Fe/male Switch
Startup Playbook: success through failure

Startups: Mentors and Mentees

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As a start-up founder, I can honestly say that having a mentor was key to my success.
Don’t get me wrong. Before I found my mentor, I was still putting in the hours, doing all the work, wearing all the hats, and getting things done.

However, something was lacking. My mindset was completely wrong. My confidence was pretty much non-existent.

Consider my background: 
1. I am a woman. 
2. I am a woman in tech. 
3. I am a woman in tech who did not actually study tech.
4. I am a woman in tech who did not actually study tech with 3 kids.

Now my co-founder’s background:
  1. He is a man.
  2. He is a man in tech.
  3. He is a man in tech who is a qualified engineer.
  4. He is a man in tech who is a qualified engineer with kids but he’s a man so kids don’t count

Now, full disclosure, my co-founder is, without a doubt, absolutely excellent as a founder, as an engineer, and as a parent. He is not the issue.

The issue is that my confidence for the first few years was pretty low as I was mentally tallying myself up next to him. Apart from this, there were many moments over the years which made it painfully clear that the man is more likely to be taken seriously, such as clients assuming male employees are the employers, simply because they are men, but this is a blog post for another day.

Now back to the real point.

The point of this is that I always felt like I was the lesser founder, for the reasons mentioned above. And because I felt like where he excelled, for example in lead generation and posting on socials, my skills were pretty much lacking.

Until I met my mentor.

My mentor is an exceptional woman. In our very first meeting, I was telling her about these issues, and without skipping a beat she told me “But that’s OK! You don’t both need to work on the same thing.” And my mind was blown. It was something so simple, but I had fixated so much on this point of “oh we both need to do this TOGETHER in order for the company to grow”, that I had completely failed to realize that I and my co-founder have complementary skills. So while he is great at lead generation, talking to people, marketing, engineering stuff, etc, I also have my own skill-set. Without someone to organize the team, oversee the projects, handle the finances, do the awesome design stuff, make sure everyone is happy and healthy and on the same page, the company will pretty much just implode.

In that same meeting, my mentor asked me to tell her how I got where I am today. Who am I, where did all this start from?

As I was telling her, she stopped me halfway to tell me “Listen, everything you’re telling me is absolutely amazing and I feel like we haven’t even scratched the surface yet! But why is it that you’re telling me all this as if you’re reading vegetables off a grocery list?” She was completely right. I did not think there was anything particularly amazing about all the stuff I was telling her. But I always thought that this was a case of being “humble.” She also gave me some homework that day: to write a list of all my achievements and to realize that, yes, they are exceptional. And any time I feel less sure of myself, I remind myself of how far I’ve come by looking at that list.

Our meetings were all exceptionally fruitful. She gave me excellent advice on countless topics, especially on how to hold yourself during a pitch, how to refine a pitch deck, how to tackle difficult project post-mortems, and how to show your team members that you truly value them.

My co-founder was the first to point out that I made huge steps forward as a result of this mentorship. Which is true! I started to believe in myself more, value who I am as a person more, appreciate the unique skills I bring to the table, and I was more willing to put myself out there. Of course, this was the case, I had someone who I felt genuinely cared for me, someone who was rooting for my success, and being my best cheerleader! As someone whose plans and ideas were always met with resistance (but this is another blog post for another day), this was a whole new experience for me! And it really proved what a difference positive reinforcement can make.

She is the reason why I am taking up mentoring. I want to be able to help startuppers who are in similar situations, who might be struggling to take the next step in their business life, or who are facing a bit of a mental block. I know that I have a lot to offer to mentees that I can be of value to their journeys, but they will also be of value to my journey.

Mentoring is a two-way street. Yes, the mentee does gain insight from the mentor. But the mentor also wins in this relationship! Not only does she have an opportunity to give back to the community, but she gets to form new key relationships, and who knows where that relationship can lead to! She might have met a potential future business partner. She gets to expand her network, hear innovative business ideas and as a result, possibly further expand her way of thinking. She has an opportunity to gain new skills, especially leadership skills and interpersonal skills, and it is always refreshing to have conversations with someone who might be going through similar experiences that you have been through! 

Hey, if your past experiences (and let’s be honest here, your past mistakes) can help a new startupper out, that’s pretty amazing. Who knows, you could be nurturing the next Elona Musk. But the most exciting part is seeing how your mentee flourishes, how their businesses expand and grow as your mentee gains more confidence; and how you as a mentor flourish, knowing that you have played some small part in their growth as a person and as an entrepreneur.

If you want to find a startup mentor, or want to improve your mentoring skills, apply for our Fe/male Switch startup game for women! You can play as a startupper, or as a mentor, and skill up in both ways.

Don't wanna wait and want to study now? Learn how to be a good mentor or mentee in our Startup School, and many more about startup building.

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