Prepare to Meet Your Mentor

As she scans the rows of perfectly aligned chairs in the Digital Media Zone conference space, Vicki Saunders decides to arrange them in a full circle instead.

“I want this to be an inclusive space,” she says. “We’re all equal here.”

Saunders is the founder of Toronto-based startup SheEO, a company that offers mentorship and support to female entrepreneurs and their ventures. Needless to say, she likes to do things a little differently, especially when it comes to mentoring.

Mentoring is a term that comes up a lot within entrepreneurial streams, but having a mentor at any stage of any career will get you ahead of your competition for insider industry knowledge and growing your network.

Here’s what Folio learned from the DMZ’s mentorship talk:

Start with a coffee … or 10,000 coffees

As a student gearing towards a career in a few years time, it can be very difficult to develop meaningful connections within your industry, especially when you’re dealing with a full schedule.

“Always start with a coffee … everyone has time for a coffee,” Saunders says.

When seeking a mentor, always keep an eye out for those active in your industry who can connect you to a good candidate. Talk to professors or industry friends to help set you up with a potential mentor for a coffee talk or a quick phone call.

But your search could also start online.

Some websites to get you into a broader search for a mentor are 10,000 coffees, Twitter, LinkedIn, and AngelList.

Prepare

Lidia Bit-Yunan, co-founder of a film-set locator startup in Toronto called SetScouter, says the next step for a successful meetup is to always come prepared.

“When meeting up with a potential mentor, the last thing they want to see is a mentee unprepared,” Yunan says.

Prepping the first meet like a casual interview can help ease the nerves of networking with someone more experienced in your field. It can be intimidating.

The group came up with some dos and don’ts for first-time meetups:

Do

  • Research your potential mentor and give them a compliment or two on their business or work that you’ve seen from them.
  • Ask questions like, “How did you get started?” and “Have you ever had a mentor before?”
  • Talk about your goals and hobbies. Even though you’re there to learn from your mentor, showing a little personality and drive could help keep you in their mind for potential job opportunities in the future.
  • Connect on social media.
  • Ask to shadow them on the job one day.
  • Practice reaching out to other connections.

Don’t

  • Never ask, “Can I pick your brain?” Try for more specific questions either about the industry or specific knowledge you know they can offer you.
  • Show up late.
  • Stay away from personal questions. Remember your end goal is to secure a mentor and this is mostly business focused.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions.
  • Don’t leave a bad first impression. As much as you’re trying to learn from them, a potential mentor is also looking to invest in you.
  • Don’t send impersonal copy/paste messages to their social media accounts. They want to see that you’re a real person who takes the time and effort to get to where they want to be.

There’s a difference between a mentor and an advisor

If you’re interested in entrepreneurship or being part of a startup, it is important to know the difference between a mentor and advisor.

“Advisors typically work with the business side of things first, but mentors guide you through your personal development and work on the business second,” Saunders says.

This is why a mentor is the best place to start to look for guidance. Anyone can give you advice on numbers, but having someone to prep you for a new mentality in a new or unfamiliar field can be a very helpful start.

Diversify your search

“The first mistake most people make when searching for a mentor is looking far and wide for someone just like them,” Yunan says.

Don’t stray too far from the path, though. In the early stages of gearing up for the workplace, it’s always a good idea to explore different sides of the industry. If you’re looking to work as an editorial photographer for example, try talking to someone in publishing or even television production to get a well-rounded view of what’s in store.

What should I look for in a mentor? (And what does a mentor look for in me?)

“A sign of a good mentorship means to have an equal exchange of information. It’s almost like a business transaction — you have to think what are they getting out of this too,” Saunders says. You and your mentor should be on the same wavelength when it comes to communication and reaching similar goals. Find someone who “speaks your language” and understands unique points of view so you both benefit from each other’s ideas.

Photo by Christina Esposito