Featured Leadership

It Takes a Mentor

“Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care what you do for a living — if you do it well I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor.”

— Denzel Washington, Actor

Whatever you want to accomplish in life, a mentor can provide the spark or guidance to push you to take that first step in achieving your goals. When you have a mentor, you are learning from someone who has already arrived at where you want to be. They know exactly what it takes to get there and what sacrifices need to be made. Mentors provide invaluable guidance in your life, throughout your life, both professionally and personally.

In Central Florida, many individuals and organizations make it their business to mentor others. They are exposing kids in grade school to a myriad of careers, inspiring them to accomplish anything they put their minds to. In the professional realm, they are assisting entrepreneurs and CEOs, from start-ups to more established businesses, by providing their experienced voices. In this region, you are never alone on your quest for achievement and fulfillment. Mentors are there to guide you along the way.

Inspiring Young Minds

Mentoring can occur at any time in life. In fact, youth mentoring has been lauded as one of the most important activities communities can engage in. Junior Achievement (JA) is a not-for-profit organization whose purpose is to inspire young people to succeed in a global economy. Over the past 50 years, Junior Achievement of Central Florida has inspired more than a million regional K-12 students. Its volunteer-delivered programs prepare graduating students to be financially literate; grounded in free enterprise, leadership and entrepreneurial principles; and ready for the workforce. JA programs make a connection between lessons learned in the classroom and real-world applications.

“Our volunteers act as true mentors to these kids,” said Kathy Panter, president of JA of Central Florida. “JA stats show that 20 percent of students go into a career which they were exposed to by their mentor. This is the definition of impactful.”

JA of Central Florida had 1,900 volunteers last year, professionals from various fields who take time out of their busy schedules to increase young people’s awareness of all the options life has to offer and help them realize just how much they can accomplish.

“When a volunteer walks into a classroom, it could be the first time some of these kids are seeing someone with a particular kind of job, and it can change a child’s life,” said Panter. “The kids also learn people don’t fit into a box; they can be anything they want to be.”

JA Academy, an innovative magnet school in partnership with Orange County Public Schools, teaches students leadership and entrepreneurial skills through an integrated high school curriculum. The program also features hands-on experiences such as job shadowing, internships, volunteer opportunities, field trips and executive guest lectures. Students can also request one-on-one mentoring, during which business professionals provide life coaching and guidance.

“We match students with volunteer mentors based on both professional goals and personal likes,” explained Panter. “The mentor commits to a student for the duration of high school. This makes a huge difference in their young lives.”

Panter believes the experience is as important to the mentor as it is the student, as it provides perspective and acts as a reminder of why people do what they do for a living. “Showing that love and passion for what you do rubs off on kids and can spark a real passion in them,” she said. “Plus, having another voice in addition to a parent is impactful. Mentors represent a non-authoritative and powerful voice, and hearing that voice makes students believe anything is possible.”

Helping Entrepreneurs Succeed

So you have been inspired by your JA mentor and decide you want to open your own business after graduating from college. This is admirable, but small businesses are most vulnerable during the early stages of operation. In fact, the U.S. Small Business Administration estimates only 44 percent of small businesses continue to operate after four years. To help nurture and guide companies during this stage, the UCF Business Incubator Program helps new and struggling early-stage businesses grow to the point where they need to hire employees in order to continue operating and growing.

A university-driven, community partnership between the University of Central Florida, the Florida High Tech Corridor Council, Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia Counties, and the cities of Apopka, Kissimmee, Orlando and Winter Springs, the Incubator has assisted more than 350 early-stage companies. The incubation process includes an ongoing series of strategic and tactical meetings, a variety of business development services, volunteer business mentoring and other important resources individually tailored to help emerging enterprises achieve short- and long-term goals.

Gordon Hogan, program director, says the level of mentoring needed starts very high and gradually decreases as the company learns how to operate successfully. “Being there for these business owners on a consistent basis is critical,” said Hogan. “Most entrepreneurs are excited and ready to go; they don’t think they need the guidance, but they do. The key is helping them avoid the pitfalls associated with startups.”

And who better to help startups avoid these pitfalls than professionals who have been there, done that. Whether an intellectual property attorney, marketing expert, social media expert, grant writer or experienced entrepreneur, the tutelage they provide can make the difference between success and failure for a fledgling business.

“Mentoring is helping other people avoid hazardous situations, and this is true at all levels,” explained Hogan. “For startups, they don’t know what they don’t know, and this causes problems. Experienced professionals know what they don’t know, and they reach out for help when they need it.”

Hal Thayer, assistant director of the Florida Small Business Development Center (Florida SBCD) at UCF, agrees with Hogan that experienced professionals can provide the best advice to new business owners. The Florida SBDC provides pre-venture through more established small and medium-sized businesses with professional consulting, management training and vital information they need to succeed.

“Clients come to us with specific problems and are able to build relationships with our consultants, getting advice and counsel from them,” explained Thayer. “Our programs are built to provide mentoring services at little to no cost to the client.”

With an extensive bullpen of both volunteers and paid SBDC consultants, the center is able to provide a bouncing board for clients experiencing the life of a small business owner. It is all part of the “two heads are better than one” philosophy, and it is benefiting the entire region.

“The services we offer make for a much healthier and long-lived business community,” said Thayer. “The mentoring helps mitigate small business failure rates; professional guidance helps entrepreneurs get through tough times and changes in the competitive landscape. There’s also an immense satisfaction that comes from providing assistance to others, which is why so many professionals are willing to help.”

“Mentoring is helping other people avoid hazardous situations, and this is true at all levels.”  – Gordon Hogan

Mentoring and its Role in Business Evolution

As companies grow, new challenges arise. For second-stage growth companies, securing additional capital and staying on top of growing administrative/human resource responsibilities are critical to sustained growth and success. CEO Nexus, in conjunction with GrowFL, was created specifically to provide second-stage growth CEOs with valuable feedback from other business leaders who have experience dealing with the unique issues associated with this stage in a company’s lifecycle.

“The premise of what we do is providing vertical and horizontal mentoring through our related and reinforcing services,” said Steve Quello, president of CEO Nexus. “The goal is to create synergetic peer group composition and find good mentors who have already been through the challenges of second-stage growth.”

Mentoring is built into all the services CEO Nexus provides. CEO Roundtables consist of professionally facilitated, monthly problem-solving meetings of 10 to 15 qualified, non-competing second-stage CEOs (horizontal mentoring). CEO Forums offer second-stage CEOs access to the counsel and experience of select third- and fourth-stage CEOs (vertical mentoring). Nexus’s referral network provides CEO participants with virtual access to a broader set of their peers, mentors and subject experts as challenges arise between regularly scheduled roundtable sessions.

“Mentoring is more relevant than other kinds of learning, as recipients are more receptive because they’re getting advise from someone who has been there and done it before,” explained Quello. “Our CEOs trust other CEOs who have done it more than anyone else; a good mentor has relevant knowledge.”

The success of second-stage growth companies is a featured element of economic gardening, a concept that places extreme importance on helping local companies grow and providing them with the support and resources they need to continue to grow, prosper and ultimately benefit the economic vitality of a region. Quello sees mentoring as a natural part of the support process.

“There’s a very healthy notion of giving back, and our mentors truly feel this way,” he said. “I’ve had mentors in my life, and what I do now is an extension of the mentorship I’ve received as both an entrepreneur and second-stage business owner. We tend to pay it forward, which is the way it should be.”

The truth is, there never comes a point in life when you no longer need advice and guidance. Even established business owners need help figuring out how to best prepare for retirement and how to either sell/dissolve their companies or hand it off to their children. Life is a journey, beset with challenges and opportunities, and mentors are resources for life.

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About the author

Jack Roth

A veteran journalist and author, Jack Roth is managing editor of i4 Business magazine. Jack has been writing about Central Florida business, technology and economic development for more than 20 years.

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