Not all young female entrepreneurs specifically want a female mentor, but for those who do, finding one can be challenging. It comes down to the numbers: Thirty-six percent of the firms in the U.S. are female-owned, while men own 55%, according to a 2012 report from the National Women’s Business Council. And the percentage of female-owned businesses in the tech sector is even lower.
There are a few formal channels through which aspiring entrepreneurs can find female mentors, including accelerator programs like Rent The Runway’s Project Entrepreneur, which launched last year. For those who went to business school, alumni association events are also good options.
But if you don’t want to wait to be accepted into a competitive accelerator program, or to attend a sporadic alumni gathering that might not yield results, here are some do-it-yourself tips for finding a female mentor.
We’ll call it Operation Mentor Seize.
1. Determine what you want from the relationship
Before embarking on Operation Mentor Seize, decide what you want from a mentor. Are you searching for specific technical or legal advice? Are you raising money? Are you looking for a woman in the same industry? Or is it important that she have a similar socioeconomic, ethnic or cultural background to you?
There’s no single correct answer. For Miki Agrawal, the CEO and co-founder of Thinx, a company that makes “period-proof” underwear, the best mentors work in the same industry and have a skill set that you lack. Katia Beauchamp, the co-founder of the beauty product delivery service Birchbox, has a different philosophy: In her experience, working with someone you “click” with trumps whether they work in the same industry.
No single mentor will meet all your needs, and so a buffet style approach — in which you lean on and learn from multiple mentors — is acceptable and often expected. Lawyers, who are often overlooked, can make great mentors; their legal expertise often comes in handy during a company’s early days.
Start by compiling a list of possible mentors you can contact. Aim high. “Just go for it,” encourages Nnena Ukuku, a San Francisco-based attorney, entrepreneur and co-founder of the incubator Black Founders, which helps minority-owned tech startups. Ukuku thinks many women seeking mentors adjust their expectations and therefore don’t reach out to their true heroes. Which is a shame because, “you never know who will actually be willing to have an initial conversation with you.”
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2. Make initial contact
Contacting potential mentors can be thrilling yet daunting. Should you cold call or email? Orchestrate a “chance” meeting at an industry event? Get a physical or virtual introduction through a friend or acquaintance? There isn’t a magic formula — every potential mentor is different. A coffee or lunch invite might be considered a pleasant overture by some, a waste of time by others.
“I’ve had people say, ‘Hey, will you mentor me?’ or ‘Can I throw some ideas at you every so often?’ and I’m always open to that,” says the personable Ukuku.
Based on what you know about your target mentor, you’ll have to read the situation and make an educated guess about the right approach. But here are a few basic guidelines:
Your intentions should be clear and concise. “I don’t want to hear someone’s life story,” says New York City-based attorney Jo-Ná A Williams, who suggests sending a brief email outlining your project and what you’re looking for in a mentor. This enables a potential mentor to quickly assess if she has the availability or interest, and respond accordingly.
Asking, “Can I pick your brain?” is a no-no, says Williams. Not only does it conjure up a gruesome visual, but it also conveys, “Can I use you for your knowledge?”
Whenever possible, have something to give in return. For younger aspiring entrepreneurs, this can be as simple as providing insights into your generation’s thinking, habits, and methods of communicating.
“Give value first. Never take first. It puts people off,” Agrawal says via email. It goes without saying that a sense of entitlement will get you nowhere. “If someone is making requests of me and they’ve just met me,” says Ukuku, “that’s a turn off.”
Entrepreneurs have little to no free time. If your inquiry is met with silence, don’t crumble from the rejection — simply try again. Long silences are frustrating, but resist the temptation to get aggressive. Always be respectful. Even though it’s not a match now, she could still be an excellent future contact. Try the next potential mentor on your list.
3. Maintain the relationship
Mentorships take many forms; parameters can fall into place organically, or be clearly stated. Casual email check-ins every now and then, periodic conversations over the phone, or face-to-face meetings are all good strategies for staying in touch. Birchbox’s Beauchamp prefers to organize small group breakfasts or coffee meetups, since many young entrepreneurs have similar questions.
If a mentor has taken an interest in your business, keep her up-to-date on your progress. “I’m invested in your success!” exclaims Ukuku, “I want to know that you are succeeding. If something didn’t work out, I also want to know that.”
You obviously don’t have to take every suggestion made by your mentor, but at the very least consider her advice. Bad blood can stem from simple miscommunications, so be as direct as possible. Treat any introductions she’s made with respect, and follow through in a professional manner.
While sending a bouquet of roses after each conversation with a mentor is not necessary, a little appreciation, even a thank you email, goes a long way.
Why would a successful, overbooked professional be willing to help a blossoming young entrepreneur? Most, like Ukuku, had doors opened for them at the beginning of their careers and find it extraordinarily fulfilling to give back. “I’m passionate about seeing women succeed,” says Ukuku. “I will give most women some of my time, in some form or fashion.” Also, if a mentor has figured out that you’re brilliant, she’ll want you in her orbit.
Operation Mentor Seize might seem intimidating, even selfish, at first, but think of it as a service to the next generation. By seeking and accepting professional guidance from a mentor now, you’ll be more inclined to help young female entrepreneurs when you’re asked for advice in the future.