How 4 Boston tech leaders found awesome mentors — and how you can, too

May 26, 2017

Finding the perfect mentor for your professional development can be difficult. It has to be someone in your field with whom you can have open and transparent conversations, but also someone with a broader perspective who can provide wisdom that steers you toward a more fruitful career. Since that’s a pretty tall order, we asked four local tech founders how they found the right mentor — and how you can, too.

ezcater

Responses via Stefania Mallett, CEO of online catering service ezCater

Who is your mentor and why?

My mentor is Jeff Janer. Jeff is an entrepreneur, two-time CEO and board member and currently the chair at Vistage. I got him as a mentor as a completely unexpected byproduct of joining a CEO forum that he runs. It’s proven to be great.

What advice would you give someone trying to find a mentor in the tech world?

Do it! Pick someone with whom you can be completely honest and messy and on whom you can try things out. You’ll learn a lot and you’ll have less tension in general.

Have you had any experience being a mentor to others?

Not formally. But I do try to be available to coach employees. Helping people grow is one of the best parts of my job.

Does age play a factor in finding a mentor in tech?

Yes, *your* age matters. The older you are, the more you realize that a mentor is a good idea. The desirable age of your mentor depends on what you want from the mentor. If you want sage advice on how to manage careers or in-office politics, more senior might be better. If you want help busting barriers or learning new technologies or fresh ways of thinking, go get yourself a millennial — or younger.

How do you surround yourself with people who help your company grow?

We pick a lot of brains. We bring in outside speakers, we interact with our board a lot, we read lots of articles and we hire great people, all of whom come with their own capabilities and networks.

 

gopuff

Responses via Rafael Ilishayev, co-founder of online food delivery service goPuff

Who is your mentor and why?

I had a few mentors in my life, but my most influential mentor is my grandfather. He is a man who grew up below the poverty line and rose up to be an incredibly successful entrepreneur.

What advice would you give someone trying to find a mentor in the tech world?

Focus on building a strong business or working on your project. As you build big things talented people and mentors will naturally gravitate toward you.

Have you had any experience being a mentor to others?

I have. The tech community is smaller than people think and I have been fortunate to run a successful business at a young age. I always try to help when I can.

Does age play a factor in finding a mentor in tech?

Yes and no. Certain skills require deep knowledge and experience (like coding). Otherwise people of all ages can be mentors; I know plenty of successful entrepreneurs under 25.

How do you surround yourself with people who help your company grow?

When Yakir Gola and I started this company, our first order of business was to remove everyone from our lives that does not make sense for our growth. I strongly believe that you are shaped by the people you choose to surround yourself with.

 

elsen

Responses via Zac Sheffer, CEO of Elsen, a platform-as-a-service company for financial institutions

Who is your mentor and why?

I’ve been fortunate enough to have multiple mentors help guide me as I’ve figured out what I want to do with my life. In one of my first jobs, my boss at American Power Conversion was super smart, personable and encouraging, showing me a lot about the type of leader I want to be. Then, when I moved on to Credit Suisse, I worked for and developed a good relationship with the head of global research. Now, having founded Elsen, I’ve developed a great relationship with an executive vice president at State Street who has tremendous experience doing a lot of the things I may potentially want to do one day. These people have all made great mentors because I can talk to them on a professional and personal level; I can see myself going down the path that each has taken in their lives; and they’ve all been very open with me about what they think has contributed to their own success, and what they’d do differently.

What advice would you give someone trying to find a mentor in the tech world?

You need to look for three main things in a mentor. They need to be someone you trust, someone you respect and someone who has gone down a path in life that you can see yourself following. Trust and respect are very important because a mentor needs to be someone whom you can have open and transparent conversations with. You need to be able to share with a mentor when things are going well, but more importantly, when things aren’t going well and you need help finding direction.

Have you had any experience being a mentor to others?

A little bit. We have some younger people on our team that I’ve given advice to, and we’ve had a few co-ops from Northeastern whom I’ve helped to get their own startups off the ground. I’m happy to mentor others where I have a technical expertise and where I’m confident I can help. Meanwhile, I really want to focus on growing into a better leader before giving advice to others.

Does age play a factor in finding a mentor in tech?

It depends. If you’re looking for someone to mentor you in technology itself — the code and bits and bytes — then age doesn’t really matter. Navigating the business and personal aspects of a tech startup are much more difficult, and that’s where age probably plays more of a factor. But even then, while there’s typically a correlation between age and experience, finding someone with the right experience is much more important.

How do you surround yourself with people who help your company grow?

Talk to every single person you can. When Elsen first got started, I spoke to every person I thought could help, and even a lot of people that couldn’t. Talk to every person you get introduced to, and then the people that they introduce you to. Over time, as you find the right people, bring them on board in any way possible — even if that means in an unofficial capacity at first.

 

coherent path

Responses via James Glover, CEO of Coherent Path, an email marketing calendar company

Who is your mentor and why?

Peter McKay, president and COO of Veeam, and a board member of numerous startups, including my own, Coherent Path, has been my mentor for the last 15 years.

Peter was always a great boss, but it was a shift in perspective that made him a great mentor. While at a local networking event, he was seated with several Fortune 500 CEOs, where he was the youngest one at the table. When the group asked Peter what he wanted to be when he “grew up,” he said after he made his money at Watchfire he wanted to be a track coach at a university to help and mentor young people. The collective response was, “That’s the dumbest idea we’ve ever heard.” The group explained that running a company isn’t just about the money. It’s about investing in people’s lives. This conversation changed Peter’s perspective on how he could effect change doing what he was already doing — without lacing up his running shoes.

What advice would you give someone trying to find a mentor in the tech world?

Be bold, and ask for help. A lot of people have asked me for help along the way, and I almost always say yes. It can be enjoyable to be both the mentor and the mentee — but it’s a give-and-take relationship. Your mentor doesn’t have to be Bill Gates — look for someone who is further down the road than you in their career, but also someone that you may have something to offer to as well.

Have you had any experience being a mentor to others?

As a CEO, my job is to be a mentor to everyone who works at Coherent Path, and to be a shepherd of everyone’s career. I ask myself, if these were my kids, how would I want to see them advance their careers? I like seeing them continue to grow and progress, which is rewarding for me too. It’s because of this approach that half the people who work for me now have also worked for me in the past. It’s important to take a long-tail view of employees and mentees.

Does age play a factor in finding a mentor in tech?

Since age is usually equated to work experience, it does play a role in finding a mentor. A lot of students with little to no experience and a big idea ask for my help and I’m happy to do it, but the best advice I can give is to go out there and learn. Go work at a startup and understand the business, what it takes to run a company and go out on your own after you have a clue.

How do you surround yourself with people who help your company grow?

What I have done, and what I would advise others to do, is go network and find people who can fill knowledge gaps and make important introductions. In addition to investing time in meeting these people, surround yourself with a strong support network. Running a startup is hard, and just as important as the SMEs and first meetings are the people in your corner that can see the light at the end of the tunnel during difficult times. Peter doesn’t know anything about retail, email and predictive analytics, things that are core to Coherent Path’s business, but he’s the best support that I have because he knows about the startup journey, and he cares.

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Photos via social media

 

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