Mentoring and the challenge of “Big Society”

I’ve recently, to my surprise, been helping a group of sixth-formers in northwest London by acting as a mentor on a challenge they have undertaken.  The challenge is to come up with a new business idea, produce a business plan and present it to a “Dragons Den” panel of judges.  I’ve surprised myself because, firstly, I can’t stand the damned TV programme and, secondly, I’m a typical cynic when it comes to volunteering.  Anyway, I went ahead and volunteered and here’s what happened.

There are ten teams from two schools (originally fifteen from three schools, but it ain’t easy) and each has a mentor who has experience of starting, running and developing businesses. It’s hard for the students because they don’t know where to start and they certainly don’t have the innate skills or experience to pull together a coherent business plan that’s good enough to win the £1,000 prize – who did?  Moreover, the simple skills we use every day- spreadsheet analysis, business planning, living the vision, are alien to them, so for the students, it’s a step into the unknown.

It’s a challenge for the mentors too. First of all we have to commit regular time to the sessions and that is probably the hardest thing for us. Secondly, we commit to give guidance, not to create the business for them and herein lies a big challenge for us. The blank canvas that is the average student’s business experience needs more than guidance, we have to help with the building of the picture itself, without doing it all for them (and that’s not easy for people like us).

Now, my only experience of teenagers is that I used to be one so it took me a while to understand something.  They weren’t lazy or disinterested, they simply didn’t understand what I was talking about and that’s because I didn’t know what they didn’t know!  Giving them pointers and tips was a waste of time at the beginning; what they needed was help in generating ideas that could be discussed and developed or rejected.  I made the mistake of assuming they understood the business environment.

Well, once I figured this out we managed to move from mutual frustration to a working team with a good idea to build on. After six weeks of kicking a business plan into shape the team is three days away from their big moment in front of the judges and the most gratifying thing for me is to see their enthusiasm and sense of anticipation. Whether they win the prize or not I think they will have learned a few things to help them in the next phase of their lives so it will have been worthwhile.

As a mentor I too have learned a valuable lesson, not to assume that today’s youth is any more savvy than we were at that age, despite appearances to the contrary. They still need help getting started and what better way to do it than to enlist the help of those of us who are prepared to put in a bit of time and effort; even an old scrote who studiously avoided having kids. Give it a go. It’s not easy but it’s rewarding.

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