What Makes Mentorship Work?
Listen, Ladies’ host Maryalice Aymong along with guest- co host, freelance journalist Emma Margolin, spoke with Whitnie Narcisse, head of advisory programs at First Round about developing strong mentor-mentee relationships.
The interview has been condensed and edited.
Listen Ladies (LL): Many of the teachers I know have said that learning how to manage a classroom is the hardest part of teaching. Do you agree? Did managing your own class prepare you for what you did next?
Whitnie Narcisse (WN): Absolutely. It is so crazy that they give 21-year-olds the job of managing 150 students day in and day out. Every day I tell people you’re lucky if you have a job where you can just go to the bathroom any time you want or grab a coffee any time you are thirsty. When you’re a teacher you are on from the moment you step into the school until the moment you leave. Then there is grading and everything beyond. I had six classes a day, 30-40 kids in each of the class. They’re looking to you for guidance and for an agenda. If I hadn’t been on my game and had every minute of each lesson planned out, my kids would have run all around me. It really taught me a lesson in being prepared, being extremely organized, focusing on the big picture, the big goal, and planning backward into it. I really feel as though I was able to lead.
After my first year as a teacher, it was crazy, but they promoted me, a 22-year-old, to science department chair. Not only was I managing 150 students day in and day out, I was setting the curriculum for what all of our science teachers were teaching. It was instantaneous and probably too much responsibility for a young soul like me at the time.
LL: That is so impressive. Fast forward to today. Give us an idea of “First Round,” the company you work for now. How does First Round’s mentorship program fit into that? How did it come into being?
WN: First Round Capital is a seed-stage venture firm. We invest in startups when they are really early on when a couple of people have a great idea but not even have a fully baked product,. That’s when we invest in them. Ours is the first round of institutional money that goes into an investment. We see companies that are building e-commerce platforms or offering technology relating to security, companies selling goods, and businesses in healthcare thintech. It really runs the gamut.
What I love about First Round—and why I joined—is because it is not just a venture capital firm; it is not just a firm that doles out money. We really pride ourselves on helping companies post-investment. After we’ve wired the money, we sit down with the founders and ask them what their further needs are, what they’re going through in the next 30, 60, 90 days and how we can help. Time and time again they say, “I would love to just bounce ideas off someone for a little bit” or “I’d love to have someone to talk to about the problems I’m having right now who has been through the trenches and experienced the same thing before.” In fact, that is basically how the mentorship program came about a couple of years ago. We just saw a deep need for it, and honestly we have 250 companies in our portfolio and found that founders kept asking for it. So we decided to give it a try with a small pilot and a few pairs, and over the past year-and-a-half have really refined the mentorship program. And we’ve found it incredibly helpful for pretty much everyone at each startup .
LL: We would love to hear your thoughts about how women in particular can benefit from mentorship. Do you think it is important for women to have female mentors or does gender not really matter in this kind of relationship?
WN: That is a great question. I think it is important to have mentors of all genders and mentors who can do different things for you. My closest mentors and the people whom I rely on most are women. I will never forget one mentor’s advice. She said that all women starting businesses should get their MBAs because it is a stamp on your resume, it opens doors, and it allows you to build a larger network. I took that to heart and got my MBA and 100% believe that that was the right move. Unfortunately, I don’t think a man would have had the same perspective. At the same time, one of my current male mentors has been really influential helping me advocate for higher pay. I think that sometimes in a male-dominated industries like venture capital, technology, and startups in general, women can’t see what the pay landscape looks like or ascertain their fair market value. So I love having mentors of both genders who can see my blind spots from different viewpoints.
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