Mentorship has always been a beneficial tool for building relationships, opening doors of opportunity and increasing odds of success. However, in current times of deep uncertainty, mentorship matters more than ever as employees and entrepreneurs navigate new ways of working. Lacking access to mentors and community can provide roadblocks for growth and elicit feelings of apprehension, confusion, and loneliness.
As many companies transition to working remotely, they are now put to the test on how to sustain culture, break down silos and create opportunities for professional development for their employees virtually. Mentorship is a critical resource for solutioning these hurdles.
Studies have shown that people recognize the importance of mentorship, yet only 37% of those asked have one. Ashley Werhun and Katherine Macnaughton, founders of Mentorly, have built a digital mentorship solution for businesses, schools, and organizations to redefine mentorship globally. The first iteration of the platform was Mentorly Marketplace, which provides vetted mentors to anyone around the world that needs expert mentorship. A recent pivot they have made to their business model is Mentorly Enterprise, launched last summer, a SaaS product that clients use to connect their own mentors and mentees. Clients of Mentorly include the City of Seattle, CMI, a program between P&G and Vinetta, Startup Canada + PMI-Montreal and others.
Mentorly has seen a 457% spike in growth since the pandemic began, “I think one of the reasons is because our clients are realizing the importance of taking care of their communities, but also understand what it actually means to do so,” Werhun explains, “that piece has really driven our clients to understand ‘how do I create a really strong culture?’ and ‘how do I create spaces for people to model that?’ and If I’m asking people to mentor and give back unless I have a system for them to do that, they’re not going to be able to.”
Mentorly makes it possible for organizations to prioritize the execution of a mentorship framework and ensure that this structure will help level the playing field for mentee applicants from an inclusion and diversity perspective. “It’s about making sure that the people who are getting mentorship are not just the ones asking for it. So, people get left behind,” says Werhun, “One of the reasons we’re talking with clients is they feel like they’re missing talent. With a mentorship program, they can see who’s actually taking advantage of this and therefore are seeing overall increases in employee engagement and retention.”
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The two Montreal-based entrepreneurs founded Mentorly by recognizing pain points they experienced personally; identifying gaps that were echoed by hundreds of friends and colleagues. “I can’t say that I was very aware of mentorship until I needed it. And unfortunately, I think that that’s something that a lot of people go through,” describes Macnaughton, “Unless you have a broad network of multigenerational experts – people that you can look up to, peers, advisors and role models – it’s hard to reach out to those people when you need them because you haven’t nurtured those ties.” For Werhun, she recognized even pre-first job that creating a network relied heavily on those who dared to ask for it. It became apparent that the people who were unafraid to connect with teachers after class and ask for letters of recommendation, were the ones that got the opportunity. “That’s what I think led to early success in my personal career. It wasn’t a skill. It was just drive, determination and the ability to ask for help and get people on your side.”
A testing and feedback model for continuous improvement is foundational for businesses. For the Mentorly founders, it’s about keeping the conversation going with each other, with their advisors and peers, while following a cycle of constantly ideating, packaging, testing and trying. “We’re in a constant sandbox. We get to play around with a solution and see what sticks with us and what doesn’t stick, and we’re able to be nimble in that process,” describes Macnaughton, “We’re like a sponge and we’re taking in as much insight from the users and customers as possible.” One note of caution that the founders share is to remain grounded in your vision and focus on your instincts as you learn more. “Being around all of that kind of feedback that you’re cataloging, it’s about trusting your gut because you get so much feedback from advisers. I think we have incredible advisors who have led us to this point, but it’s really important to cut the noise out and really trust your gut too,” she explains. Macnaughton advises businesses to constantly refer back to their “why” statements: Why did you start this business? What is the mission and vision of the company and are you staying aligned with that?
Consider a B2B Model for Further Reach
Pivoting to Mentorly Enterprise opened up a new channel to impact more people through mentorship. The model allows for organizations to pay for the platforms so that employees within the company can use it. In this enterprise relationship, the company can onboard thousands of people at a time and provide access to mentorship almost immediately. “It immediately reduces the barriers to entry,” Werhun says, “We wholeheartedly believe that when you enter an organization or a company, they shouldn’t just promise mentorship. They should deliver it. And so it’s increased our impact just incredibly and the people that we’re allowed to reach and the scale that we’re allowed to reach people at.” This impact is faster to scale than the original business offering of a direct to consumer model.
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It can be incredibly overwhelming for new business owners to run a startup. Feelings of burnout, stress and anxiety are common but not always addressed. “It’s a really wild ride every day; you’re making thousands of decisions and it feels like every decision is life or death,” Macnaughton advises, “Sometimes you think you have to do everything yourself and know everything all the time, but it’s really important to communicate your needs and to reach out for help. Grow your network because you’ll always be leaning on somebody when starting a business.” She also recognizes that it can be easy for founders to pour themselves completely into their business without remembering to do the things that fuel them as well, “I’d say it’s important to find something that grounds you and excites you. Make that a priority in your life – that could be within the business or outside of the business.”