This Entrepreneur’s Secret Sauce: How My Mentors Help Me Stay Sane

Darin Sennett

About the Author

In recognition of National Mentoring Month, MicroMentor‘s executive director Anita Ramachandran shares her ongoing personal experience with mentoring.

Unlike in past years when the holidays have served as a brief respite from the usual grind and a perfect time to take that much needed vacation or simply settle in for some downtime with family and friends, this year, I decided to use the time a little differently. Rather than the usual goal of a clean in-box at the start of the year, and a futile attempt at going through my never-ending task list that had piled up over the weeks and months prior, I actually did what I always fantasized I would do: a pause in the hectic to spend time doing the deep work. Finally, I had time, albeit not nearly enough, to ponder what was important for my business, for my team and for me.

anita_coffee_400For context, I am the executive director of a business mentoring initiative at the global organization Mercy Corps, called MicroMentor. It’s an online community providing entrepreneurs and volunteer mentors an opportunity to connect in mentoring relationships. If I may say so myself, it’s an incredible program that allows thousands of people from around the world to connect with one another to form links that otherwise may not have been possible and solve business challenges together. We have been doing this for 10 years! It has seen over 60,000 entrepreneurs come through its virtual doors and nearly 30,000 volunteer mentors give back unconditionally with their skills and time.

I feel immense pride both on behalf of those who came before me in this role and the amazing team supporting this initiative. We have incredible plans for the next phase of MicroMentor and have donors and partners supporting us through this. Despite this success, I have been waking up anxious each morning for the last several months over what we are not doing and we need to do next. We have set a lofty goal of tripling the size of our community in three years, the first year of which we are halfway into.

I woke up Christmas Eve feeling the weight of this goal, the modest means we have to achieve it and the limited time before the deadline. But most of all, I grappled with my own limited knowledge of running a tech company and leading a growing team with a variety of personalities and diverse talents. Will I know what technology trade-offs to make? Will we meet the timeline we promised donors? Do we have enough money to do the big changes we have set in motion? Do I have the right mix of talent in the team to achieve the growth and scale no mentoring program has seen to date? Am I guiding the current team so they can realize their own potential and help us see unprecedented growth? Are we prioritizing the most important things that will allow us to succeed? You know, the standard list in the minds of innovators at the nexus of self-doubt and high standards — nothing new to entrepreneurs, but particularly troublesome for women leaders.

So what did I do when I entered the zone of having the time to tackle the bigger challenges that the daily grind didn’t offer me the space or time to do?

I started my day on December 24th by writing down my “Inventory of Concerns”. The list had 5 categories: Technology/Engineering, Product, Staffing, Regional Programs and Fundraising. Don’t get me wrong, my inventory has a lot more, but these made the top five. And within each category I dumped all the things that make me restless or often leave me flummoxed. Then I started working on different planning/brainstorming documents for each topic. As I tackled each category, organizing my thoughts and creating a plan to address the concerns, there were points in the process when my thinking would invariably come to a sputtering halt. While every entrepreneur, business owner, and program leader has no doubt faced similar challenges, I realized I had a secret weapon to pull out at times like these. I had a “phone a friend” card I could use — something I have come to use often and with increasing and predictable success. I had my mentors.

Let me pause here to share a little about mentors and mentoring.

Some of us have been lucky to have formal mentors in our lives, whether it was a person we expressly sought out from our personal or professional networks or found through a mentorship program. Many others have had an informal mentor in the form of a teacher, a parent, an older sibling, a colleague, a friend, another family member or a spiritual guide. This person took a moment to give us a boost of confidence when there seemed to be none, asked a simple but profound question which made all the difference, took us under their wing for some tough love or met us in a chance meeting but made an impression that served as a voice of reason for many years. Regardless of the origin or nature of these relationships, I think many of us can think back to someone who made that difference, usually a defining one, even if it was specific to a particular period in our lives. What makes mentoring such a beautiful, yet somewhat mystical, concept is that when the right set of people connect, it’s like magic. And the feeling is mutual — the one on the receiving end of the guidance and the one on the giving end both feel the magic. Mentors usually come away from a meaningful interaction believing they got the better end of the bargain. Perhaps because it’s inherently a selfless act, or because they were able to relate to a familiar problem in an entirely new context. For example, my mentor, a successful executive with background in the food industry and retail, is now mentoring a social entrepreneur in Guinea who founded a growing non-profit dental clinic. Regardless of why it may be, mentors can’t help but feel rewarded when they sense that their help made a light bulb go off for someone. Mentoring is simple yet profound. We know a mentor can be so instrumental, yet we often don’t make time or put in the mental and emotional effort it takes to find and stick with one (or two). And, many people around the world — both entrepreneurs who have a burning desire to launch and run a successful venture, and those for whom this is not a choice, rather the only option to survive, support themselves and their families — have no way of even finding one, even if they knew it was the best thing they could do for themselves.

Back to December 24th and my Inventory of Concerns. I have two trusted mentors right now, each of them experts in their own right, and with wisdom that only comes from having been there, done that, and had the courage to look within themselves to see how they could grow. I reached out to both of them and related the challenges I felt they could each help me with. I went prepared with the specific problems at hand:

1. Am I looking at the growth in the right way? Is our structure truly set up for that kind of growth?

2. We have a small but committed and exceptionally gifted team, but what is the best way to organize ourselves in ways that are fulfilling yet allows us to reach an unprecedented scale?

The MicroMentor team with super-mentor Brian Vent.

I set up time with each of them and, as luck would have it, or maybe when you are a mentor, you just make time for moments like this, they both made time for me during a holiday week. We talked for a couple of hours, I listened, took notes and jotted down reflections. These conversations started with business basics of articulating a clear and concise business model and defining smart goals. But they went much further: into a deep exploration on what holds me back as a leader, what gifts I possess and need to fully step into, how to reclaim my voice and my style of leadership. I felt both humbled and extremely grateful for the perspective and expertise they both offered. I spent the weekend leading up to the close of the year feeling a sense of calm, not because I had magically discovered answers or had the time to wrap up all the plans I started, but I felt less alone, more empowered and, most of all, a renewed sense of purpose. (One of those mentors, Brian Vent, is in the picture on the right, along with our Latin America Director Tatiana Petrone on the left, and Client Success Officer Emily Joy, taken on the Oregon Coast during a planning retreat last fall.)

What I experienced is what MicroMentor offers to thousands of people. This hope, calm, boost in confidence, expert guidance is what we need when when everything seems bleak or we hit a wall, and there are people willing and ready to help.

Someone recently asked me, “what makes MicroMentor special?” The answer to that is straightforward — our special sauce is that we keep it simple. We connect change-makers, small or big, with mentors who are willing to share what they know. We put the decision of who they connect with, for how long, and, how, in their hands. Whether it’s one or many phone calls, text messages, lunch dates or emails, mentoring has a transformative effect — on the lives of both the mentor and the mentee. That’s all we aim for. We make it possible for two worlds to connect and for mentors to find a deeper sense of purpose, and for entrepreneurs to create opportunities for themselves and others.

The start of the year offers a great time to reset and step into our best selves. January also happens to be National Mentoring Month. If you have ever mentored someone, whether it was an hour or a year, thank you! You made a lasting difference on someone, the extent to which you will probably never know. If you have had a mentor and your life is just a little better for it, take a moment to thank them. And, if you find yourself stuck, as I often find myself, there is help. Whether it’s through MicroMentor, or through other amazing business mentoring initiatives around the world like Cherie Blaire, Mowgli, or SCORE, there are people willing to give you a hand and you don’t have to go at it alone.

May 2019 create more mentors among those of us who can, and offer entrepreneurs a chance to realize their dreams, one connection at a time.

Anita Ramachandran is the executive director of MicroMentor, a business mentoring program that connects entrepreneurs with experienced business professionals through a free online platform, and in-person mentoring events.

MicroMentor is an initiative of Mercy Corps, a global team of humanitarians who partner with communities, corporations and governments to transform lives around the world. Mercy Corps’ mission is to alleviate suffering, poverty and oppression by helping people build secure, productive and just communities. Find out more about Mercy Corps here.