When you do networking, there is a lot of posturing. It’s very different when you go to volunteer.”

Everyone has some expertise they can share. “My belief is that everyone can be a mentor to somebody -- and everyone needs a mentor,” he says.

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Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune