skip to primary navigationskip to content

Mentoring young entrepreneurs: but what does mentoring mean?

24 May 2018 – CISL Fellow Dr Nicky Dee and Senior Associate Lisa Smith have been involved with the Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Awards since they began in 2013. As well as being leading faculty members of the Accelerator Programme, Nicky and Lisa have worked closely with previous winners to provide ongoing mentoring for them and their businesses.

The carrot in the Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Awards is something much more than the prize money, accelerator programme and the Awards ceremony. It is the opportunity to work with established organisations introduced to ventures through the Awards process. The obvious one is Unilever, but other connections can be just as valuable. Even indirectly, the Awards give credibility to the winners, which can open up conversations with others. Mentoring is a great way to channel this in the right direction for entrepreneurs, to achieve scale for impact.

Mentoring means many different things; sometimes it is more like therapy, whereas other times it demands specific input on a business or organisational issue. We have always taken a very practical approach. This means focusing on what entrepreneurs need, when they need it, rather than prescribing upfront when and what the process should involve. So that we can cover as much ground as possible, we always make sure we have two of us in mentoring meetings, and we regularly engage with the wider Awards team to tap into their networks and knowledge.

This entrepreneur-led process starts before we first meet the entrepreneurs for the CISL accelerator programme in Cambridge, helping us tailor the programme to their needs. It continues after the accelerator programme, with winners choosing how to spread out the interactions according to critical moments or to maintain general momentum. Because, for entrepreneurs, the Awards collide with existing organisational needs and opportunities in a day job that already lacks time.

 The subjects we cover are many and varied: founder fatigue, organisational rifts, growth pains, and governance seem common whether a venture originates in a rich or poor start up ecosystem, whether for-profit or non-profit. Other questions include:

  • How do we monitor and communicate impact without it costing us a fortune?
  • Do our financial projections look sensible? What does this mean for raising finance?
  • How do we set up and manage a board?
  • Have we got the business model right, and do we have more than one?
  • Does this deck really explain what we do for this audience?
  • Should I restructure my team? Can I do this without upsetting people?

 Admittedly, the start-up - corporate connection is one fraught with challenges. Even basic terminology takes on new meaning – for example, what does it mean to be ‘fast’? What does a ‘big’ opportunity mean? However, Unilever established the Awards not just to celebrate existing achievements of young entrepreneurs, but to genuinely support forward momentum for these entrepreneurs and their initiatives.  As mentors, we are able to nudge these conversations in the right direction, as well as offer a translation service between ‘big’ corporate and striving venture. It is perhaps the most ambitious element of the Awards process and it takes time.

The entrepreneurs we work with are all wonderful. You will notice I have deliberately left names out; mentoring works best when it is open, transparent and built on trust. From issues that are expected, to the unexpected, we help however we can over the course of a year (and sometimes more). After all, it is often when the sensation of the Awards Ceremony starts to fade that the really exciting stuff starts to happen.

Applications are now open for the Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Awards 2019 until 11:59pm BST, 2 July.

This blog first appeared on the Unilever Young Entrepreneurs Awards website, written by CISL Faculty, Nicky Dee.

About the author

Dr Nicky Dee

Dr Nicky Dee is a Research Associate, Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge.

She views innovators and entrepreneurs as a creative force that introduces variety to the economy. From funding mechanisms for new ventures, opportunity screening for eco-innovation, structuring low carbon innovation prizes, and direct input to new ventures, Nicky has focused on the support of new ventures in developed and lesser developed countries. This has included work with Climate KIC, governmental departments, Carbon Trust, Enecsys, European Commission, the University of Cambridge and Colleges, NESTA and others. Not content to just talk about sustainability, Nicky spearheaded the first regular workshops for cleantech entrepreneurs in the East of England, the first business creation competition for sustainable ventures at the University of Cambridge, and founded an award winning sustainable travel business.


Share this


Guest articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.