Make in LA is a predominantly female-led hardware accelerator that helps entrepreneurs launch technology products with a four-month concept-to-market program. Cadena is also the founder of the Latinas in STEM Foundation.
We put out a call for program mentors two weeks after we started working full time for a program that didn’t yet exist. We were excited, so we said "yes" a lot. If people wanted to be a mentor, we didn’t ask the right questions. We didn’t make sure they were aligned to the long term [vision]. We didn't ask what they were passionate about. We just said "yes" too much.
The program is only four months, so time is of the essence. We do our best to communicate with mentors once a week and, of course, life happens. We have mentors who tell us that for the next six months they won’t be available. And we get that. Because this is a volunteer gig, it goes both ways. We have to do our best to work with them and they have to work with us. It has to be a match based on ethics, passion and interest. Otherwise it just falls apart.
By the end of the first cohort in the program, we had a pretty long list of mentors and investors and partners. We asked the team who should not come back [and realized there were some issues].
One of our teams said they reached out three times [to their mentor] and never heard back. Another mentor agreed to help with a financial model. The team put together a first model, reviewed it with him and he agreed to take a second and third look. But, those never happened. The mentor disappeared.
By the end of the first cohort in our program, I knew if we were going to be successful in pushing our vision and values, we had to make sure those extended out to the people we allowed in our circle.
We’re going for quality not quantity now.
We now have a mentor code that didn’t exist when we started the program. It has three sections to it. It describes the program, who we are and what we believe. It talks about our responsibilities and promises, the responsibilities of portfolio companies, setting the pace and being responsible. And then there’s a mentor code of ethics. It lets them know they aren’t allowed to seek compensation of any kind from the mentorship, that there’s a rhythm to keeping in touch with companies, if they’re selected, for the duration of the program. The mentor code is a great way to screen.
Before, if someone emailed and said, “I want to be a mentor,” I’d probably look at their LinkedIn and say "yes," and add them to our website. Now they come to us, we have a 30-minute call, we send them our mentor code, we may call a reference, then make a decision as to whether they have a skill set that’s needed. We’re going for quality not quantity now. We’re trying to fill gaps in terms of skill sets and diversity.
If it isn’t the right match, there’s a time cost, there’s a frustration cost and a credibility cost to our program as well. If I’m a founder going through the program and mentors are not being responsive, I’m going to look at that as a sign of a poor relationship.
This is something we care heavily about. I don’t have a way to quantify the cost of a mismatch other than time lost at a very critical stage of a startup trying to accelerate.
Follow Make in LA on Twitter @MakeinLA.