Corporate SA Needs To Mentor More

Marc Wainer, Executive Director, Redefine Properties & Host, The Mentorship Challenge

Armed with a pitch and espresso, entrepreneurs often spend much of their time raising funds from angel and venture capital investors. While these activities are clearly important during the start-up phase, new research by Endeavour suggests that founders often overlook the vitality mentors can bring to the business at this time. It also needs a more concerted effort by corporate SA’s C-suite to improve the odds of success of such entrepreneurial pursuits.

The entrepreneurial ecosystem is filled with hope, while some go on to live up to the hype, many cannot jump the hoops to turn the business idea into a viable entity. 

It is a well-established fact that behind every successful leader is a suite of great mentors and not just adrenaline. Before the late Steve Jobs came to Mark Zuckerberg’s rescue in the early days of Facebook, Steve himself was mentored by relatively unknown Mike Markkula, an angel investor in Apple during its infancy. Having dropped out of Harvard, Bill Gates depended on Warren Buffet as much as he did on his own abilities to get Microsoft on the road to dominance.  Amazon’s Jeff Bezos in turn was mentored by his own former boss David Shaw.  

These companies today have trillion dollar valuations and merit a mention not just for the benchmark but also for the voluminous credit the founders give to the guidance and goading by their mentors even today.  

Extolling virtues of mentorship against a backdrop of SA’s declining GDP numbers, unemployment crisis and policy uncertainty that could only deepen the woes is not to strike a discordant note. Never has there been such a crying need for entrepreneurs who not only succeed, but who also have the ability to drive employment and bolster economic growth.    

According to the World Bank, SMEs contribute up to 60% of all employment and as much as 40% of all GDP in emerging economies. In fact, over the next 15 years, SMEs are expected to create four out of every 5 news jobs and will play a leading role in creating the estimated 600 million new jobs required to absorb the growing emerging market workforce.

This is all the evidence one needs to agree that a thriving SMME sector is key to job creation.

It is an exciting time to be an entrepreneur with new businesses mushrooming at the speed of innovation. The digital age has made entrepreneurship more available than ever before.

However, all businesses, new age or old world, are going to fail sooner or later, yet those that survive and thrive are almost certainly those which enjoyed the expertise and experience of a mentor. Despite the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor singling out South Africa for its robust level of media attention for successful entrepreneurs, it is perhaps the loneliest of all undertakings.

Having a mentor to rely on for advise when things inevitably don’t go as planned is imperative not only to the sustainability of the business but also to the mental wellbeing of the entrepreneur. Without any one to turn to, entrepreneurs can often self-combust. Many business owners who are brimming with potential can go places if corporate SA can take time to mentor and show them the way.

Kabbage Inc which surveyed over 200 small businesses in the US found that 20% of small businesses fail in their first year, 30% of small businesses fail in their second year, and 50% of small businesses fail after five years when their financing or enthusiasm, or both, dry up. Of all respondents, almost 90% of small business owners who didn’t have a mentor wished that they did. 

These statistics mirror a need within SA’s entrepreneurial community to find and connect with qualified mentors who can deliver solid advice to help a business over those shaky first years. Starting a business, building a customer base and employing the right people can be overwhelming and a mentor can help to navigate these complex challenges that have an impact on turning one’s passion into profit.

Getting guidance from someone who has been entrepreneur, or a business owner can be an added asset. Mentors are like boxing coaches, watching your back from the corner of the ring when the economy is trying to knock your head off.

Finding an appropriate mentor is not as problematic as recognising the need for one. If you don’t already have a mentor, now is a good time to reach out. When I recently interviewed Arnold Schwarzenegger, he left me with a profound advice his father gave him, “Whatever you do, be useful”. Where we find ourselves as a country, it is apt for corporate SA.

First published in The Sunday Times 23 June 2019

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