“Incubator.” “Mentor.” “Angel.” Put those words together and you imagine Silicon Valley investors pushing money — and high expectations — at upstart entrepreneurs. You imagine a young innovator being told that (s)he has just six months for the company to make its first million, or else. It’s all about how fast you can turn an idea into a profit.
And that’s exactly the opposite of how the University of Alberta’s ThresholdImpact Venture Mentoring Service (VMS) works.
“It’s about the growth and development of the entrepreneur, rather than the growth and development of the business,” says Kristina Milke, who took over as the chair of the Board of Advisors of the nine-year-old program in winter of 2021.
Mentors talk about making sure the founders of new companies are looking not only at their bottom lines, but are caring for their health and nurturing their relationships.
Elvis Wong majored in finance at the University of Alberta and then launched The Compassion Network in Edmonton, which has recently expanded to Calgary. It’s a service which pairs seniors with home-care services; it allows nurses to assess what services seniors living at home need, and what they can access. The idea is to give seniors living at home more personalized and compassionate care.
In 2019, he was approved to join VMS, and get mentor-ship from a group of investment, tech and business leaders. His is currently one of 48 businesses in the program.
When he joined, he was itching to expand to Calgary. But his mentors asked if he was indeed ready to grow. Was the business in Edmonton stable enough?
“It made me uncomfortable, but they really helped me get out of my shell,” he says. “They told me I had to be able to rinse, repeat. They let me know I needed to have a good, stable model in one city before I moved on to another.”
And they also asked how he was doing — not as a CEO of a young company, but as Elvis Wong, resident human.
“They ask, ‘How are you doing? And how does it affect Compassion Network?’” he says.
Charlene Butler sits on the U of A’s Board of Governors, has been a VMS mentor since 2017, and is a prominent Alberta angel investor. She asks mentees to identify the greatest risks to their businesses. They almost always identify market forces, technological changes and government risk. But she tells them the biggest risk to their businesses are themselves. Without the entrepreneur, there is no business.
“You have got to take care of yourself; you are the business,” she says.
Butler says what sets VMS apart from the high-pressure, high-results incubators is a matter of “coaching versus advising.” A successful business outcome is a bonus. But the key is to build a well-rounded entrepreneur who, even if his or her current business fails, will come back for more.
“If we help build a few more businesses that are good for the economy, then that’s a bonus.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Milke, who is also the man-aging partner of the Sprout Fund, the first Edmonton-based angel fund — 80 per cent of its investors don’t come from the tech sector. She understands Alberta’s need to diversify its economy needs to be more than lip service.
“We train them in school, and then we don’t want them to leave. We want to wrap our arms around them.”
The bar is high to get accepted into the program. A prospective mentee needs to be ready for 90 minutes worth of meetings a month. There’s no time for reviewing the minutes of past meetings. The mentee to be completely honest.
And there are rules for the mentors, too. The mentors can’t be investors of the mentees’ businesses. Nor can they mentor businesses in which they have financial interests.
Milke gives examples of the times when the mentee has a brilliant idea, but doesn’t have a good business sense or communication skills. A person can make the best mousetrap ever, but doesn’t have the social graces to make it through a meeting. She’s dealt with strained friendships and family relationships because of business pressures.
What’s clear is that a successful innovator needs a lot more than a great idea; and that’s where the mentors can really help.
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This article appears in the May 2021 issue of Edify.