This is a multi-part series written by Blackstone LaunchPad student and young alumni entrepreneurs. The Blackstone Charitable Foundation directs its resources to foster entrepreneurship, supporting its signature program Blackstone LaunchPad to encourage and support entrepreneurship on college campuses for over 500,000 students world-wide.
Mentorship has always played a big role in my life. I've been a mentor, needed a mentor, found wonderful mentors, and rely on the support of others at almost every step of my journey. This was never more clear than in college, when my brother Jordan and I founded our company, SeekU, which provides mentorship to high school students applying to college. If we were going to succeed, we knew we would need the right support system.
By that point I had learned that one or two strong mentors were required for each project's success - the marketing professor I'd consult when I started an American Advertising Federation chapter on my college campus, the Interscope A&R who I'd text weekly when navigating a year-long promotional run for my album or the education professor I'd call when analyzing data about successful college counseling practices in under-resourced schools. And while founding a campus organization, executing a press run, and conducting education research were all taxing endeavors, they paled in comparison to co-founding a startup. I knew things were going to get hard.
Only marginally tapped into the Los Angeles tech scene and various entrepreneurship circles around town, my brother and I turned to UCLA for guidance. We found that UCLA's abundance of resources, including Blackstone LaunchPad, allowed us to quickly realize the benefit of having a network of mentors. This support system accelerated our efforts early on, allowing us to build a prototype, converse with veterans like Brian Lee of the Honest Company and Barry Eggers of Lightspeed Ventures, and find funding in a matter of weeks.
Looking back at numerous advantages having mentors provided us, these are the five biggest reasons why I believe every young aspiring entrepreneur should seek to find a network of mentors like we did.
#1 You don't know what you don't know until someone tells you.
From raising capital effectively to the difference between an LLC and a C Corp, there were plenty of things we knew we didn't know before starting SeekU. Luckily, the recent rise of entrepreneurship in the U.S. has produced an abundance of articles, videos, and forums for virtually anyone to learn the basics about starting a company. However, Y Combinator and Gimlet Media podcasts can only teach you so much. You'll undoubtedly come across hurdles unique to your business -- finding solutions will require exposure to ways of doing things that you may never have considered. Our mentors and their diversity of thought have allowed us to see every obstacle we've faced through countless different perspectives. We've learned how to do many of the things we couldn't yet do when we first started, but even more invaluably, our mentors have also showed us things we never knew we didn't know.
#2 Exposure to different mentorship styles makes you a better leader.
Jordan and I have weekly meetings with a few of our mentors - some daily -and each has their own unique leadership style. We've learned to count on some for positivity and motivation and others to poke holes in our ideas. Some are brilliantly tactful when delivering opposing views, while others' approaches to conflict have taught us so much about communication. Not only do we glean direct insights about business practices, but these mentors indirectly teach us by example how to motivate and communicate with our team and the high school students we serve. We've picked up different tricks from each mentor and have been able to develop our own unique, continually evolving leadership styles.
#3 Customers and clients can be mentors too.
While our formal mentors suggest potential pivots and iterations, we lean on our customers to validate or invalidate each move we make as an organization. We are constantly reminded that the people we hope to serve through our company should always been seen as part of our mentor network.
#4 Mentor diversity gives you diversity of support
As a woman of color in tech, it is necessary to have diversity in my mentor network. Our mentors come from all types of cultural and career backgrounds, and this diversity has come in handy strategically, psychologically, and emotionally. Sometimes you need someone to help you reflect on how the majority in your industry thinks. Sometimes you need someone to vent to when you're dealing with the frustrations of institutional barriers based on race and gender. Sometimes you need a marketer's point of view on branding and growth hacking. Other times you need an angel investor's feedback on how attractive your business model sounds to potential investors. The more expert and niche opinions you have on your squad, the better.
#5 Opportunities come from relationships.
Each of SeekU's opportunities so far has been a direct result of the network we've built. Through Blackstone LaunchPad, we've been able to tap into a world we previously had little connection to, form relationships, and reap the benefits of engaging with people who are genuinely excited about seeing young entrepreneurs succeed. In short, the more mentors who know about and feel actively involved in the success of your venture, the stronger your likelihood of success.
By Avriel Epps (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Avriel Epps, is an artist-educator and entrepreneur with a focus on the intersection of digital media and educational equity, Avriel's work has garnered her an invitation from the US Department of Education to present her research in front of Congress as well as features in The New York Times, The Guardian, and Vogue Magazine. Avriel is the co-founder of an educational startup, SeekU, which aims to close the higher education attainment gap by providing personalized and holistic college admissions counseling for all students.