By Dr Joanna Mills, Deputy Director of Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning and Programme Director for the Postgraduate Diploma in Entrepreneurship
For many years Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning has successfully utilised mentoring and peer learning as key elements for many of its programmes and activities that are directed specifically at nascent and novice entrepreneurs. Mentoring, of course, provides the opportunity for such novices to learn firsthand from seasoned and experienced entrepreneurial individuals. And, whilst we might all agree that entrepreneurship is not a solo activity, here at Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning we also have a firm belief that the learning for entrepreneurship should not be solo either and so we encourage collaborative learning, most often with diverse groups of peers.
Having recently included extensive mentoring and peer-learning within our Postgraduate Diploma in Entrepreneurship, and within a national context where coaching and mentoring form the backbone of government initiatives such as the Growth Accelerator programme, this year we have undertaken two pieces of research into mentoring and peer-learning specifically for entrepreneurs. Here we share reflections and outcomes of part of this work which specifically focused on the Postgraduate Diploma in Entrepreneurship. Here participants are located remotely around the globe for most of their programme and so peer-learning is facilitated through a virtual learning environment. At the same time the mentors who help translate participants learning from the programme to their own ventures and support them in their personal development are also located in the UK. They work with participants directly during the Cambridge residential sessions but also reach out and mentor throughout the online phases of the programme.
Our work aimed to gain insights into the value, processes and relationships of mentoring and peer-learning, and was timed at the end of our first run of the programme so that we could prepare for the arrival of the next cohort. Several insights emerged from an online discussion which we ran with the participants and a face-to face discussion with the mentors:
- Mentoring at Residential Sessions vs. Mentoring remotely – The mentors generally preferred mentoring face-to-face and found that excellent foundations for mentoring online through the face-to-face sessions in the initial Residential period. One-to-one remote mentoring was seen to be an extension of this, but the mentors used a range of mediums (telephone calls, email, Skype and so on) and the frequency and levels of interaction varied depending upon the participant. They were clearly frustrated when participants did not respond despite numerous attempts to reach out and it was clear that participants had different needs!
- Mentoring the Business or the Entrepreneur – The mentors were asked about whether their time with the participants focused on mentoring the individual’s personal development or the development of the Enterprise Project (the business idea) that the participant brings with them to the programme. A quote from one of the mentors captured the sentiment of them all:
‘At the early stages when we started talking to the students about their projects, I focused on trying to find out how much they really believed in their projects and what their motivations were to take them forward. This takes time and is an evolutionary process. You can’t move the project forward without the person, so ultimately mentoring of both becomes intertwined, but this develops through the programme.’
- Academic or Business? – There’s an obvious and dynamic tension within an academically rigorous programme that strives for practical entrepreneurship and this manifests itself at many levels – for the participants who are both writing assignments and at the same time developing businesses, for the mentors and also for the design of the programme. For mentors, the nuances of mentoring to enable a qualification are quite different to mentoring entrepreneurs, and whilst we have designed the programme so that mentors have a role to support the translation of learning to the students Enterprise Projects, it still requires the mentors to have a clear appreciation of the academic elements of the programme. The mentors all highlighted that mentoring here was quite different to other mentoring – so perhaps our programme mentors need a particular set of skills.
- Mentoring Relationships – We asked the mentors for their suggestions as to what are the essential elements of a successful mentoring relationship for this programme and they cited: openness to collaboration; commitment and motivation; trust; regularity of contact; the listening skills of mentees; clarity of roles and the attributes of mentor (being human, honest, open and direct) as being key. On the flip side they cited a number of deal breakers as being the converse of these, but they also talked about the challenges that remote mentoring presents for communication and listening, but they felt that these could be overcome.
- The Participants Perspective – Our research provided overwhelming evidence that the guidance and support of the mentors both at the residential sessions and remotely was highly valued by the participants. One commented that:
‘Every feedback or input from my mentor is thought provoking, opening up an alternative way of thinking about a situation or issue.’
But what the participants also valued incredibly highly was the level and quality of peer-learning through the programme. Over 5000 forum posts by participants were registered in the Virtual Learning Environment over the course of the 12 month programme, and for the participants the impact of these interactions was four-fold. First the opportunity for collaborative learning through a range of diverse perspectives (the 32 participants were of 13 different nationalities and had a myriad of experiences) the contributions of additional materials, analyses, searching questions and the sharing of experiences. Secondly participants benefit from the direct contributions that can be made to the development of each other’s ideas and Enterprise Projects – those creative interactions which will ultimately be priceless for those specific ventures. Thirdly, they value the global entrepreneurial network that exists as a result of the group being dispersed around the world. And finally and perhaps most importantly the social interactions provide an opportunity to share progress on ventures and ambitions:
‘Celebrate on your success, even it appears as something small; feeling progress makes a big difference.’
To date there are very few prior examples of entrepreneurship being actively taught online to a remote group of participants and also of remote or e-mentoring of entrepreneurs either within academic or any other kind of support programme, so as well as helping us to develop this new programme at Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning, we were also starting to explore some of the gaps in research. What was clear from our small piece of work was that interventions such as mentoring and peer learning can be effective in programmes where participants are disparately located, and that they have an impact on developing an understanding of entrepreneurship, individuals personal entrepreneurial development and the progress of entrepreneurial projects. One of our participants Deepamala Abeysekera, the Founder and CEO of StageYou.TV summarised her journey over the programme as follows:
‘It has truly been one roller coaster ride. A year ago I was a girl paralyzed by an idea, unable to speak to anyone about it… Now I’m a girl, who is at the brink of launching the website she has dreamt about for four long years, in which she has embedded a creative marketing strategy and business model in the very design of her site itself, having made the first public announcements and ready to take up the challenge of pitching the website internationally.’