There are few things that I feel as passionate about as the importance of mentoring our young people. By "our young people," I am referring to my kids, your kids and every kid everywhere. I believe we are all responsible for the youth in the world, regardless if they live in our neighborhood, or come from our ethnic or economic background. After all, we are all related – what happens to you, and your family, will sooner or later impact me and my family. And what better way to learn about all kinds of people, situations and markets?
As an entrepreneur, you have the unique opportunity to expose a young person to an alternative and creative way to make a living. And just as powerful as the mainstream mentoring programs supported in corporations like Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day, or the very targeted and well-funded military recruiting programs, your no-frills, homegrown approach to mentoring can have a profound impact on a young person who needs it.
Think your work is too uninteresting or unstructured to create an effective learning experience?
Think again. The secret value of a workplace mentoring situation is not what you do, it is the quality of attention and time that you spend. Kids of all ages want a few things:
- They want to be loved
- They want to learn
- They want to feel valued and important
- They want to be heard
I have been lucky enough to mentor quite a few young people, mainly during the years that I ran a non-profit martial arts organization in San Francisco. I worked with kids that had been labeled "at risk" because they came from rough neighborhoods, had few positive role models in their immediate environment and didn’t have access to money and resources to fund a good quality education.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about some of the lessons I learned from these experiences and shared the link between urban graffiti and marketing. I told the story of Geovannie, a charismatic and smart 14-year old from a very rough neighborhood in San Francisco.
Geo and I spent time together in martial arts class, and he also liked to hang out in my office. He was very curious about the world around him, and asked lots of questions about my consulting business. He always had good input, as he was a naturally gifted marketer, with entrepreneurial instincts. I just enjoyed being around him, and invited him along whenever the situation was appropriate.
Many years later, Geo wrote me and said how important those moments were to his own career path. He ended up going to college, holding important internships in local corporations (including working with the CEO of Salesforce.com), and eventually starting his own business. He plans to go to graduate school, and continues to be an active mentor in his own community, in addition to being a hip and talented leader of a salsa band in San Francisco.
I was surprised that he was so affected by our interactions at work, as I don’t remember it being a huge amount of time, effort or energy on my part. It highlighted a lesson that has stayed with me for a long time: don’t put off the opportunity to share what you know, since you never know the impact it might have. I remember little gestures by my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Jordan. And I was profoundly influenced by a group of exchange students who talked to my high school class. A ten-minute conversation with an older female business owner about the link between gender and compensation totally changed the way I thought about charging for my services in my consulting business.
You don’t have to volunteer for months or years to have an impact as a youth mentor. One memorable afternoon could be enough to make a difference in someone’s life. It can be as slight as helping them avoid a problem that caused you pain early in your career. Or in some cases, where the alternative to a productive career can be gang life or incarceration, it can literally spell the difference between life and death.
Here are some ways you could introduce a young person to your entrepreneurial business:
- Invite them to your local presentation
- Have them help organize a special event
- If you are a web developer, sponsor a super happy dev house party and invite some young folks to tag along. It doesn’t matter if they have any technical expertise themselves, what is important is exposing them to a creative, collaborative environment
- Invite them to tag along as a silent partner in a bank visit or VC presentation
- If your clients are ok with it,if you are a coach or consultant, invite them to a workshop or workgroup where they can see you in action
It really doesn’t matter what activity they participate in, it is just important that you spend time exposing them to the reality of entrepreneurship.
What goes around comes around. There may be a time when your son or daughter needs to learn about something from a trusted adult mentor. Because you are their parent, they may not be willing to listen to you. But if you have done your part to mentor someone else’s kid, a thankful, talented parent just may return the favor.
And the older I get, the more I see the need for reverse-age mentoring, relying on some of the young, bright entrepreneurs of the new generation for inspiration, like Ben Casnocha, Ramit Sethi, and Brett, James, Noah and Zack. The young person you mentor today may help you with your business in the future.
So in the spirit of entrepreneurship, don’t think too much, just do it … invite a young person to tag along at your startup today.