Cultivating Inclusivity: Why Mentorship Matters in Innovation and Entrepreneurship

Mentorship Matters; collage of silhouetted faces

Our Cultivating Inclusivity article series takes a deep dive into one of the most talked-about topics at OPEN 2022: the concept of belonging in higher education. We’ll unpack how the innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E) community can further this important work.

KD Maynard has worked with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Frontier Set, seeking best practices to promote the retention and success of college students. Leveling the playing field has been a theme in her career, which spans a number of roles at a variety of different institutions. Previously, KD also consulted on Venturewell’s Pathways to Innovation National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, working to reframe the delivery of engineering education to undergraduates.

We are often unaware when our students experience implicit and explicit, conscious and unconscious messaging of bias. They question themselves—and their intelligence—which can delay and derail their conviction that academic or career success is within their reach. “In my chemistry class, women were ignored and made to feel like chemistry was not for them,” Dr. Gilda Barabino, president of Olin College of Engineering and VentureWell board member, shared at the OPEN 2022 conference. “To some extent, I pursued a bachelor’s in chemistry to prove my male chemistry teacher and others wrong.”

One powerful antidote is to pair students with mentors and relatable role models who can provide tactical information while reinforcing the students’ sense of belonging and their ultimate persistence, despite bumps and barriers along the way. In the process of mentoring exchanges, students glean practical information (e.g., resources, networks, etc.), but even more they gain practice, motivation, and confidence to put themselves out there.

Makheni Jean Pierre, a recent graduate from CUNY Queensboro Community College, spoke about the value of students practicing those skills:

“Exposure is key… you want to make yourself available and comfortable… in different types of situations. You just have to try. I found myself following people I would have no business talking to… this gives you another perspective on opportunities… it helps you think differently. I am currently working at NIH. I talk to people who are leaders in their field—it’s intimidating. Going through I-Corps™ helped [me]… just go for it.”

Whether mentoring is formal or informal or happens with peers or industry experts, evidence underscores the direct impact mentoring has on student engagement—an indicator of belonging and inclusion—for underrepresented students in STEM fields. According to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine:

“Effective mentoring relationships have an overall positive effect on academic achievement, retention, and degree attainment, as well as on career success and satisfaction… Studies have shown, for example, that effective mentorship for students from underrepresented groups enhances their recruitment into and retention in research-related career paths.”

Identify and address the unique obstacles preventing students from mentorship.

Who gets to be mentored, who doesn’t, and how those experiences play out are important considerations when working with students subjected to the nagging effects of various identity markers (“-isms”). A Student Voice survey conducted in September 2022 with over 2,000 college student respondents from 105 institutions revealed that students who attended private high schools or colleges—along with legacy students—were most likely to report having had a mentor.

According to research by Anthony Abraham Jack, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and author of The Privileged Poor, the “doubly disadvantaged student”—from a low-income household and entering college from a local, distressed public high school—may well have been told “just keep your head down and do good work.” To these students, mentorship seems like the “wrong way to get ahead,” he adds. “They are more tasked with maintaining order than making connections.”

Simply offering informal or formal mentoring may not reach the students who need it most; intentional outreach and direct communication on how to make use of a mentoring relationship are required to net the most positive result with these students. As the study states, “Not knowing how to find a mentor or what they would ask a mentor are noted by most students as why they aren’t mentees.”

Tailor your approach specifically for students in innovation and entrepreneurship.

What about mentoring specifically directed to undergraduate innovators? As with those seeking to promote a more inclusive notion of entrepreneurship, attention is being paid to evolving mentoring to the next level of inclusion, clarity, and effectiveness. OPEN 2022 showcased some ways in which programs have adapted and grown.

One such presenter was CJ Cornell, entrepreneur-in-residence at the Arizona Commerce Authority and former Kauffman Professor of Entrepreneurship and Digital Media at Arizona State University. In anticipation of Cornell’s upcoming book Building the Startup Brain Trust, he shared a sneak preview of his research with OPEN participants. First, Cornell framed out pertinent statistics about mentoring in I&E:

  • 75% of high-growth entrepreneurs had mentors.
  • Mentored entrepreneurs raised seven times more capital and had 3.5 times more user growth than unmentored entrepreneurs.
  • If their founders were mentored, 70% of small businesses survive longer than five years (double the rate of those who were not mentored).

All of this, Cornell asserts, results in a “virtuous cycle” for mentorship programs. Well designed programs secure skilled mentors, whose impact on students and their ventures is significant and enduring, which reflects well on programs and encourages growth.

Cornell went on to outline common issues with mentoring programs (e.g., too informal, confusion over roles, focus on quantity over quality, no vetting, etc.) and touched upon nine steps charting out the process for running a successful mentoring program. One key finding is to determine what type of mentorship program is needed (curriculum-based, facility-based, organization-based, or hybrid), depending on the type of entrepreneurship program being offered. Review Cornell’s Ignite summary of this information.

Audrey Iffert-Saleem, then at Oregon State University, outlined how they build their mentorship program, accentuating the cultivation of relationships:

  • In expanding your reach and enhancing relationships, she cautions to “think beyond the transactional—think what you have to contribute to [mentors].”
  • Additionally, “don’t avoid cold outreach; I’ve found some of my strongest volunteers that way.”
  • Finally, she advocated for self-paced training asserting your program’s values. “Trust that those with differing values will self-select out.”

Consider insights from peer institutions.

How do we broaden participation, strengthen relationships, and tailor programming to be welcoming and useful for underrepresented students? Through the most recent OPEN annual conference, a number of participants engaged with this topic, and their presentations shared findings and accessible best practices that can be applied to a multitude of I&E courses and programs. You can listen to more of Cornell’s insights here, but these are some highlights:

  • Question: What would you say are the top skills for a mentor?
    • “Getting a mentee to take action. If they don’t take your advice and listen to your observations, it doesn’t matter how good you are. Mentoring is a combination of listening, persuasion, and a little bit of psychotherapy.”
  • Question: What makes a good mentor?
    • “Mentoring is about active listening. It’s a rookie mistake to listen and start out with, ‘I think you should do this…’ Rather, the mentor role is to point out: ‘I see this, from 10,000 feet. I see things you cannot see. Here are my observations.’”
  • Recommendation: A mentor must establish trust.
    • “If that’s not there, the relationship will fall apart. If the relationship continues beyond the prescribed [formal mentoring] time, that’s a glowing success.”

Yes, mentoring is an effective tool for students, perhaps even more critically for underrepresented students in STEM/I&E fields. And yes, many of us offer mentoring programs, some of them extensive and successful. Sadly, however—and perhaps inadvertently—if we’re not careful about how we approach mentoring, we may be perpetuating cycles of privilege and thereby excluding students for whom a mentoring relationship might offer a breakthrough opportunity.

What observations, initiatives, and best practices will you bring to the conversation at OPEN 2023 and elsewhere?

Check out our related reading list for more ideas.

This is the fifth and final installment in a series of articles on equity and inclusion, as raised at the OPEN 2022 conference. We touched on the impact that belonging can have on student success, explored how belonging can be infused in the classroom, and discussed how storytelling can better reach students. The most recent article covered how to foster engagement at community colleges.

For more ideas on how to enhance student belonging and inclusion in higher education, check out VentureWell’s video archive and resources for advancing equity.

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