By: Lorenzo Somma
I found myself sharing what I believe before a group of high school students earlier this autumn.
I was impressed with how far classrooms have come since my own high school graduation in 2001. It seems most class rooms have smart boards and schools are sporting Wi-Fi these days. These new perks aside, I consider myself a Millennial, so being able to speak to this group of younger peers about my experiences in small business was an honour and privilege.
In total I have been able to work with around 40 students across three school sites in the central Hamilton area. Over the last three months, most have gone from a casual interest in entrepreneurship to an eager enthusiasm to get their small business dreams off the ground.
The work has been both educational and rewarding for me, allowing me to adapt my own coaching style to better fit the needs of these entrepreneurial novices.
For the better part of the past four months, I have been working with The Mentors In Greater Hamilton Teaching Youth (M.I.G.H.T.Y.) Entrepreneurship Program, the newest endeavour coming out of the Industry-Education Council of Hamilton (IEC).
This ambitious pilot project aims to demonstrate entrepreneurship as a viable career choice to the youth of central Hamilton. This aim speaks directly to my heart and soul, as to me there is no better way to inspire leadership than through small business ownership.
As any current or past business owner can attest, the skills acquired by entrepreneurs as they make their dreams real are many and all-around useful.
Partners and Supporters
What also struck me as fascinating are the numerous partners and supporters the program has garnered.
Of course any small business program will have partners like the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce and Small Business Enterprise Centre, with additional support by the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development and Innovation.
But what makes M.I.G.H.T.Y. so mighty is the Program's support by both the Public and Catholic School Boards of Hamilton. Entrepreneurship truly does transcend all barriers: as I think most people will agree, business (in one form or another) is a fairly universal human endeavour.
The end game of M.I.G.H.T.Y. is twofold.
First, all business plans completed by students will be submitted for entry in the Ontario Summer Company Program (OSCP). This most excellent program provides all successful applicants with a modest grant to start their business over the summer of 2014.
That means, instead of working for someone else over the summer, students get a chance to see their business in action, and earn some money along the way.
Second, in partnership with Innovation Factory, M.I.G.H.T.Y. participants will have the opportunity to pitch their ideas in a "Lion's Lair" style event held at the end of the program.
Our intention is to have the best business ideas go all the way to the Lion's Lair itself in 2014.
School Alumni Support
What also stuck out for me with this program (as the name suggests) is the focus on mentorship as the primary educational delivery tool.
The goal is to match every student with a one to one mentor. Mentors attend bi-monthly sessions with their mentees, where entrepreneurial guest speakers will share personal insights and experiences.
Mentors will also assist students put together a basic business plan that will get all those ideas out of their heads in onto paper.
Mentorship Sets the Tone
It is this mentorship component that really sets the tone of this whole project. The educational system that many of us had to utilize all through primary, secondary and post-secondary was one of lecture, study, submit and test. The teacher teaches, the student listens and the teacher tests to prove retention.
We all remember it. Some of us thrived in it, some of us floundered in it, and many ended up somewhere in between. The trouble is, some subjects just don't gain the proper traction with this often passive, method of relaying knowledge. I know I didn't.
But mentorship is different. Unlike the "preaching of teaching" in front of a group of thirty or more, mentorship is about one-to-one. Mentorship requires a level of mutual respect and understanding that is just not present in traditional teaching.
Mentorship involves sharing experience, not just information. Mentors have already been where the mentee is and have a better feeling for what is ahead. This gives a mentor a type of empathy that the average teacher cannot provide.
Empathy is one of the most powerful teaching tools, because it necessitates authentic relationship building, personal investment and true engagement. Mentors know they are navigating mentee through concepts that they will not fully grasp or be cognitive to until some point in the future when the pieces all come together. A mentor succeeds by proliferating leadership.
Reflecting on my own past experience with a mentor, I know how life-changing their influence can be. After college I took a chance and opened my own business (a little known shop in the International Village called Pownz Gaming Centre).
College may have shown me how to write a business plan and what a balance sheet was, but that was no comparison for the insights I gained from my mentor.
Over a two-year period, I had the great fortune of working with a mentor who volunteered her time every month to council, guide and coach. Her experience was invaluable and opened my mind up to a new level of strategic thinking and action.
She knew our business, she knew our goals, and most importantly she knew us. That insight into the business and the people behind the business built a relationship of trust and engagement that cannot be replicated in a text book or in front of a class room, and I am forever grateful for the time I had with my mentor.
No Cookie-Cutter Solutions
Unlike other subjects, there is no real "cookie cutter" solution to small business. Every business, like every person, is unique with its own personality and mindset. Having a mentor is both inspirational and informative: no one will get your business as well as a good mentor, and they will be there to cheer you on the whole way.
It's an invaluable experience for both sides, and the rewards of helping another kindred spirit succeed will be echoed as they do the same in the future.
As the Program develops, we are always looking for new mentors or one off entrepreneurial speakers looking to share their experiences, especially into the New Year. The skills and confidence entrepreneurship can bring to any person are far reaching and life altering.
If you're interested in hearing more you can give us a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org. IEC and the Mohawk College Alumni Association will also be hosting an Orientation Session for mentors on December 18 from 11:30 AM to 1:00 PM in the Mohawk College Residence Conference room. Refreshments and light lunch will be provided.
If you're Alumni for any of the mentioned schools, you can also enlist or get more details through your Alumni Association.
On behalf of M.I.G.H.T.Y. and the IEC I would like to thank you for taking the time to read about our program. I hope to bring you more updates as we move forward.