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Mentorship: A Key to Success

Startup America Partnership Board Member Pamela Contag describes the importance of mentorship and networks for startups.

On December 8th, the President hosted first board meeting of the Startup America Partnership at the White House. The Startup America Partnership is a nonprofit alliance of entrepreneurs, major corporations, and service providers committing private-sector resources to accelerate the growth of new companies. The Partnership, led by iconic entrepreneurs like Steve Case (AOL) and Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn), was launched earlier this year in response to the President’s call to action to dramatically increase the success of America’s high-growth entrepreneurs. New startup businesses create most of the net new jobs each year, in every industry and all across the country.

Startup America Partnership Board Member Pamela Contag, CEO of Cygnet Biofuels and the CSO of Origen Therapeutics,reflects on her experience as an entrepreneur and the impact mentorship has had on her company’s success:

I recently joined the founding board of the Startup America Partnership, a private-sector alliance that has now mobilized over $1 billion in resources for U.S. entrepreneurs. On Dec. 8, the board met at the White House with President Obama to discuss several issues of huge importance to entrepreneurs, including access to capital, our ability to import talent and export finished goods, and mentorship.

In a later conversation with a friend about the meeting, he made a comment I’ve heard before:  “People who start companies must not anticipate the hardship involved, because if they did they wouldn’t ever get started.”

I acknowledge that growing a new company can be daunting, and it’s hard to be fully prepared for all of the challenges and demands of rapid growth.

However, I think having mentors and networks changes that dynamic – giving first-time entrepreneurs a greater shot at success, and leading them to starting their second, third, or even fourth.

I know this first-hand.  When I started out in Silicon Valley 15 years ago, there were so many mistakes to be made – and I made them. Then my network started forming and I acquired not one, but several mentors. Being “coachable” is something they teach in team sports, and I decided that startups were a team sport.

My first mentor, from a Fortune 500 company, taught me about financials and how to raise money.  He ended up joining my company and in later years become the CEO.  We are still business partners today.  Other mentors gave me the heads-up about how investors think, as well as tips on navigating my relationship with a board of directors.

Springboard Enterprises is a group that took me in early in 2000, and really pushed me to continue to develop my skills, sit on other company boards, and be a mentor to others. Springboard has great connections to capital and an expert network which has helped each of my companies. I find a lot of joy in working with the great women who lead the organization. Although some days I have serious concerns that entrepreneurs are an endangered species, I am optimistic that together and with organizations like Springboard and Start-Up America we will build a start-up friendly environment.

The joy of working with smart people, dedicated to a common goal, and working on behalf of your vision and the success of your company makes it easier to forget the painful moments.  Especially during the tough times, a network of trusted advisors can mean the difference between success and failure.

Avra Siegel is the Deputy Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls.