Mentoring is Critical in Building an Innovation Ecosystem

Mentoring tales

In the frenzied scramble to find investors and scale their business, startups often overlook a key component in their growth story: seeking mentorship. Various studies have acknowledged that fast-growing companies need powerful connections to stay ahead. This is one reason why entrepreneurs are always on the scout for solid mentors — seasoned professionals who could accelerate their business by lending their valuable expertise and insight. While it is famously known that Larry Page, co-founder, Google, had identified Sundar Pichai as his protégé, the startup landscape in India is also teeming with enthusiastic mentors.

Serial entrepreneur K. Ganesh, has promoted companies such as Big Basket and Portea, among others. Being an investor, he has also mentored startups such as Marketics and HungerBox. But what if the mentor needs a mentor, too? Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani became K. Ganesh’s mentor when the latter was trying to scale TutorVista and Portea. Another prominent name, Kishore Biyani, founder and CEO, Future Group, has mentored several entrepreneurs, notably Capital Foods, a homegrown processed foods and consumer company. Among other examples, Sagar Yarnalkar, founder of DailyNinja, counts Anupam Mittal of as one of his mentors. With the intention to empower women, Anisha Singh, founder, MyDala, has been mentoring women entrepreneurs over the years. Evidently the culture of mentoring continues to thrive in India as more seasoned entrepreneurs want to pay it forward and grow the startup ecosystem.

Mentoring ecosystem

India being globally recognised as the second largest startup hub, and home to the youngest entrepreneurs — the median age of founders being 31 — the need for mentorship is greater than ever. Given the enthusiasm around startups, we find industry experts, investors, governments, academia and corporates are actively nurturing the country’s entrepreneurial talent.

What do mentors teach that even at Harvard Business School one cannot learn?

Identifying a good mentor is half the battle won for startups. Young enterprises need to use mentors as a sounding board before taking decisions for long-term business implications. Ideally, mentors for startups are entrepreneurs bringing in their credible experience to open new doors for mentees and help them scale their startups to newer heights.

Good mentors add the ‘x’ factor to startups and their enterprise that cannot be quantified or even taught in elite B-Schools. They bring experience, expertise and help startups differentiate between the right and wrong to run a business. Providing a startup with an objective viewpoint, mentors fearlessly question a startup’s business model — if flawed — and guide young firms to scale through tried and tested processes. Since a mentor has already learnt from past mistakes, crucial learning is passed on to new startups hungry to imbibe the industry’s best practices. An experienced mentor brings priceless intangible benefits: impeccable work ethics, a balanced approach to success and failure, and a generous dose of humour that will keep entrepreneurs going when the chips are low.

Mentor or tormentor?

A challenge afflicting the startup landscape is dearth of unbiased and experienced mentors who can take young businesses to the next level. According to a LinkedIn survey, more than 70 per cent of India’s young professionals believed that the country lacked mentors to guide them in their career path.

This could be due to a plethora of reasons — notably, seasoned mentors seem to lack time to ‘give back’ to the startup ecosystem. Moreover, the country’s startup ecosystem also lacks structured mentoring programs that pro-actively support new entrepreneurs. This leads to investors shying away from funding early-stage startups.

On the path to a robust culture of mentoring

Despite these challenges, the road ahead for mentoring within the Indian startup ecosystem holds promise. For one, in reality, there are experienced professionals in the country who want to make mentoring a rewarding experience for both mentors and mentees. For instance, leading venture capitalists like Rajeev Menon, partner, Anthill Ventures, and Vani Kola, Managing Director, Kalaari Capital, are enthused about mentoring the next generation of business leaders. Anthill Ventures has launched a market access program wherein 15 startups will be mentored to develop tech-based solutions. Likewise, Kalaari Capital has developed a unique seed program called kstart that invites industry captains such as Ratan Tata, Chairman Emeritus, Tata Sons, to share their perspectives with the founders of game-changing businesses.

Today, incubation programs like T-Hub’s Lab32 and a Hyderabad-based startup accelerator program The Entrepreneur Zone (TEZ) also nurture new startups to name a few.

In the recent years, the Indian government has been helping innovators nationwide find support and mentorship through the ‘Mentor of Change Programme’. The initiative calls on leaders to mentor students through Atal Tinkering Labs. At the state level, the mentoring program envisaged by the Telangana government, sustains a culture of innovation in the startup ecosystem too.

Mentoring for all

It is critical to note that a great innovation ecosystem thrives only when all stakeholders find mentoring support. It’s not just startups that need great advice. Even the government, academia and corporate sector are constantly seeking guidance to fine-tune their leadership and business models. For instance, family-led businesses in corporate India are increasingly reaching out to external mentors to restructure their traditional business model to align with the changing times. For example, Kishore Biyani, reached out to professional mentoring coach Ram Charan when Biyani’s daughters joined the family business.

In most cases, the relationship shared between a mentor and mentee is rooted in professionalism, trust and respect. However, for it to translate into a long-term and fruitful partnership, both parties should keep their expectations in check. While genuine mentors like to invest time and resources in only entrepreneurs who are meritorious and show potential, mentees need to get their act ready before approaching a mentor. The latter should be respectful of the mentor’s time and have clarity of thought and purpose before approaching a senior professional for guidance. Thus, the mentor-mentee relationship is a delicate balancing act. If the mentee chooses his mentor wisely and the latter is engaged and over delivers on his promises, then this is a relationship that is for keeps.