On a recent Monday morning in Cape Town, South Africa, Dr. Noxolo Gqada was in a routine meeting with her business partner, Dr. Jason McArthur, when she abruptly stopped the proceedings.
She and McArthur are co-founders of the 18-month-old Ingress Healthcare, which uses an Airbnb model to address systemic inequalities and barriers in medical care. Back in the office after working all weekend, they were tired and in bad moods. They weren’t, Gqada says, feeling like they were “changing lives.”
It was only 11 in the morning, but instead of soldiering on they adjourned, ordered pizza for the office, and insisted that the staff sit together and talk. “I was able to speak to them truthfully about how we were feeling that day,” says Gqada. “And that it was OK because we’re trying to do something bigger.”
A shift in priorities
The group meal worked subtle but unmistakable magic, turning the office energy around for the better. And while it might have been impromptu, it was driven by an explicit company priority: sustainability.
It was, as McArthur said, a literal 180-degree turn in how they would have handled the same situation just weeks before. But in June, he and Gqada attended the first-ever YPO A+ Accelerator, which ran remotely for a month and, at the prompting of a mentor there, they took the last priority on their list — sustainability — and put it at the top.
That shift proved to be pivotal. Almost immediately, instead of feeling like sustainability was a “rich company’s problem,” as McArthur first thought, it became the core value driving every company decision — including what to do in times of fading motivation. Since then, the Ingress team not only has a renewed sense of purpose, but they’ve also repositioned how they present themselves to potential investors. The idea that sustainability is their No. 1 priority inspired them to consider new potential sources of funding, like government grants.
Enter the CEO mentor
That pivot from the Ingress team is just one of the reasons why mentorship from seasoned CEOs is so critical for entrepreneurs.
Chris Dimock, President and CEO of It’s Elation Inc. and a mentor and co-chair of the A+ Accelerator program, explains: “The power of mentorship is really tapping into the wisdom of somebody who’s been there and done that. The idea is to be able to match folks up with somebody who’s been in their shoes, grown a company successfully, who has learned the things to do and not to do and to share that experience.”
The power of mentorship is really tapping into the wisdom of somebody who’s been there and done that … And that becomes a way of helping to illuminate their own decision making. ”
— Chris Dimock, President & CEO It’s Elation Inc. share
Dimock, who also serves as Chairman of YPO’s Leadership Development Network, continues, “You don’t tell the entrepreneur what to do, but you share your similar experiences and what the outcomes were for you. And that becomes a way of helping to illuminate their own decision making. You don’t want to take the decision making away from the entrepreneur; you simply want them to have better information to make better decisions.”
Building confidence, finding clarity
Indeed, that information and insights from seasoned leaders have been transformative for Batya Blankers, founder of CHANCEN International. Based in Kigali, Rwanda, the two-year-old company allows investors to fund university education for young people there in exchange for repayment once the students begin their careers.
Heading into the A+ Accelerator, Blankers was facing a couple of key hurdles. The first, she says, was that she had essentially put her fundraising on pause because the global pandemic interrupted so many conversations. The second, and related, issue was that she didn’t necessarily see the value of CHANCEN in purely value-added, financial terms.
“A potential issue we uncovered was her own self-doubt around whether this could be a viable and scalable business,” says Sneha Shah, a YPO Mentor, and Managing Director, Business Accelerator, at Refinitiv. Shah is a one-on-one mentor for CHANCEN and helped Blankers make some significant shifts during the A+ Accelerator.
“Batya is clearly very purpose-driven, and this shone through in her story,” says Shah. “Although the financials and track record are also really strong, … the CHANCEN pitch was originally less commercially focused. So, we focused a little bit on addressing and strengthening that part of the story more for investors. There’s always more work to do, but I felt that that was a breakthrough.”
Blankers thought so, too. In the weeks since working with Shah and the other mentors in the program, she has not only begun due diligence with one potential investor — a bump up in her original schedule by at least six months — but she’s also shifted her view of CHANCEN’s value proposition and, by extension, how she thinks of potential investors.
It was, she says, “the shift of understanding that there are investors who are looking for products that give them a financial return but then also give them a social return or that shows sort of social impact — and that is actually a product within itself, and that is what we can give people.” For Blankers, Shah and other mentors helped her see investors as customers, not merely a means to an end.
I have not forgotten that there are moments when you have to choose between safety and taking a big risk to grow… It has almost never been the right thing to pursue the ‘safe’ option. ”
— Sneha Shah, Managing Director, Business Accelerator, Refinitiv share
Most of all, the mentoring has helped her focus: focus on raising capital, on whom she’s engaging as potential investors, and on how she’s positioning her company. It has also helped her find the confidence to do it.
Ultimately, that confidence and clarity are the best things a mentor can offer. “A lot of mentoring or coaching is really about self-realization,” says Shah, speaking from personal experience. At a previous career crossroads, she was looking for guidance on a big decision. She recalls that a mentor told her, “‘Sometimes it’s time to jump out of the plane,” and this was enough to give her the courage to take the less cautious option.
That conversation has stuck with her. “I have not forgotten that there are moments when you have to choose between safety, and taking a big risk to grow,” she says. “For me, it has almost never been the right thing to pursue the “safe” option. Taking the leap has always led to significant personal development and growth.”