Like most, I was lost and confused my freshman year of college. I had moved across the country to a city I had never spent more than a handful of days in, surrounded by thousands of strangers who seemed so much smarter and more experienced. And, I was set to embark on a four-year adventure with many potential outcomes. One thing I knew, was that I was interested in entrepreneurship, though I had no idea where to start.

Then I met Neil and Arthur.

Neil Shah and Arthur Woods were seniors at the time, and both were entrepreneurs as well—a couple of years prior, Neil started a fair trade tea company, and Arthur launched a farmers market delivery service. Those are notable achievements, but what made Neil and Arthur stand out from the typical college students with senioritis, was their penchant for mentorship. They painstakingly started a social entrepreneurship fellowship program that would take in 10-15 freshmen each year, expose them to local industry leaders, and help them get their own ventures started. 

Neil and Arthur, circa 2009

Within the first few weeks of college, and with a bit of dumb luck, I was accepted into their fellowshipand Neil and Arthur quickly took me under their respective wings. Over countless coffee sessions, the two embedded in me the fundamentals I still carry to this dayhow to talk to customers, how to follow up after meetings, how to be productive, and so much more. The opportunity to be in their presence alone was inspiring. 

There’s no chance I’d be the person I am today without their help, and it’s made me embrace the insane value of having mentors. A great mentor is like the ultimate self-help book: a book that not only gives you tips but adapts its advice to meet you exactly where you are in life. After meeting with a great mentor, I walk away feeling like downloaded a whole set of lessons—information from experiences, tips on what to do and what to avoidinto my brain, ready for action. They’re so important I wrote an ode to them after our acquisition! 

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One of our favorite Encore mentors, Sonny Ganguly

What’s surprising to me is how few of my friends and colleagues seem to have mentors or at least ones they keep in regular touch with. Whether you’re starting a company or trying to excel at work or school, I promise having a few great mentors will be one of the best decisions you’ll ever make.

One quick, but important, note about mentors: most people would be super happy to be a mentor. You may feel like you’re being annoying or taking up someone’s time, but it’s not usually the case. You’re providing them with an opportunity to give back and, in the process of teaching, a mentor clarifies past thinking and learnings.
  
So, how do you find a great mentor?

What Kind of Mentor

First, you need to figure out what kind of mentor you’re looking for. Specifically, what do you need help with, and what kinds of experiences would a mentor ideally have in order to help you? 

  • Career advice/self-improvement (i.e. recommendations on what to learn when leveling up, job opportunities, etc…)
  • A particular problem you’re trying to solve right now at work (i.e. stuck on sales, need legal advice, etc.)
  • Life (i.e. how to deal with certain family situations, etc.) 

There are at least two levels of mentors to consider:

X + 1

To steal a phrase I learned from Arthur: I’ve found that some of the best mentors are “x + 1”they’re people who are only a step further along in what you need help with. For example, the most helpful mentors for me right now are those who have recently successfully built a startup (ideally in B2B and with a similar type of contract size and customer).