The Catalyst Programme is a six-week training hosted by The Shortcut to prepare Finnish immigrants for starting or joining startups. This blog follows the October 2018 participants to show what the program is about, what they are learning, and who they are. In Week 3, former Catalyst participants mentored us on the A through Z of startups.
Week 3 was a unique week for the Catalyst Programme. Rahul and Hanna handed over the reins to several graduates of the summer program cohort to lead us through founding a startup, from idea to legalese. As part of their Catalyst Programme, they distilled Y Combinator’s Startup School into a one-week curriculum, then tested the program on us!
The experience was unlike other schooling I have received. There were no rules, no formulas, no if-then situations presented. Rather, the startup lessons were mostly colloquial; just founders sharing stories of their businesses at different stages. I shouldn’t be surprised, given what we have learned about startups. This isn’t math. There is no one path to success, or even a single definition of success. It all depends on you!
As exciting and empowering that this realization is, it is also distressing. As Y Combinator founder Paul Graham points out, being a student, which has been most of my life, involves a lot of “gaming the system.” But, it doesn’t work like that in startups. What makes startups successful (and potentially transformative) is the fact that they expressly operate to disrupt existing systems. An exciting approach, but one that requires a different way of thinking.
Mentors are one of the most effective tools to help figure out this approach. Though your path is ultimately your responsibility, a mentor is someone who can relate to your position and reflect on the feelings, thoughts, and decisions that led to their next steps. A mentor, much like the Y Combinator curriculum, doesn’t give you the answer — there is no answer. But, they have the experience and insight that can contextualize your impending decision.
To better understand mentorship, I reached out to the previous Catalyst participants who prepared the Startup School curriculum. As people who completed the same program, they stood where my cohort and I stand today, so they are the perfect resources to understand the relationship between the Programme and mentorship. I also asked a founder experienced in mentoring startups to complement their insight. Here is what each had to say:
Originally from Nepal, Shila is an accountant by trade pivoting to working in startups. Shila’s advice is to engage mentors by telling a story. It is not enough to come ask questions; cultivating meaningful relationships requires vulnerability and honesty to share your journey and the challenges you are grappling with now. The nature of your relationship and engagement should serve as the guide for determining what is relevant or not. Personal topics like relationship issues are not necessarily off-limits, but should be avoided if you’re meeting someone for the first time or asked for the meeting under different pretenses.
Shila’s advice for Catalyst participants is not to underestimate how those they meet may help them. There are many types of participants with varied backgrounds, but embracing this diversity, and taking advantage of as many events as possible, opens your perspective to new approaches. This wisdom is indicative of Sheila’s broader understanding of a mentor’s role: though a mentor-mentee relationship can be strictly confined to a professional context, it does not have to be and, indeed, the most powerful relationships are those that become more elaborate over time.
Tasos is a passionate learner and conversationalist who has lived in Finland for 8 years. He understands mentors as more strictly confined to a professional relationship; that is, a mentor is someone with more experience in a given field that has “been there done that” and can share wisdom on how to get where you want to go. Therefore, a person should have many mentors. Tasos, for example, found mentorship in the collective wisdom of The Shortcut, which connected him to different events, people, and resources to revamp (or catalyze) his career search. The guidance Tasos sought was given by the entire network, a sort of communal mentorship, rather than any one individual.
Of course, the mentor-mentee relationship isn’t a one-way street. Though mentee’s must be humble and curious, they can’t leave their values at the door. Challenge, prod, and ask during conversations. This shows you think critically, but also gives the mentor an opportunity to re-think their perspective and embrace different viewpoints. A mentee does not have the sole responsibility to learn.
Anne Wanjuku Fagerstrom is a Kenyan born mother of three that loves to bring calm to chaos at home and at work. She agrees that mentors are responsible for the mentor-mentee relationship, but stresses that this is in making a mentee feel comfortable and supported. As the experienced party, mentors should identify individuals who are in a similar position they once were and offer their help. The extent of this help varies, but at its core it is an earnest and unique interest in the mentee. Mentees, on the other hand, must be proactive and clear: initiate meetings, implement the advice you receive, and seize any opportunities your mentor presents.
Though the Catalyst introduces you many potential mentors, Anne did not cultivate any relationships directly. She wasn’t ready. The program opened her eyes to an entirely new world called startups and turned her understanding of work, and herself, on its head. She has to understand her own motivations, skills, and challenges before seeking guidance from others. Her advice for participants, therefore, is to embrace change wholeheartedly. Say yes, be uncomfortable, and embrace new directions!
From snowy St. Petersburg, Valentina is a quadrilingual customer service professional. She, like Tasos, understands mentors in a more strictly professional sense. Having aligned professional interests is paramount to a mentor opening the “correct” doors, which is one of the main ways a mentor can help their mentee. Valentina believes the key to success is transparency and purpose. Being precise in your asks, proactive in your preparation, and diligent in your communication are all important strategies for helping the mentor help you and gives clear direction to the relationship. If the relationship isn’t mutually beneficial anymore, then there is no harm in not continuing. It is all about clear expectations and clear communication.
Tomi Kaukinen is a formal investment manager turned serial entrepreneur that has built several global media companies. Now on a much needed sabbatical, he is spending his time-off mentoring startups and founders.
Tomi shared that mentorship wasn’t something he set out to do after ending his latest venture; indeed, he had no idea what to do. A conversation with a mentor (thank you Anne Badan of The Shortcut) made him realize that all his years grinding away at his ventures have taught him valuable lessons and insights about entrepreneurship, startups, and professional paths. He’d always loved teaching, so he agreed to mentor at The Shortcut Lab, working to demystify the romanticized world of startups. There is a lot of idealization of the startup founder, but few people speak about how difficult and isolating the experience can be. When Tomi quit his secure asset management job to build mobile apps, he felt alone and directionless, unable to find a network that could relate to the stress of starting a personal venture. A veteran of the industry now, Tomi is an open book about his experience, hoping his honesty and enthusiasm make people feel comfortable using him as a source of wisdom and guidance.
Tomi says that he hasn’t just taught as a mentor, but learned as well. Never has he had to listen so much in his life, to pause and relate to others’ viewpoints. As a founder, he didn’t have the luxury to listen; he had to pitch, sell, and lead. Tomi already knows this experience will make him a better entrepreneur in the future by increasing his willingness to search for talent or opportunity that may require more patience to discover.
Thank you to Anne, Valentina, Tasos, Shila, and Tomi for your time and thoughts. Mentorship is a bit of a trendy topic these days, so much so that it is easy to forget how timeless mentor-mentee, teacher-student relationships are. Even more fundamental is the fact one can learn from anyone with the correct mindset and approach. I think this Ralph Waldo Emerson quote sums it up best: “Every person I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from them.”
By Thomas Rocca – November 20, 2018