My column in the May 2014 issue of the Entrepreneur magazine:
Of Men & Mentors
This title of this article is inspired by John Steinbeck’s classic book ‘Of Mice and Men’. If you haven’t read it, get yourself a copy. You will appreciate my title better, then.
In Greek mythology, Mentor was the son of Heracles and Asopis. In his old age Mentor was a friend of Odysseus who placed Mentor and Odysseus' foster-brother Eumaeus in charge of his son Telemachus, and of Odysseus' palace, when Odysseus left for the Trojan War.
When Athena visited Telemachus she took the disguise of Mentor to hide herself from the suitors of Telemachus’ mother Penelope. As Mentor, the goddess encouraged Telemachus to stand up against the suitors and go abroad to find out what happened to his father. When Odysseus returned to Ithaca, Athena appeared briefly in the form of Mentor again at Odysseus' palace.
Because of Mentor's relationship with Telemachus, and the disguised Athena's encouragement and practical plans for dealing with personal dilemmas, the personal name Mentor has been adopted in English as a term meaning someone who imparts wisdom to and shares knowledge with a less experienced colleague. (credit Wikipedia)
Now, that I have set the context, let me nail the concept down by playing a mini Rodinhood Quiz with you.
It’s well known that one of the greatest leaders and inspirations of the world – Mahatma Gandhi mentored Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. The question is – Did Mahatma Gandhi have a mentor himself?
Yes he did. Gandhi learned from Dadabhai Naoroji, an Indian leader who helped to start the Indian Independence Movement in 1857. Upon learning of Naoroji’s intentions, Gandhi was eager to join in the efforts. In 1888, he wrote Naoroji a letter, which read, “…you will, therefore oblige me greatly if you will kindly direct and guide me and make necessary suggestions which shall be received as from a father to his child.”
Naoroji took Gandhi under his wing and instilled in him the importance of peaceful protests. Thanks to the teachings, Gandhi was able to hold the largest demonstration of nonviolent resistance in 1947, which handed the country of India back to its people. Upon describing their relationship further, Gandhi would later write, “The story of a life so noble and yet so simple needs no introduction from me or anybody else. May it be an inspiration to the readers even as Dadabhai living was to me. And so Dadabhai became real DADA to me.” (extract from DegreeScout)
I assume that you would have understood the message by now – Mentors are important and can help people. If Gandhi needed one, I guess we can do with one too?
Let me speak from experience.
- As a child, growing up in Campion School in Colaba, Mumbai, I reflect back and think that all my teachers were my first mentors. Especially the teachers that made me do stuff I was not good at (Physical Training), lazy at (mugging up Geography maps) or dumb at (learning Marathi). They pushed me to do what I had to, but did not want to.
- In college, I began to work with my Nana (maternal grandpa) and he gave me a free hand to experiment with ideas in his transport business. He was a different kind of mentor – someone who knew me well and was keen to make me succeed.
- Post college (errr…I am just an M.Com), I worked in my father’s socks factory, where the MFBS - Marwari Family Business System mentored me, in a negative-positive way! Because my Dad had to confer with his brothers for most decisions, I learnt how to be patient, precise, calculative and demanding. The MFBS faculty also taught me when to quit and walk away!
- As an Internet entrepreneur, I was mentored by my clients and my co-founders. The unique situation was that I was their equal and was learning from them as much as teaching them. This was symbiotic mentorship!
If you paid attention to the italics of my personal story, you will have picked up the key points of Mentors and Mentorship: It is personal, it is about wanting to make you succeed, it is sometimes negative as much as positive and it is about mutual help.
As an Entrepreneur, why do we need Mentors and what should we expect from them?
1. Compression of knowledge
Creating a business that has a chance to succeed in this age and time needs ‘knowledge compression’. It’s like asking you to read all the Wikipedia pages on your industry, trawling through all the Google links and then forming a view on what you should be doing, in a few days! A mentor that comes from your industry has that knowledge and can condense wisdom required for you in a few lines. Consider my co-founder who helped me start my first advertising-based business, contests2win.com. He was the Creative Founder of MTV and when I started thinking of campaign creatives, he said, “Alok, focus on exaggeration. When you exaggerate something creatively, people take notice. So if you are thinking of adding a squirrel in your creative, then make the squirrel a paan-chewing dude with a black eye and foul mouth. That will get noticed.”
I have never stopped exaggerating ever since!
2. The ability to drive you to the limit.
Bosses demand things and torment you to deliver results. Mentors motivate you and make you do better than yourself. Take the case of a business co-founder of mine. During the dark, holocaustic days of the Internet, he told me, “Alok, you have to go out and meet 5 clients a day and convert 2 of them. That’s what I did in my previous Company.” I took his word for granted and began to pound the pavement like a mad man. Two months later I went up to him and said, “What you told me seems impossible. I managed 3 meetings a day and converted 1 client everyday.” He smiled at me and said, “That's what I was talking about.”
We survived the Internet doom because he took me to the limit by motivating, not tormenting me.
3. To encourage you to fail!
When I started up my gaming company, we began by trying to establish a new genre of gaming in India called MMORPG. We raised a few million dollars on that promise but soon after we hit the road, we realized that India was not the market for this genre of gaming.
It was my lead VC who saw through the situation and said, “Alok, shut that business down! You are an entrepreneur and you will figure out something! We will patiently wait for you.”
That day my VC became my mentor because he moved from being selfish or despondent to being genuine. I took his advice, moved to online & mobile gaming and remain standing today, to write this tale.
By asking me to fail, my mentor encouraged me to succeed.
Rather than elaborating on more examples, let me summarize who I believe become great mentors for entrepreneurs:
- People who have time. Please do not go and sign up mentors that look good in selfies with you, but have no time to meet you in real life.
- Someone who will learn from you. Time and again I have seen that when mentors learn from mentees, the relationship really shines!
- A successful personality that is “extreme”! Strong, opinionated and high-strung people make me tingle. They expose the edge of achievement and make strong impressions that I imbibe and remember.
- People who have nothing to gain from you other than the satisfaction of seeing you succeed! A rare breed to find, but they exist.
- Someone who you don't like. Usually such people represent what you are running away from, and they bring you back to reality.
In Of Mice and Men, there is a line that goes “…I never seen one guy take so much trouble for another guy. I just like to know what your interest is.”
Mentors have only one interest – to make you succeed. That is their Karma and Dharma! All you have to do is find one!
Alok, brought me down to earth as usual... sound advice and always good for a re-read! Thanks.
Jgd :)) I can never thank you enough for writing this post.
I loved the excerpt :
"therefore oblige me greatly if you will kindly direct and guide me and make necessary suggestions which shall be received as from a father to his child.” - Totally shows his profound respect for Dadabhai.
A Coach isn't your Friend,
A Coach is there to Push you,
Beyond what you Thought was Possible,
or what you wouldn't Do on your Own !!!
Robert Kiyosaki~ :)
Then Again, there are some like Eklavya too ! JGD OBO
Fabulous piece, Alok! Love the introduction - I have read Odysseus as a part of my English Literature course but had completely forgotten about the Mentor reference.
The tricky bit, of course, is how to really find that elusive Mentor... Any thoughts?
super post .
hope to become worthy of mentorship soon :)
From Time to Time I have felt the need of a Guide/Mentor. But, How do I find one? And How do I decide that He is the one. Maybe thats why Incubators/accelerators can help.
Some Quick Tips for this might help everyone here.
thought provoking and very useful.. thank you...isn't it amazing that one can learn some things for work and life in a few moments from a Mentor, which otherwise could have taken a lifetime of trials and errors !
Its very sad that the magazine like ''Entrepreneur '' is closed ( May 2014 is the last issue.....rite?) . I am a regular reader of that magazine since it started . Please write articles like that in your blog , so that Entrepreneurs like us get inspired /charged every now and then.
Kiran N. Bolantkodi