De-constructing Mentoring

The UCL INTER-CEP Symposium took place at a time of increased questioning on the meaning of the word “mentoring” in the entrepreneurial context, mixed with concerns about the quality of mentoring delivered across the rapidly expanding ecosystem. Drawing upon the experiences of an expert panel of young entrepreneurs, professional mentors, academics and investors, the event was able to generate key insights into these important questions.


From Left to right: Paola Cuneo, Robyn Dooley, Helen Ots, Karen Hands at the UCL INTER-CEP Symposium

Almost everyone in the entrepreneurial field agrees how important mentoring can be to fledgling business. It has perhaps become a cliche. Yet, it was clear during the panel discussion that there are wide variations in the definition of the term. This lack of clarity is not just semantics. If we do not know what mentoring is, how can we manage expectations and keep quality standards high? As the accelerator industry expands, thousands of young entrepreneurs are often asked to exchange equity for programmes that promise to “accelerate” their development, in part a claim based on the strength of the mentoring they provide. So the Symposium debate went further than academic interest and has important implications for the development of the whole start up industry.

Panel Discussion

The panel comprised a wide diversity of views and experiences. Paola Cuneo is Director of the UK Sirius programme, UK’s world leading initiative to attract non-EU entrepreneurs, with cash incentive, accelerator placements and mentoring. Robyn Dooley is a young entrepreneur from Liverpool, who participated in World Merit a global citizenship program, sat in the Youth Parliament, and currently works in a venture to link business with the millennial generation. Helen Ots, now at Grant Thornton, is founder of Social Storm, a 24 hour hack-a-thon focused on solutions to the UN Development Goals, involving more than 15 universities across Europe.  Karen Hands is a UCL alumna (Chemical Engineering) and an experienced business mentor, author and public speaker.

Defining Mentoring

One of the first challenges was to define mentoring. Paola presented what we may term the “classical” definition of a mentor who has previously been a successful start up founder who is devoting their time (and passion) for free in order to give back to young entrepreneurs. The capacity to learn from others who have already traveled along that journey is a well-developed theme in Eurocentric learning, and dates back to Homer’s Odyssey. In its modern form, Kevin Spacey termed the phrase “sending the elevator back down to the ground” to capture the essence of generating opportunity for the next generation.

However, Robyn had had a different experience of mentoring in the form of a funded programme to provide young entrepreneurs like her with a professional mentor. The mentor in this case was professionally trained but had not been a successful former founder. The advantage of this kind of funded programme was that it created wider access to professional support, as quite often young entrepreneurs outside elite institutions lack the networks and social reach necessary to secure a mentor of the type Paolo described.  This has been particularly true of parts of the country that does not yet enjoy the start up cluster effect.

The panel highlighted therefore a dilemma between the “classical ideal” of the star mentor selflessly giving back; compared to the professionally trained and compensated mentor who was able to deliver mentoring services to an ever widening population of young entrepreneurs.

Helen described the key role mentors played in Social Storm, guiding the teams during the intensive 24-hour activity. However, much of the mentoring fell to enterprise managers within Universities or to academic faculty. This introduced yet another variety of mentor that we can describe as the “institutional mentor”. In this situation, the mentor is someone who works passionately for the success of the entrepreneur as an extension of a role at a University or other programme. This type of role is typically low key and behind the scenes, and blended into other roles the mentor might have. One advantage of this kind of mentor was the possibility of ongoing contact over time and familiarity with the entrepreneur and their context.

Karen: "There is perhaps no right or wrong choice in these styles of mentoring but a spectrum of options depending on the circumstances and needs of the entrepreneur encompassing coaching at one end and business advice at the other"

Karen: “There is perhaps no right or wrong choice in these styles of mentoring but a spectrum of options depending on the circumstances and needs of the entrepreneur encompassing coaching at one end and business advice at the other”

Karen commented that there was perhaps no right or wrong choice in these mentors but a spectrum of options depending on the circumstances and needs of the entrepreneur encompassing coaching at one end and business advice at the other. A coaching style would imply that the entrepreneur already has the answers and the process is one of self-discovery. Business advice forms the opposite end of the spectrum as a directive input. Mentoring typically sits in between, drawing on both practices and suggesting that we need to move beyond a static and narrow definition of mentoring and seek to understand how the role evolves in the context of a rapidly changing ecosystem.

Mentoring Motivations

While making the definition wider, this inevitably raised the concern about the need to retain quality and meaning underpinning the mentoring role. This was most clearly expressed when the panel came onto address mentoring motivations.

Should the mentors be paid for instance? This question sparked a lively debate across the audience, with no clear consensus either way. There were clearly professional mentors in the audience who did charge for their services. This included fees to funded businesses and SMEs who needed intensive help areas such as business planning and sales effectiveness. This view was based on the premise of “let the market decide”.

Another view was that the commercialisation of the mentoring relationships devalued its meaning, and opened up the possibility that advisors and consultants of various types would merely re-brand themselves as mentors, thus creating market confusion. The essential quality that defined mentoring was the motivation to “give back” and not to seek professional advancement, or indeed to earn fees.

There was, as you might imagine, no consensus on this point but there was I think agreement that mentoring required a clear ethical basis so that the ground rules and expectations on all sides were known. For instance, if a mentor in a funded programme was being allocated to the client and they were receiving compensation, then this ought to be transparent. Equally, if the star mentor is working to “weed out” start ups and is effectively providing unpaid services to the accelerator on a favour basis, this also creates mixed motivations and is another example of the need for transparency.

Mentoring Quality

While there are many excellent mentors working in the field, paid and unpaid, it was clear to the panel that there was a wide variation in quality and standards. One of the concerns shared by the panel was the tendency to apply the term mentor to those offering purely technical or specialist advice with a specific area, and not addressing the underlying learning needs of the individual entrepreneur of team of founders.

Another quality concern was raised by Robyn, who experienced a situation where a mentor was simply allocated to her without having a choice in the decision. This reduced the sense of ownership she felt towards the outcomes and raised questions about the motivation of the mentor provided. Therefore, wherever possible there needs to be choice and matching to enable the right connections to be made between mentor and client.

There was also concern about situations in which an accelerator programme or training workshop was generating fees for the provision of mentoring, but these were not being passed on to the mentor or being reinvested in services for entrepreneurs. In the worst case, this could lead to vendors being presented as mentors, when in fact this was simply a form of disguised business development activity on their part.

Mentoring Innovation

In line with the theme of evolving the definition of mentoring, the panel explored the novel ways in which mentoring might be deployed. For instance, both Robyn and Helen felt that they themselves had taken on a mentoring role in a peer-to-peer situation. Moreover, both felt that they could mentor those older and senior than themselves, particularly in areas such as understanding the changing generational dynamics, use of technologies, etc.

Therefore, we are clearly moving beyond a situation where a mentor has to be seen as someone who is necessarily older or more senior. The key is to have traveled along the journey and be able to impart insight about what that was like. Giving that the millennials and Gen Z are experimenting with entrepreneurship at an ever younger age, this creates the possibility that a twenty-something might have more experience to share than a fifty-something. The potential of mentoring to aid cross-generational understanding was an area the panel felt could be explored further.

Expert Speakers

The event was reinforced by the involvement of several expert speakers drawn from the investor, academic and start up communities.

John Whatmore

John Whatmore is a seasoned angel investor and start up mentor. He shared his research on the different types of start up mentor that he had seen in operation at various start up support schemes. This helped drill down the various ways in which the mentor role might manifest itself. For instance, John saw a spectrum of different mentoring roles being applied, as follows:

  • “Conceptor”
  • “Strategist”
  • Technician
  • Marketeer
  • “Investment Advisor”

In most cases these roles were determined by the professional and technical background of the mentor. It raises an interesting question though about how this then relates to the needs of the client. For instance, is the mentor bringing in their own background, or responding to the needs of the client? There is likely to be a right balance, but how to find it?

Returning to the theme of compensation, John in his experience had seen mentors being rewarded with as much as 1% of the equity of the client’s venture. However, in John’s view, mentoring is both under-valued and under-supplied, with a dearth of good mentors to support the expanding eco-system.

Dr Muthu de Silva

Dr Muthu de Silva lecturer at the University of Kent, and an analyst at the Big Innovation Centre, took a very different perspective. Muthu described how the innovation ecosystem was changing the role of companies. In the past, innovation was conducted internally, with a company’s own R&D function. In more recent times, companies have been collaborating together along with universities, to build innovation partnerships. However, we are now moving into a phase where innovation is generated by an entire ecosystem,comprising larger and smaller companies, universities, and technology accelerators. The effects of this will be highly networked and the alliances transitory and agile. In this environment, mentors can play a crucial role in helping entrepreneurs navigate a complex landscape, make the necessary connections.

Mentors can therefore become connectors, who could identify opportunities and leverage their links across the various agencies in the system. Again, this presents a very different view of mentoring than the traditional top down expert to novice entrepreneur.

Dr  Simon Best

Dr Simon Best of Middlesex University shared his own experiences of mentoring within the entrepreneurial programmes. His approach was to invert the roles and stress the student entrepreneurs ownership for the issues and questions that they wished for support on. Dr Best posed the question about whether, given the wide spectrum of mentoring roles that we had identified during the Symposium, that we should focus instead on mentoring behaviours rather than a defined and specific role. These behaviours might be manifest in various contexts.

Dr Andrew Atter

For my own session, I proposed the idea of a hybrid mentoring role, founded on the notion of a “learning partnership”. In a somewhat similar vein to Simon, I stressed the importance of the learning partnership rather than worrying too much whether we call it mentoring, coaching or some other terminology. The key was to focus on the underlying needs of the client. This suggested going beyond simply delivering advice, or telling stories, and really understand the person and their mindset. A mentor was someone who was able to impact the motivation, values and goal system of the client, and not just advise in a specific area. For example, if the mentor was addressing funding options for the venture, this could only become a mentoring conversation if the client was prompted to think about not only the technical options available but which option was specifically right for them, given their personal values and goals.

Building A Learning Alliance .001

In the context of the learning partnership, I outlined the work Pivomo were doing to train and accredit mentors. This was being done via an eLearning platform. By enhancing the support and training given to mentors, it was possible to enhance the functioning of the entire entrepreneurial ecosystem. Also, by using a psychometrics tool designed specifically for early phase entrepreneurs, it was possible to enhance their capacity for self-learning and critical reflection. E-learning opened up the possibility to “level the playing field”, making mentoring a less directive and content heavy process, and creating useful tools to aid both the entrepreneur and mentor.

The symposium provided a lively and informative debate that helped the wide range of programme managers, practitioners and accelerator managers on some of the key questions that they need to address in order to design effective mentoring to entrepreneurs.


In summary, we can conclude with the following points:

  • Mentoring is a critical role supporting entrepreneurs, but needs to be defined and communicated carefully if it is to be effective
  • The definition of mentoring is evolving rapidly, and now encompasses a wide range of possible roles and interventions
  • The key is quality and whichever approach the programme, mentor or entrepreneur adopts, there needs to be a focus on the client needs and not just a reliance on the experiences of the mentor
  • The training and accreditation of mentors is vital for maturing the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and this includes (in an appropriate manner) those mentors devoting their time voluntarily, who in many cases need to be offered greater support.
  • Generational shifts, the burgeoning start up eco-system and new technologies are opening up mentoring to innovation and creative possibilities.

If you want to find out more about becoming a trained and accredited Mentor, click here


Andrew Atter,

Founder & CEO,


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